Monday, November 16, 2009

Culture: Positivity and Self-Esteem

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I first heard about Barbara Ehrenreich's research questioning the emphasis on positivity in United States culture (discussed earlier), one of the first things that came to mind was the "self esteem" movement. Now, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have offered some additional criticism of that movement that, at least in my opinion, supports Ehrenreich's assertions and matches my personal experience.

In their new book "NutureShock", Bronson and Merryman argue that in reaction to issues created by the World War II generation providing only conditional love to their children, the Vietnam generation tried so hard to love unconditionally that they actually failed to do communicate that to their children. As a gross simplification, by saying, "We love you! You are so smart!" all the time to their children, the kids actually linked being smart to the love, effectively thinking that they were loved because they were smart. The problem becomes acute when it becomes obvious to the child that in a given situation, they weren't so smart, and they thus expect not to be loved. The parents that said "We love you for who you are" avoided this particular problem.

The root of the problem here was providing positive feedback to the child (being "smart" or just "good at" something) regardless of whether they had earned that exact praise. At some point, the child starts seeing the gap between the feedback and the reality, and the feedback starts to becoming meaningless. The culture of positivity that Ehrenreich so disdains had entered into parenting, and prevented it from being effective.

I distinctly remember, in elementary school, being subjected to "self esteem" exercises in which we were supposed to write positive phrases about our performance and our selves regardless of the reality of the situation. It didn't matter if it was clear that my peers were much better at playing soccer, for example--I was supposed to write about how well I played soccer. Not just how I might have improved recently at a specific soccer skill, which might be truthful, mind you--we were directed to broadly reinforce that were good at everything we were doing, even if it were blatantly, obviously untrue. I could complete the exercises, but I never believed anything I wrote on those exercise sheets. The supposedly-intended objective of making the children feel better about themselves was not accomplished, because my actual skills hadn't actually improved, and I knew that. Furthermore, my peers (most of whom just kept quiet about their deficiencies and thus were not subjected to the "self esteem" exercises) knew that.

Interestingly, in the first grade, a gym instructor (whose name I shamefully cannot remember) actually took a different tact with me which was far more effective. When I accurately stated "I can't do that" with respect to a physical skill, he held me after class to practice the skill until I actually could do it. I still usually wasn't nearly as skilled as my peers, but it allowed me to change language to "I'm not very good at that" or "I don't like doing that" from the flat "I can't," and basically coerced me to participate in the game in question. However, from the second grade onward, I can't remember any instructor doing anything analogous to what that gym teacher had done; it was all "self esteem" exercises for the rest of primary school.

In a recent CBC interview, Po Bronson didn't have anything much better to say about self-esteem exercises than I do. Bronson makes the argument that the "self-esteem movement" capitalized on the trend to provide unconditional love and furthered its distortion. Children were not given feedback commensurate with their achievements--in effect, self-esteem exercises were confusing them.

The only coherent message a child could get out of "self esteem" exercises (at least as constituted when I experienced them) was that adults only wanted to hear positive language, and the reality doesn't matter. Basically, positivity was being taught--Ehrenreich's thesis incarnate. It was certainly the message I got from the exercises, which I considered to be madness. As both Ehrenreich and I would experience, indeed, adult culture in the United States largely does work that way, with a positive attitude far more important than real skills or accomplishments.

Bronson argues that we should be providing accurate feedback to our children, and encouragement to keep developing skills regardless of their state at a given time. Statements of unconditional love should be made, but they should be simple, not based on compliments that may not be true.

However, it will probably take a generation of "true" unconditional love and accurate feedback for the culture of positivity to decline in the United States. It will take a lot more than Bronson and Merryman's book to initiate a real shift in the culture. I suspect it will take more than a generation for "positivity" to be subdued and its results in the business culture (like housing bubbles) to subside, if it ever happens.

No comments: