Self-esteem glut more imagined than real, and as Maryville awards ceremony shows, kids need all the encouragement they can get
I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but sometime in the last decade boosting a child’s self-esteem became a disreputable practice, sort of like letting him drink Mountain Dew at breakfast or watch “Snooki and JWOWW” before bedtime.
Scholars have written books about how today’s young people are screwed up by parents who keep telling them how special they are. The kids, naturally, are only too happy to agree with their parents’ assessment, and thus become entitled little brats who believe their every footstep should be greeted with a blast of trumpets and a shower of rose petals.
This theory got a boost recently when David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in suburban Boston, delivered a buzz kill of a graduation address, telling the class of 2012 that they weren’t as hot as they might have been led to believe.
“You’re not exceptional,” he said from the dais. “Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mr. Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you — you are nothing special.”
The speech went viral and received almost universal applause, though McCullough later said his main point — that graduates should make their own extraordinary lives — was lost in the hubbub. The reaction was no surprise; adults always love to think that up-and-coming generations are ridiculously soft and spoiled. But 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.
Really? When your son strikes out in a Little League game, do you holler from the bleachers that he should have practiced harder? When your daughter asks if she’s smart, do you say you’ll let her know after you see her report card?
Of course not. You tell your son, “Good try,” then offer to help him get better. You tell your daughter that she’s very smart, then say she still needs to work hard to get good grades. You keep it real but you encourage them. You pat them on the back. You try to help them feel better about themselves.
I witnessed this idea in action the other night when Maryville Academy, a Des Plaines home for troubled kids, held its annual awardsdinner. One by one, more than 100 teens with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and long histories of abuse and neglect were called to the front of an assembly room to receive a T-shirt, a handshake and a certificate that recognized their achievements, no matter how small.
Most outspoken. Most inquisitive. Most polite. From honor roll students to Special Olympians to kids who just kept their rooms clean, everyone had a moment of glory. No one was left out.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have this,” said a boy named Marcus, 16, who was honored for a poem he wrote about his childhood troubles. “My mom threw me out, basically. I grew up by myself. When people are looking at me because of what I write, it makes me feel good.”
A 17-year-old mother who was lauded for making the dean’s list and being prompt and helpful told me she was going to put her certificate on the wall of her room. When I asked if she was worried about overpraising her 1-year-old son someday, she looked at me as though I were speaking Martian.