Why the Self-Esteem Movement Failed

And What to Teach Instead

Why the Self-Esteem Movement Failed and What to Teach Instead www.thebecomingeffect.org

In the late 60’s and early 70’s many studies were conducted regarding the correlation between a high self-esteem and a successful life. A particular piece of work entitled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Brandon was widely used to promote this idea. As a result, well-meaning parents, teachers, and caregivers all began taking great pains to make children feel extra loved and extra special. Despite their pure motives, the results were not exactly what they had intended. Instead of instilling a steady, quiet, and grounded confidence that was built on a foundation of truth, it tended to create a spirit of arrogance, entitlement, and self-absorption.[1]

In an effort to offer constant validation, attempts were made to sugar-coat life, make everyone a winner, and prevent any unpleasant feelings of failure or disappointment.

Me-ism was born. 

What this movement got right…

was the recognition that we all have an innate need to know our worth. We all have something deep inside of us that craves security and a sense of belonging. When this is missing, the mental, spiritual, social, and physical aspects of our lives are greatly affected.

In the Book Hide or Seek, Dr. James Dobson states that,

As early as age three or four, we begin to ask basic self-worth questions: Who am I? Who needs me? Who cares about me? Will I be accepted? Will people laugh at me? Will I be able to compete with others? Do I have a place in this world? Does anybody love me? And every child begins gathering evidence to answer these questions. Each failure, each mistake, each time he speaks out of turn, each time she is not invited to a party or picked for a team, each time he is called a name – this all gets stored in the memory bank. When the child steamrolls into adolescence, all of this comes back with a volcanic force to attack his or her sense of self-worth. [2]

The effort went wrong in the approach.

Instead of working to build a healthy, positive, and balanced view of self-worth, it seemed to go a bit too far in the wrong direction. Self-esteem was being built on a shallow foundation of false values like physical beauty, greatness through achievement, superiority, entitlement, and unearned rewards. None of which builds a solid core. Rather, it tends to result in a puffed up a sense of arrogance and entitlement that doesn’t stand up to the pressures and challenges of life.

Protecting kids does not mean making sure they don’t fail.

It is making sure that when they do, they still feel safe, loved, and worthwhile. They should be armed with the tools to deal with disappointment and face challenges without fear. Trying to prevent what is natural and inevitable can’t protect them like a firm foundation will. The best gift you can give them is fostering their innermost growth, and making sure that their life’s worth is built on rock solid stone. Empty words of praise won’t do this. The meaningful practice of establishing their true identity will.

The words self-esteem and identity are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are slightly different. Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect”.  Identity is defined as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is”.

Self-esteem is healthy when framed correctly. It is when it is built on the worldly standards of beauty, talent, and achievement, that it becomes flawed.

Identity focuses on the foundations of who we are, where we belong, who we belong to, where our place is, and what our purpose is in life. Being grounded with such an unshakable footing is vital for a quiet and balanced confidence.

Critics of the self-esteem movement are now warning against the focus of building self-esteem in children, suggesting  that it may lead to undesirable consequences.

Studies are being published that show that high self-esteem does not prevent smoking, drinking, drug use, or engaging in early sex. They state that high self-esteem leads to experimentation and may even increase these activities.[3]

If viewed through a narrow lens, many of the points have some merit. However, when the view becomes broader, the story changes.

It is worth considering that the self-confident youth who are still engaging in risky behaviors may just not have the right kind of self-confidence. Perhaps their sense of self isn’t rooted in the truths of a strong identity. Perhaps it is built on the shaky ground of shallow praise, material possessions, and privilege.

They may happen to be good looking. They may be gifted athletically, or experience academic success. They may enjoy the benefits of having more money and more material possessions than their peers. In truth, we will probably never know. However, if their high level of self-esteem really is rooted in the wrong values, it is no wonder that it does not have the same protective factors.

For everyone who wants to protect their kids from drugs, alcohol, sex, and bullying, but also wants to keep them from being arrogant, prideful, entitled, and self-centered…the question really shouldn’t be IF we build their self-esteem, the question should be how.


For more on this topic seeIs It Okay to Love Myself – Self-Esteem from a Christian Perspective“.


P.S.  Does this topic interest you?  Get your free copy of “Defined by God Alone – A Dozen Ways to Raise Her Self Esteem” by clicking HERE!



  1. Ph.D., S. K., Campbell, P., Ph.D., L. F., & Ph.D., J. J. (n.d.). The Gift of Failure. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/smores-and-more/201112/the-gift-failure
  2. Dobson, J. C. (2001). The new hide or seek: building confidence in your child. Grand Rapids, MI: F.H. Revell.
  3. Baumeister,1, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST. PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST, 4(1), 2-44. Retrieved from http://assets.csom.umn.edu/assets/71496.pdf



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