Jeff Ward: Trust Me! There is Such a Thing as Too Much Self-Esteem!

Though he's better than John Kass (but who isn't?), Tribune columnist John Keilman got it all wrong when he said the self-esteem glut is more imagined than real.

So I stared in stunned silence as I read page two of the June 26 Chicago Tribune. As if John Kass and his coma-inducing compositions weren’t bad enough, now they’re rotating other columnists though that space on his off days.

Of course, my first thought was, how the heck can you tell he’s taking a day off? Just run an empty space and people will think they read his column anyway.

So I was grateful for the respite until I read that hard-hitting page 2 piece on one reporter’s obsession with her front lawn. And Robert McCormick and Mike Royko are spinning in their graves as we speak.

But the column that really frosted my cookies was the aforementioned piece by John Keilman, who ignored his New Age-inspired higher self when he waded in on the long gone viral “you’re not special” graduation speech video.

If you recall, we previously covered Massachusetts English teacher David McCullough’s soliloquy in which he told the Wellesley High School Class of 2012 they weren’t special – nine times.

While I lauded this rare call for accountability, Keilman said this, “I'm not sure exactly when this happened, but sometime in the last decade boosting a child's self-esteem became a disreputable practice.”

And, “…I was still put off by the chorus of crotchety hosannas, some of which suggested that kids should be praised only when they've done something truly amazing.”

He goes on to submit a scenario where, after their son strikes out, a parent would only have the option to shout “you should have practiced more” or “try to help them feel better about themselves.”

Now, you know me. I love my fellow contrarians, especially when they don’t immediately put me to sleep. But in this case, I have to say C, none of the above, because A, Keilman missed the entire point of McCullough’s speech, and B, prior to a brief email contact, I’d have bet he’s neither been a parent nor has he ever coached a youth sports team (it turns out he’s both!).

Because this is how it works in the real world.

First the father starts screaming at the umpire for having the temerity to call his son out on strikes. Then the mother goes after the coach and trainer for not turning their son – who really doesn’t want to play baseball in the first place – into an immediate superstar. As the trio leaves the field, they tell little Johnny he’s really the best player on the team and the only reason he struck out is because his teammates let him down.

Don’t believe me? Talk to any Patchland teacher or principal. One of ‘em just told me the tale of an end-of-the-school-year school mother who called him, irate that her daughter had actually received a B. She demanded that the heinous grade be appropriately adjusted upward.

McCullough described this phenomenon perfectly, “...we Americans, to our detriment, have come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece…”

(Why the heck didn’t I write that!)

And the havoc this accolade addiction wreaks is so much worse than anything crack, crystal meth or heroin can do on their worst day.

While Keilman pointed out that children understand a ribbon bestowed upon the entire soccer team is actually meaningless, that doesn’t mean they don’t get addicted to getting something for nothing. And it’s when we present praise and platitudes at every possible turn that we literally damn our children with faint praise because they begin to believe that validation can only come externally.

Then, forced to keep their contrived fantasy alive – no one wants to suffer the pain of withdrawal – these parents lash out at anyone who dares challenge their carefully constructed crystal castles in which their child really is the special one.

Mr, Kielman! Should your son ever strike out to end the ballgame with the bases loaded, here’s my humble suggestion.

At first, don’t say anything. Let him be with that painful feeling for awhile because the road to real achievement is always paved with failure. When he begins to mentally recover, and, trust me, he will, remind him that Adam Dunn, who makes more money than God, is on track to strike out more than 250 times this year.

Then explain that talent is nothing without the application of effort, and take some time to teach him how to better handle a curveball. Because when you let your child find the capacity to bounce back and move forward within himself, you’re giving him the gift of resiliency which will serve him so much better than false praise.

This is exactly what McCullough was talking about when he told those college bound seniors they weren’t special or exceptional – yet. Ah! But by their achievements, they could create extraordinary lives.

I agree, we don’t want to retreat to the days where the nuns beat the kids into a bloody self-deprecating submission, but the pendulum has certainly swung a bit too far the other way. The California self-esteem movement born of those vapid New Age me, me, me philosophies has already done enough damage to our children.

So to answer Mr. Keilman’s question of what’s wrong with encouragement, I’ll say nothing! As long as it’s rooted in reality and it doesn’t feed the fantasy of being “special.” Praise should only be handed out when children do something worth praising.

Otherwise, as it is with all addictions, the inevitable crash is going to be enormous.

Ironically, this very same reporter – John Keilman – penned a 2010 Tribune piece entitled, A downside to high teen self esteem?, in which he acknowledged much of what we’ve discussed right here, right down to the story of a parent trying to change a grade.

Perhaps his editors are doling out a little too much praise.

Jeff Ward July 07, 2012 at 12:08 AM
Lou, Thanks for the great response! The Kass-ism that really annoys the bleep out of me is when he refers to the former Mayor Daley as "Mayor Shortshanks." It was wasn't funny the first time and it's certainly not funny the 276th. Jeff
Lois Lane July 07, 2012 at 12:45 AM
What's a moutza? Do I have one? I try to avoid the Trib except for the Sunday crossword puzzles and the travel section.
Lou Pierce July 07, 2012 at 01:42 AM
Lois, Then you have no earthly need to know what it is.
Kent Frederick July 08, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Jeff, I think Kass is great. I love the Mayor Shortshanks line, since Richie is a short stocky guy, like his father, who probably thinks he's as good a leader as King Edward I, aka Edward Longshanks. Granted, Kass can't quite turn a phrase the way Royko could. But, if the columns about lawn care bug you, then what about Royko discussing his transformation from Condo Man to his initial state as Bungalow Man? While the column was funny, I never understood the popularity of the bungalow. But then, I grew up in a area of colonials, Dutch colonials, Tudors, and ranch houses. And let's face it, Kass does a very good job of explaining how the Outfit, the Combine, and corporate leaders all work with each other. I think it was Kass who coined the phrase, "smoking the Hopium" to describe how the national media fell in love with Barack Obama while ignoring his ties to the Demcorat Machine and convicted felon Tony Rezko.
Jeff Ward July 08, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Kent, Even I have to admit that many of the things you said about Mr. Kass are true. It's just that I like to have some fun with folks who take themselves far too seriously. Actually, he gets into trouble when he tries to be Mike Royko. He just can't do it and it send the entire column spinning into a death spiral. Even though I agree with his general point, the whole "hopium" thing just isn't funny. And your point on Royko's column also has some merit (I just read that one again last week, BTW), but Royko had been writing five columns a week for years and he earned the right to "digress," as I like to call it. Not only that, but the fact that he moved from his beloved Milwaukee Ave. to the Gold Coast was symbolic of the massive cultural shift that was occurring in Chicago at the time. It was no long the "hog butcher to the world." The blue collar was giving way to the white one. Nice post! Jeff


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