The Self-Esteem Movement

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to have a look at what’s often referred to as “the self-esteem movement”, the tendency in recent decades for children’s self-esteem to be prioritized in their upbringing and education. This topic was brought to my attention by a friend of mine, who had me read this piece by Luke Epplin for The Atlantic. In his piece, Epplin, argues that many films geared toward children in recent years have reinforced the centrality of self-esteem, depicting characters who seek to break out of conventional, functionary roles to do extraordinary things. He criticizes this theme, claiming that the success of characters in films like Turbo, Planes, Kung Fu Panda, Ratatouille, Wreck-It Ralph, and Monsters University is unrealistic. The characters in these films really are not physically, intellectually, or otherwise suited to the social roles they wish to take. It’s not possible to just will one’s way from being a crop dusting airplane to being a racing plane–racing planes are built to race, crop dusting planes are built to crop dust. I’d like to explore the implications of Epplin’s argument more widely, taking it outside of film and applying it on a larger scale.

It seems quite wonderful to tell children that they can do anything, absolutely anything, they set their minds to, that the world is full of possibilities and that they should grab life by the horns and seize the day–YOLO. There are, however, prominent issues with telling children this:

  1. While any given child could do anything or become anyone, collectively the vast majority of children will have average lives by definition.
  2. What the “average” life entails is dictated not by how hard individual children strive for success, but by impersonal economic forces that do not care one whit for the happiness of children.
  3. Therefore, we are leading most children to believe they will have better lives than they will in actuality have. This sets children up to fail while simultaneously denying them preparation for failure–a recipe for misery.

What do I mean by “impersonal economic forces”? I’ll illustrate with an extreme example. Say that every child in America up and decided to make “becoming president” his or her respective life dream. The majority of US presidents have possessed law degrees, so every child in America decides to attempt to go to college, to get a BA in Political Science, and then to apply to top law school programs. They then all seek to run for political office, all attempting to reach the presidency. All these children put for the same amount of effort and display the same strength of character.  What’s wrong with this picture? In one word, scarcity.

We don’t have enough places in our universities for every child to go to college, let alone for every child to go to a good college. We don’t have enough social science professors for every college student to major in political science. We don’t have enough law schools, let alone enough good law schools, to allow every child to get a law degree. We don’t have enough political offices for every child to go into politics. Most importantly, in any given 4-year period, we can only have one president. The overwhelming majority of students who make “become president” their life goal must necessarily fail.

There’s a second problem with this, too–what about all the other jobs we need? What about engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers, police officers, construction workers, farmers, retailers, and so on down the line? If every child tries to become president, all of these jobs are not done. If no one is farming, we are all going to die. There isn’t going to be a presidency to win, because our society will have long since collapsed into perpetual anarchy. All of the aspirant presidents will very quickly find themselves picking berries and urinating in holes.

Supporters of the self-esteem movement may wish to stop me here, and to point out that not every child wants to be president. Children aspire to a host of diverse occupations–some want to be scientists, musicians, artists, all kinds of different things. This is true–the problem is not quite as severe as my extreme example shows. Nonetheless, the same kind of problem exists, albeit on a more mild scale. If students disproportionately aspire to a subset of the available jobs, many of those students are doomed to fail irrespective of how much effort they put forth. If the economy demands 200,000 people doing job X and 300,000 equally qualified people aspire to do job X, 100,000 of those people are going to fail through no fault of their own. The supply of jobs is not dictated by what prospective employees want to do, it is dictated by the kinds of good and services prospective consumers want to purchase.


That said, if we ought not to give children a uniform hope of spectacular success that exceeds what’s possible, what ought we to do? Surely we don’t intend to revert to some sort of “children should be seen but not heard” ethos.

I recall a song from the rap artist Art Vandelay, who I quite like. The song is called “Playing with Power”:


I mention it because of these lines, which offer a direct opposition to the self-esteem movement:

You will not get rich

You will not get famous

You ain’t gon’ win the million on the slots in Vegas

You won’t win the lotto

You won’t be a rapper

You won’t be a supermodel–not even an actor

You’ll never be the president, you’ll never find a treasure map

You’ll never be no Super Bowl quarterback, never that

Now just remember that there’s 7 billion people

I bet you’ll probably never even be a Jim Caviezel

The song is great, but there’s a problem with its message–while the overwhelming majority of potential listeners will never do any of these things, someone will, and if no one does any of them, we’re in quite a lot of trouble. We don’t need people to gamble or buy lottery tickets, but while rappers, models, actors, and quarterbacks are often disparaged for the lack of any direct, obvious utility they provide, the boost in morale they give the wider population has value. We certainly need many of the people we presently know to be rich and famous (Bill Gates has undoubtedly done some amount of good, though whether it’s enough good to justify the vast quantity of money he has is open for debate), and we certainly need political leadership of some kind.

More broadly, it’s important that some of us do indeed try to reach above-average levels of success. How do we encourage that without giving false hope to the majority? The problem calls for a system of educating children that is more discerning and more able to recognize differences in capacity and inclination among students. Some students need to be encouraged to dream bigger, and some students need to be taught to accept their inevitably limited roles.

To use a cheesy sports metaphor, if I’m coaching Michael Jordan, I encourage him to shoot the lights out. If I’m coaching JaVale McGee, I tell him to know his role and play within the offense. We shouldn’t encourage children to have a blindly positive or negative view of themselves and their capacities–we should encourage them to view their abilities with accuracy. Realism, not optimism or pessimism, ought to be the goal. This often means separate classes, separate schools, or separate teaching methods for children of different abilities and predilections. All children may not be special, but all children have different roles to play. We need not prepare every child to be president, but we do need to prepare every child to maximize his abilities’ usefulness both to him or herself and to the community more broadly. The self-esteem movement’s principle problem is that it fails to take into account one of its own first principles–that children are different from one another.