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Is Self-Esteem a Social Construct Or the Soul’s Self-Awareness?

Dusting off Birth and Death of Meaning to resume the series exploring the insights of Ernest Becker.

Rhonda Robinson


April 16, 2014 - 1:00 pm
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I worried about my son’s inability to read. He seemed far behind other second-graders. When I brought my concerns to his teacher, she brushed my fears aside. ”He is the highest in his reading group.” With her assurance, sprinkled with condescension that hinted education is best left to professionals, my parental instincts were put aside. After all, what parent argues with a teacher who insists a mother should be proud of her child’s hard work and dedication?

Imagine my surprise when at the end of the year, the decision was made to hold the boy back and repeat the grade. The reason? You guessed it–reading. When I pushed-back, reminding Mrs. Professionaleducator of her own words of assurance, she added one small detail previously left out. He was indeed at the top of his reading group–the lowest group in the class.

When he reached the top, she did not advance him to the next level for fear of hurting his self-esteem. He would no longer be the top dog. He would be at the bottom in the new group–with better readers. He would have to struggle to climb back to the top. For this reason alone, the preservation of the boy’s self-esteem, that he was not pushed to the next reading level.

He was reading somewhere around the 1.3 grade level at the end of the second grade. His prized self-esteem, was artificially inflated–something that was quickly and properly adjusted with the news he would not be advancing to the third grade with his friends.

For years, I chalked this experience up to the fact that his teacher just didn’t know my son. If she had, she would have known that putting him at the bottom would have challenged him to climb to the top. His competitive spirit and almost untamable drive would have propelled him over each obstacle put in front of him. Instead, she gave him a dunce cap and told him it was a crown, and rewarded him with a false sense of accomplishment as a foot-rest.

This week’s reading of Ernest Becker’s Birth and Death of Meaning reminded me of that first encounter with an esteem-puffer disguised as an educator. Becker made me rethink how self-esteem is actually built.

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Yesterday, when my son was putting away clean laundry, I reminded him not to wad up the towels in the cupboard. This morning, I found them wadded up. I could have barked at him or ignored the issue. What I did was make him some breakfast and say to him, "Let's go do this together so you know how it works and why it works that way." It took five minutes to go over the task with him, and to explain that we didn't want all our towels falling out of the cupboard when we tried to get one. For the next few days he'll be doing this chore under supervision.

He didn't feel like an idiot.
He knows how to do the task right.
His self-esteem is built up because he knows I'm entrusting him with a chore, and he feels competent to do it.
He's learned a small but valuable life skill and become that much more independent.

Self esteem comes from being an independent (or progressively less dependent) contributing member of a family or community. Treating a kid like a delicate snowflake only develops a sense of entitlement. Empowering a kid by teaching them to care for themselves and the people around them builds self-confidence and self-respect.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Part 1.

1. The problem of reading below grade level was my thing. As a 6th grader in a public school (back around 1950) I was given the task to look out for 2nd graders. I wanted to read them a story from their readers and, voilà, I could not. You can imagine my self-esteem. One day at a hospital, my father asked me to read the eye chart beginning with the hugh "E". I replied, "What E?". Someone had finally discovered that my eye-sight was poor (actually 20:400). That explains why I was forced to repeat for awhile a 4th grade class, i.e., until it was clear that I was not dumb. My parents popped their piggy-bank and put be in a private school, expensive, and in three years I was on my way to my never ending love affair with books. I fear what I would have become if I my near-sightedness had not been discovered and had I not had the opportunity of attending a non-public school. Oh yes, as I began to read the classics of literature in place of thumbing through comics I did, indeed, "earn" for myself some "true" self-esteem. (My biography underlies the necessity of having alternate school systems.)

