The roots of the self-esteem movement go back to the later nineteenth century, where they intertwined with larger notions of children's vulnerability and the need for adult protection and support. Most of the psychologists associated with the CHILD STUDY movement specifically discussed the concept of self-esteem as a key component in successful child rearing. Progressive-era educators used the idea as well in seeking a supportive school environment. But it was only in the 1960s that this long-established belief of experts won popular and institutional backing as a way to reconcile academic commitment with parental concerns for childhood frailty and for the special value of their own children.
JOHN DEWEY and William James were among the early psychologist proponents of the importance of the self. Dewey discussed "intuition of self" in his seminal 1886 work, Psychology, using knowledge of self as the talisman for knowledge gains in general. Selfhood was, in this view, essential to freedom. But it was James who, in 1892, first used the term self-esteem with an explicit scientific definition. A key task in socializing children, in James's view, involved helping them gain the capacity to develop "self" and, with it, the capacity to adapt to different social settings with appropriate projections of self. Self-esteem, more specifically, involved the kind of perceptions that, properly honed, were crucial to achievement and success.
The popularization of psychology and the growing notion that children often needed expert help brought concerns about self-esteem to greater attention during the 1920s and 1930s. If children needed a sense of self to operate successfully, but if children were also vulnerable, it was certainly possible that special measures might be necessary to assure that the mechanism (the self) was in working order.
During the 1950s and 1960s the connection between self-esteem and supportive school programs was fully forged. A clear symptom, as well as a cause of further awareness, was a growing spate of expert studies on the subject. Stanley Coopersmith, in 1967, identified the link between self-esteem and frailty, noting the "indications that in children domination, rejection, and severe punishment result in lowered self-esteem. Under such conditions they have fewer experiences of love and success and tend to become generally more submissive and withdrawn (though occasionally veering to the opposite extreme of aggression and domination)"(p. 45).
While experts debated the precise correlatives of self-esteem–in their eyes, the subject was extremely complicated–three points shone through. First and most obviously, self-esteem was vitally important to a well-adjusted, high-functioning child or adult. This conclusion was amply prepared for by previous generations of scientific writing. Second, self-esteem was crucially affected by what parents did to children. Levels of DISCIPLINE, family affection, and marital stability all registered in a child's emerging concept of self-worth. And finally, self-esteem played a crucial role in school success. As Coopersmith put it, "Ability and academic performance are significantly associated with feelings of personal worth."
The self-esteem movement served as an adjustment between school commitments and worries about overburdening children. It also arose at a time of significant rethinking about the preconditions of adult success, with the rise of service-sector jobs that depended on people skills, that is, the skills needed in salesmanship or in maneuvering in management bureaucracies. In addition, the movement also reflected a reduction in confidence in the middle-class home environment, which was linked to the rising divorce rate, and also very practical problems in dealing with the surge in population due to the baby boom, as children suffered from crowded classrooms.
As early as 1950, enhanced discussions of self-confidence and the need for explicit parental support were becoming standard segments in the childrearing manuals. Thus in 1952, Sidonie Gruenberg wrote, "To value his own good opinion, a child has to feel that he is a worthwhile person. He has to have confidence in himself as an individual. This confidence is hard for children to develop and there are many experiences that may shake it" (p. 192). The approach was in interesting contrast to Gruenberg's voluminous writings in the 1930s, where the subject received little explicit comment. Now, however, she gave extensive attention to the need for parents to display pride in their children, with a particular plea that children be encouraged through the mistakes they made. "We must not let the mistakes and failures shatter our faith in the child… . He needs real and lasting self-respect if he is to develop" both integrity and a durable capacity to achieve (p. 193). Self-esteem, clearly, began in the home, and a more flexible approach to discipline was urged on parents.
The application of self-esteem concepts in the schools from the 1960s onward involved a number of specific programs and a more general reorientation. Programs typically focused on the importance of providing children a wide range of activities so that they could gain a sense of achievement or mastery, whatever their strictly academic talents. Thus many schools enhanced standard lessons with new opportunities for self-expression. History or literature courses added often-elaborate role-playing exercises to reading and discussion. By playing a historical character, children might demonstrate skills that would not come to light if they were merely called upon to recite facts about the same character. It was also crucial that most of these additional exercises were not graded, again in the interests of encouraging a sense of competence at all levels. Another set of self-esteem exercises involved a growing emphasis on "service learning." Here, students could directly contribute to the community while also building an opportunity to display an individual capacity to perform. Thus the Challenge Program in California involved high school students in tutoring grade-schoolers, in working in a historical society, or in participating in environmental efforts. The rationale was central to the self-esteem approach: through these nonacademic activities, students would "have a reason to enjoy and a recipe for personal success."
The approach was fascinating in its effort to provide alternatives to academic competence and competitiveness, and even more fascinating in its assumptions that school must be leavened by nonacademic exercises. Proponents argued that when involved students were compared with control groups participation in the self-esteem programs reduced discipline problems in the schools and improved academic performance. It was less clear why overall American academic achievement levels continued to falter (for example, compared to other nations that did not stress self-esteem) despite the growing utilization of self-esteem activities.
Self-esteem arguments also entered into recommendations for teacher behavior. Thus teachers were urged to add positive comments on all student work, in addition to (and perhaps instead of) critical observations. Some education authorities argued essentially that rewarding good behavior was far more useful, given self-esteem needs, than castigating bad. The portfolio movement also included some self-esteem justifications as well, although it had a number of other justifications. Instead of grading students through conventional tests alone, portfolio programs allowed them to offer a collection of different kinds of expression in the subject area, from art to computer graphics, so that various learning styles could be accommodated with equal access to self-esteem. And self-esteem concerns had a further impact on the concept of grading, probably contributing substantially to grade inflation.
Self-esteem notions and activities were often criticized, and movements to develop more rigorous testing procedures in the 1990s represented something of a counterattack. Through most of the final third of the twentieth century, however, self-esteem ideas strongly influenced many teachers, and even some athletic coaches, while helping to reconcile parents to the demands of schooling by providing some buffer between strict academics and the psychological development of their children.
Coopersmith, Stanley. 1967. The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Gruenberg, Sidonie. 1958. The Parents' Guide to Everyday Problems of Boys and Girls. New York: Hill and Wang.
Rosenberg, Morris. 1965. Society and the Adolescent Self-Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stearns, Peter N. 2003. Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Child-rearing in America. New York: New York University Press.
Wang, Jianjun, Betty Greathose, and V. M. Falcinella. 1996. "An Empirical Assessment of Self-Esteem Enhancement." Education 119: 99–105.
PETER N. STEARNS