Self-Esteem: Why Less Is More

By Jeremy Plane, Assistant Director at Camp Abnaki

Did you know that, according to research, self-esteem gradually declines from childhood to adulthood?  I want to talk about why this is, and why it is important to working with young people.

For the purpose of this blog, let’s define self-esteem as the overall evaluation of the self (positive or negative) in general, and in specific areas.

As adults, we have a better understanding of ourselves than we did as children.  We can think critically about ourselves, and understand our own strenghts, weaknesses, talents, etc.  We know what we’re good at, and have had enough experiences in life that our self-esteem doesn’t necessarily hinge upon a single aspect of our life.  For example, I know I don’t sing well, but my overall sense of self worth doesn’t hang solely upon my singing talent.  When someone tells me to stop wailing like a cat in a rainstorm, I understand where they’re coming from (but usually keep singing, anyway).

For youth, their sense of self-esteem is somewhat artificially inflated due to a lack of ability for critcal thinking.  Critical thinking is a skill which the brain is not hard-wired for until after the onset of adolesence, and is a skill that takes time to learn and develop.  As a person grows into adulthood, their level of self-esteem may decline, but it does so in such a way that is healthy–through honest evaluation and understanding.

What are the implications of this for people who work with young people?  Should we be telling kids how terrible they are at things because they can’t figure it out on their own? 

Of course not!

Rather, I think this speaks to the importance of providing young people with genuine opportunities to have experiences that provide authentic growth.  Self-esteem is gained through accomplishment and overcoming challenges.  At camp, this may be achieved by earning an archery patch by attaining a high score, or overcoming homesickness and staying for the whole session.  It is not achieved by giving everyone an award just for showing up. 

It is equally important to provide young people with honest, specific feedback when they struggle with something.  If a camper is struggling at the archery range, the archery instructor works with the camper on ways to improve.  The instructor helps the camper by guiding them and helping them develop their skills.  Not helping young people to better understand their own strenghts and weaknesses is to do them a great disservice.

For example, think of the tens of thousands of people who audition for American Idol each year.  Inevitably, during the “auditions” show, we’ll see people whose actual level of talent is simply….well, awful.  They open themselves up to an endless cycle of ridicule, YouTube videos (click the link to see some all-time terrible ones), and watercooler talk.  Sure, some of these folks are intentionally bad to get attention.  But some of them, I suspect, have never really been given the feedback they needed to improve (or, at the very least, to know not to try out).  Their inaccurate assestment of their own skill, and their  inflated self-esteem, has set them up for failure–in a very spectacular and public fashion.

So…what’s my point?  I guess it’s this:  it is important to provide children with challenges, barriers, and feedback.  I belive this is a crucial part of growing up.  It helps people develop a more accurate understanding of themselves.  Isn’t that what growing up is all about?

One Response to “Self-Esteem: Why Less Is More”

  1. Summer Camp: Not Just S’Mores and Archery | Greater Burlington YMCA Says:

    […] camps can help children grow in areas of positive identity, social skills, and positive values. I’ve written previously how I believe it is important to provide young people with the opportunity to raise self esteem […]