Reading, writing and narcissism

Lilian G. Katz

July 16, 1993|By Lilian G. Katz

DEVELOPING and strengthening children's self-esteem has become a major goal of our schools.

Although it is true that many children, especially the youngest students, have low self-esteem, our practice of lavishing praise for the mildest accomplishments is not likely to have much success.

Feelings cannot be learned from direct instruction, and constant reminders about how wonderful one is may raise doubts about the credibility of the message and the messenger.

A project by a first grade class in an affluent Middle Western suburb that I recently observed showed how self-esteem and narcissism can be confused. Working from copied pages prepared by the teacher, each student produced a booklet called "All About Me."

The first page asked for basic information about the child's home and family. The second page was titled "what I like to eat," the third was "what I like to watch on TV," the next was "what I want for a present."

The booklet, like thousands of others I have encountered around the country, had no page headings such as "what I want to know more about," "what I am curious about," "what I want to to solve" or even "to make."

Each page was directed toward the child's basest inner gratifications.

Each topic put the child in the role of consumer -- of food, entertainment, gifts and recreation. Not once was the child asked to play the role of producer, investigator, initiator, explorer, experimenter or problem-solver.

It is perhaps this kind of literature that accounts for a poster I saw in a school entrance hall. Pictures of clapping hands surround the title "We Applaud Ourselves."

While the sign's probable purpose was to help children feel good about themselves, it did so by directing their attention inward. The poster urged self-congratulation; it made no reference to possible ways of earning applause -- by considering the feelings or needs of others.

Another common type of exercise was a display of kindergartners' work I saw recently that consisted of large paper-doll figures, each having a balloon containing a sentence stem that began "I am special because . . ."

The children completed the sentence with phrases such as, "I can color," "I can ride a bike" and "I like to play with my friends."

But these children are not likely to believe for very long that they are special because they can color or ride a bike. What are they going to think when they discover just how trivial these criteria for being special are?

This overemphasizing self-esteem and self-congratulation stems from a legitimate desire to correct previous generations' traditions of avoiding compliments for fear of making children conceited.

But the current practices are vast over-corrections. The idea of specialness they express is contradictory: If everybody is jTC special, nobody is special.

Adults can show their approval for children in more significant ways than awarding gold stars and happy faces. Esteem is conveyed to students when adults and peers treat them with respect, ask for their views and preferences and provide opportunities for decisions and choices about things that matter to them.

Children are born natural and social scientists. They devote much time and energy to investigating and making sense of their environments. During the pre-school and early school years, teachers can capitalize on this disposition by engaging children in investigations and projects.

Several years ago, I saw this kind of project at a rural British school for 5- to 7-year-olds. A large display on the bulletin board read: "We Are a Class Full of Bodies. Here Are the Details." The display space was filled with bar graphs showing birth dates, weights and heights, eye colors, number of lost teeth, shoe sizes and other data of the entire class. As the children worked in small groups to take measurements, prepare graphs and help one another post displays of their analyses, the teacher was able to create an atmosphere of a community of researchers looking for averages, trends and ranges.

Compare this to the American kindergarten I visited recently in which the comments made by the children about a visit to a dairy farm were displayed on the bulletin board. Each sentence began with the words "I liked." For example, "I liked the cows" and "I liked the milking machine." No sentences began "What surprised me was . . ." and "What I want to know more about is . . ."

Of course children benefit from positive feedback. But praise and rewards are not the only methods of reinforcement.

More emphasis should be placed on appreciation -- reinforcement related explicitly and directly to the content of the child's interest and effort. For example, if a child poses a thoughtful question, the teacher might come to class the next day with a new reference book on the same subject.

It is important that the teacher shows appreciation for pupils' concerns without taking their minds off the subjects at hand or directing their attention inward.

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