Are Our Schools Overdosing on Self-Esteem?

I was recently in a Catholic school assembly of about 6oo elementary students watching various children receive awards and recognition. After the various awards were given, a music video was shown on the screen and all the children began to sing the lyrics. It was here, watching this music video about how “I am great, I am powerful…”, and watching the children around me, that I began to pick up on a trend in our schools, namely that our teachers are sincerely concerned (overly concerned) about the self-esteem of their students.

Our society is hypersensitive about self-esteem. We quake in fear at the slightest hint of hurting someone’s feelings. In elementary classrooms in Ontario where I live there has to be a safe zone for children to have their temper tantrums when the teacher tells them that their behavior is unacceptable. Universities are providing safe zones and trigger warnings so that we don’t hurt someone’s feelings. Modern society has enshrined our emotions and feelings. This is exemplified in our public and many private schools. The assembly didn’t finish with a song giving glory back to God or a hymn in honor of our Blessed Mother—no, rather the students sang a song about … themselves.

This longtime trend highlights several problems: First, our actions define who we are. If a man runs from battle or a conflict, we call him a coward. If a child beats on younger children, we call him a bully. If a father sires a child and then ditches, we call him a dead-beat dad. Our actions define us. If we do awesome deeds, then we are awesome. If we don’t err, then we are perfect. The problem is that our schools are so über concerned about the self-esteem of the children that they overdose them on positive messaging. To be frank: they lie to the children. They are not all awesome and perfect just the way they are. They have much learning and growing to do.

Secondly, this type of messaging, which has been going on for a while now, produces a generation of narcissists. In other words, the students are raised to believe that they are great and wonderful and awesome for simply being alive and this leads to expecting everyone else to think so as well. I remember well one afternoon in 2016 when I walked out of an underground movie theatre in Vienna up into the street and into a cacophony of loud, blaring music. I stepped outside, and having missed the memo, became witness to a Gay Pride Parade. Half-naked men and women were yelling, screaming and gyrating to loud obnoxious music. It is this type of attitude that our overdosing self-esteem messages lead to. That message: I am the way I am. I demand you accept my lifestyle and will shove it in society’s face until you do. Sick.

Why are our schools beating this drum? What is driving this train?

In the 1980s there was a movement to “cure” society by connecting success to high self-esteem. This movement began with John Vasconcellos’s ambition to cure himself of low self-esteem and his ambition to see his beliefs substantiated. With much effort, the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility was established at the University of California to research this connection. This task force, through highly inconclusive research, convinced education elites that there was a “compelling correlation” between success and self-esteem. This “discovery” broke upon the western world like a tidal wave. The result: schools refused to keep score in basketball games for fear of hurting children’s self-esteem and forbade using red pens to mark assignments to make sure every child got the same high grades or received a participation ribbon. The solution, it seemed, to helping students succeed, was to take away the opportunity to fail.

The self-esteem movement/theory is rooted in wrong metaphysics. Proponents believe they can form their reality by their will. For example: John Vasconcellos tried (unsuccessfully) to heal his heart disease by willing it through positive thinking. Reality was (he thought) what he willed it to be. This error in thinking goes (in part) back to Immanuel Kant  and his insistence that reality was formed by what our minds impressed on the world around us. Joyce A. Little summarizes this way of thinking well:

Functional Man is deeply wed to a “mind over matter” mentality, in which the human will exercised as power can bend all things to its own purposes, including the human body.

This way of thinking swept the world again with the advent of the book The Secret and it’s “Law of Universal Attraction.” If we will to be rich, the riches will come to us. If we will to be another gender, then we are. If we will the baby in the womb to be a blob of tissue, then it is. If we will ourselves to be awesome, perfect, great—than we are. The error in this thinking results in the incessant drive to increase self-esteem in our schools and to do so in such a manner that our children need to simply believe they are great and they will be without making any real effort to achieve greatness.

Now I do think that children should have good self-esteem. I think we all agree that self-esteem is first and foremost fostered in the context of a family where the child can fail and succeed in security. Reality is, however, that in the school system, Catholic or Public, there are many without this security in the family.

So what is the solution? What should our Catholic schools be doing differently?

First and foremost, they need to teach the students how to examine their conscience daily. Encourage the sacrament of Confession. When we take the time to reflect on our actions, repent, make right what needs to be made right and by doing so take responsibility for our actions (remember our actions define us), we mature inside. We grow secure in who we are for we begin to know ourselves as sons of God. Of course, in order to do this one would need to use the word “sin” and this seems to be a difficult discussion to have in our modern times …

Secondly, the teachers need to teach students about their dignity as a human person. I was in a grade 5 classroom, “Catholic” again, and we were discussing the possible extinction of a certain species of frog. At one point I asked the class, “Would it be worth the life of one human to save this whole species of frogs?” The entire class, without exception, said, “Absolutely!” I shook my head in dismay. These students didn’t understand the greatness of their dignity as humans. I tried explaining that they had reason and were made in the image and likeness of God and … this went nowhere. Finally, I asked, “How much money should we pay to purchase this species and thus save them from extinction? A million? A billion?” The class agreed on a sum. “Ok, how much could we sell you for?” The class went silent. “That’s right. There is no answer for each of you is priceless. Any species of plant or animal could die if it allowed us to save just one human life.”

This is just the beginning of the messaging though. Yes. You have a great dignity because you are made in the image and likeness of God. Now you have a great responsibility that comes with having such a great dignity. You must live up to your dignity. What does this mean?

We are dignified above all material creation because we have the faculty of reason. Thus, to live within right reason is to live within our dignity. This simply means living virtuously. As Aristotle explains in his Nicomachean Ethics (Book I): the main human function of man is to live in accord with reason and this is to be done finely and well. If one does this, he will be happy. If one is happy, we can surmise that he has good self-esteem.

The third way to increase self-esteem is through self-discipline. Granted, it is debatable as to whether this is the job of the school or not, as it is most certainly the obligatory duty of the parents. Be that as it may, students need to learn self-discipline so that they can master themselves; by doing so, they can reach their God-given potential through hard work and they can give themselves to others. As Gaudium et Spes 24:3 states: “… man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” If self-esteem is grounded in knowing oneself, we can’t truly do so until we make a sincere gift of ourselves.

Our students, who are infinitely precious, and whom we want to be awesome and perfect need to be taught how to act in an awesome and perfect way, namely through shedding vice via Confession and penance, and gaining virtue through habitually making right choices.

Perhaps the next time we take our children to school and we see the poster with the sappy happy sayings, we should ask the teacher to remove it and put up a poster listing Confession times or explain that our children, though infinitely precious, will be awesome when they do something awesome and not before.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Morning Prayer” painted by Andre-Henri Dargelas (1828-1906).


Kenton E. Biffert is a doctoral student at Dominican University College in Ottawa, Ontario. Kenton, his wife and six children serve the Catholic Church through a Catholic ministry called Waupoos Family Farm that works to strengthen low-income families by providing vacations where the families can pray, work, and play together. In his spare time, Kenton writes fiction, homeschools, and runs a website aimed at strengthening fathers called Art of Fatherhood.

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