The Key To Self-Esteem

This article explains The Key To Self-Esteem.

I’d like to pass on a few additional reflections about self-esteem and the self-esteem movement.

You should know that Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, is our mentor in all of this. Vitz is simply the clearest, most discerning and clarifying voice in matters of Catholicism and the new psychological faiths that surround us.

According to Vitz, the most fundamental way in which people come to genuine self-esteem is by receiving real love, an unconditional love that builds what psychologists call “basic trust.” According to the research, this kind of nourishing and psychologically important affirmation of a person is best provided by a mother and a father in the home. As we know, many children aren’t receiving what they need in this regard.

In recognizing that lack, teachers are now trying to emulate that love in the classroom by a stream of affirmations about the child’s value and all manner of different techniques and strategies. The problem is that the love that really transforms can’t be faked and certainly can’t be provided in a few hours of class time each week.

Good teachers “can” affirm with their love, but that goal is best achieved by teaching their subject with knowledge, energy, and commitment and by expecting and demanding the best from their students. Tough love is real love in the classroom. Where time allows, showing personal interest by spending a minute or two regularly with each student in a positive non-educational interaction is a very important element of successful teaching and a wonderful way to build a bond that will facilitate cooperation, learning, and yes, love.

Beyond that, Vitz believes educational psychology’s attempt to improve student performance through superficial techniques for building self-esteem has the cart before the horse.

Self-esteem should be understood as a response not as a cause. It is primarily an emotional response to what we have done, and to what others have done to us. While it is a desirable feeling or internal state, like happiness it does not cause much. Also like happiness, and like love, self-esteem is almost impossible to get by trying to get it. Try to acquire self-esteem and you will fail – but do good to others and accomplish something for yourself, and you will have all the self-esteem you need.” (Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion, pg. 19)

“It makes no sense for students to be full of self-esteem if they have learned nothing. Reality will soon puncture their illusions and they will have to face two disturbing facts: that they are ignorant; and that the adults responsible for teaching them have lied to them.” (Paul Vitz, “Beyond Psychology,” CERC web site)

Cat Lion Tawny Reflection Water Dream Fantasy

Cat thinks he is a lion.

Today many psychologists and educators will tell you that increasing a child’s self-esteem is not only the key to high academic achievement, it is also the key to overcoming drug use, teen pregnancy, discipline problems, and high drop out rates in the schools. Self-esteem is the key to everything.

Of course if you really believe that – and if you put the horse behind the cart instead of in front where it belongs – you’re going to head merrily down the road and find yourself in a ditch or worse with a badly injured animal and an overturned cart.

In the school where I taught for seven years, our staff regularly made comment on the fact that every year the kids coming in seemed less able to work in a sustained and concentrated manner and by and large exhibited poorer self-control and less civility. What that meant was that teaching was becoming more difficult – that class management and behavioural problems were stealing a larger and larger amount of time and energy away from instructional time. In addition, there were a number of new problems cropping up which the older teachers on staff told me were virtually unknown in previous years.

Probably the most difficult of these to deal with was that of “problem parents”. In previous years, parents almost always supported teachers in the discipline decisions those teachers made regarding the children in their care. Now, more and more it seemed, parents were raising strong objections to the entirely appropriate and relatively mild disciplinary efforts of teachers and administrators to bring unruly children into line.
One didn’t have to listen to the discussions going on for long to realize that the natural instincts of parents were being overridden and corrupted by the ideology of self-esteem. Parents of some of the worst behaved kids we had were insisting that their child’s acting out was the result of poor self-esteem and required, not discipline – what in a saner age was called “tough love” – but more support and encouragement for the child.

It wasn’t the student’s fault they were behaving badly; it was their self-esteem that was to blame and of course their self-esteem was our responsibility. Low self-esteem was becoming the excuse, the scapegoat for poor behaviour and poor performance.

As anyone who works with kids will tell you, it doesn’t take long for some kids to figure out the lay of the land and begin working the system. When parents thought this way, kids realized pretty quickly that they were basically off the hook and would act accordingly. These situations were always extremely difficult to deal with.

I remember one dear little girl I had in grade four several years ago. Let’s call her Shelley. Despite the fact that Shelley was blessed with above average intelligence and ability, she had failed two tests in a row in social studies. I watched her response as I handed back her third test – also with a failing grade marked on it. Without a word, tears filled her eyes and Shelley ran into the cloak room crying. I followed; spoke to her gently, and after a minute or so led her back into class. I told Shelley I wanted to speak to her mother – who happened to be in the school at the time – along with Shelley over the lunch hour. After the bell rang I stood outside my portable with Shelley as her mother walked up and greeted me warmly. Shelley was still upset as I explained to her mother what had happened, how Shelley had responded after having failed her third test.

“What do you have to say for yourself,” said mom.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Shelley, “somehow I just don’t feel good about myself these days; I don’t seem to like myself anymore.”

I didn’t know what would happen at this point. I had no clue as to how her mother would respond.

“That’s a bunch of nonsense,” said mom, “you didn’t study.”

(What a relief! In those few words mom conveyed what her whole approach would be and the fact that she was not to be trifled with. She cared profoundly about how her daughter did academically and how she did in terms of developing the good habits and virtues – the character – she would need to be a success in life. Mom would not be manipulated. She would support me.)

Then I said something like, “The reason you don’t feel good about yourself, Shelley, is because you haven’t done what you’re supposed to do. You put in almost no effort preparing for these exams and naturally you failed. Your daily work also hasn’t been up to the standard you’re capable of.

“God wants us to work to our potential and graces us with a good feeling about ourselves when we do our best. If you had felt good about yourself even though you hadn’t done your job I would say you have a serious problem. Now why don’t you get down to business, do the job you’re capable of, and get a good mark on the next test.”

You see I believe good teachers and good parents show their love by caring enough to use discipline and by telling their kids the truth. That’s what kids need and that’s what kids ultimately want. That’s also why the most admired and the best teachers in many high schools are the athletic coaches. Athletic coaches expect performance and rarely worry about self-esteem.

With a Godly context, a little “reality therapy”, some encouragement, and the firm refusal of both her mother and her teacher to let her off the hook, I believe Shelley learned an important lesson that day.

I remember her excitedly and a little anxiously waiting as I handed back her fourth test. Then Shelley looked up at me from her desk, beaming and proud, as she saw the mark and realized she’d aced the test. Her good work had resulted in a natural sense of pride in her well earned accomplishment, or what some psychologists like to call a heightened sense of self-esteem.

That’s horse, then cart.

By J. Fraser Field, Fraser Field is managing editor of the Catholic Education Resource Center.


J. Fraser Field. “The Real Key to Self-Esteem.” National Catholic Register (September, 2001).

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