2. I would like to try to harmonize Becker and Lewis. I do take it that in each human there is a built-in "I want to be somebody", but only de potentia after birth. In a sense to be explained, my "I" entails a special appropiation of the biblical "I am the truth". And this appropiation is a natural part of me that truely needs to be esteemed in truth. This vague formulation indicates a dialectics, i.e. "I" obtain the status of "being somebody" not as a self-sufficient monad, rather as so seen by other "somebodies" and appropiated as such by "I. Somehow, my "I's" esteem for itself does not alone satisfy my "self" as "truely" esteemable. In other words, Lewis' "by nature" is by nature constituted by "being" with others and what they take me to be; and that process, starting from birth to adulthood and beyond, is constructive in the sense of Becker. The love of the "significant other (body)" called a mother imparts to a baby's "self" de potentia a sense of security out of which the "I" can arise de actu. Such love is NOT earned by the child, rather bestowed by the mother (and father) upon the child just for "being". In this way the mother grounds the formation of an "I am". The "significant other (body)" called a father has a tendency to demand "performance". The young child calls attention to himself and runs and jumbs. The father might say: "That was o.k., but you can do it better. So try it again." The father has not accepted the very being of the child, but demanded performance as a necessity for being esteemed by "others". In my view the mother/father dialectic of accepting/demanding constitutes the "truth" which a mentally health child has, once the "I" is evolved. But, as Becker says, we human are not always true, indeed, we built amour around are selves making us angels (cf. Becker "Angel in Armour"), i.e., we live "vital lies".
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Part 2

I hope I have not offended anyone by my assertion that everyone must say "I am the truth", if one is to be truely esteemed. (The theological position that "God loves me" or "God loves my 'I'" is an unearned "esteem" and the only one that can overcome Becker's "The Denial of Death". But that is another tale of woe.) "Esteemed IN TRUTH" is a burden, but constitutes dignity for each person, i.e., a person does not lie to himself. The situation of your child, who was denied promotion to a higher reading level earned (though a level where he might not be number one), did not impart "esteem" IN TRUTH, rather effectively sought to build "armour" (= vital lie) around the child's "self-esteem" and, thereby, made him into that which he "is" not; with the result that false self-esteem deprived him of the opportunity "to perform" in truth.

I see that my words are taking on the wiles of prof. talk, i.e., falling into abstractions. So must it be within the limits of comments. Summary: I have attempt to fuse Lewis and Becker. Let the "I" leave significantly the path of truth, and the "I" will begin to construct his own projected world that mirrors his distorted "I am somebody". This was the point of the movie clip. If the distortion is too great, the "I" enters into the realm of insanity. But that development is another story.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
You have to earn something to really know what it's worth, and that's why true self-esteem is born out of real accomplishment and can't be given to you. Empty self-esteem is what the world is full of today, and it's why so many people fear and can't cope with failure. They don't know what they'd be left with or capable of if they fail. Someone whose earned their self-esteem on the other hand, knows precisely what they have if they fall short of a goal and they should be able to pick themselves up and climb up again.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have so far been fortunate with my children's teachers as they tell me at what level my child is performing in basic subjects. I don't get "well" I get "a score of 24, which as you can see on this graph corresponds to the end of the second grade". I am pretty sure this is district policy and it would not surprise me if it was instituted due to just such experiences as you describe.

Ultimately, as you learned, a lot of it also comes back to NOT allowing yourself to be comforted if you get the feeling that something isn't working well.

And as long as a teacher is not abusive (in which case he/she should be reported rather than avoided) many of the same beneficial results of homeschooling can be achieved by simply taking an active roll in your child's education. Homeschooling just isn't an option for some people but they can still get many of the same results by not abdicating their teaching responsibilities entirely to the school. Spending 20 minutes reading and another 20 on math games every night can do wonders for children. If you can afford it perhaps even hire a tutor, or sign up a child for an after school enrichment program. My kindergartener got a ton out of a local affordable enrichment program.

Of course the approach for a gifted child who is bored in public school due to not having challenging material and the approach for a struggling student who is not keeping up with peers is different. But many people speak and act as if it's EITHER learn in a classroom OR at home, not a combination.

PS, my comments are general and not a critique of the author. From her other writing it seems as though she has been very active in her kids' education.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was homeschooled for a couple of years, and publicly schooled for many. In each case, parents and/or guardians took an active interest in my education. They tutored me where they could, and found tutors for me where they weren't subject matter experts. As long as the school is decent, your comments are spot on.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Re your son's teacher ... my guess is she was happy to have a child who was competent at his given level and thus was less work for her -- that's why she didn't move him up to another group -- and the self-esteem talk was just her trendy jargony way to shut you down and send you away. I got a similar kind of thing about my child's math skills ... which was the straw that resulted in our home schooling for several years.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
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