Our fervor to make people “feel good” often eliminates the motivation they innately have to achieve their full potential. Students receive praise for working hard RATHER THAN for coming up with the right answer. This point was driven home when my now grown boys were made to show all their work on tests so that even if the answer was wrong they could get partial credit for the thought processes they exhibited. The problem with this concept, however, was that their work was marked as being totally wrong if they came up with the correct answer without showing their work – being penalized for mental computations that others might not have been able to do.
An elementary teacher once told us that our son “could not advance until the rest of the class was ready.” She felt it was her job to make everyone an equal contributor to classroom success – leaving nobody behind. A major flaw exists in that thinking in that while we are all created equally, we do not all possess the same strengths, weaknesses, gifts and abilities. We are all capable of accomplishing certain things but not equally able to accomplish all things. While there is value in helping those who do not understand, the system fails us when that help comes at the expense of individual advancement and achievement rather than in a parallel advancement with it. Some individuals within the educational system (providers AND/OR participants) give little attention to proper spelling (“spell check” will handle that) and do not worry about basic math concepts (“that is what calculators are for”).
In sports (except at high levels of competitive sport and/or professional levels of activity), the focus is on the equality of playing time (regardless of an athlete’s ability) and sportsmanship (good but not necessarily the driver of participation) rather than on winning. In moderation, these are not bad concepts but in practice, students (and young athletes who are told that the score does not matter but can tell you who won the game and by how much) often perceive they are being rewarded for effort rather than for accomplishment – for simply trying rather than for actually achieving – and parents seeking to bolster their child’s self-esteem tend to complain loudly when their child (whom may or may not deserve equal playing time) is not appropriately and adequately recognized for being part of the team.
In order to constructively establish and maintain an individual’s self-esteem, we must create an environment that encourages (and rewards) achievement while we avoid:
1) Rewarding efforts (that may actually be contributing to failure) and/or the willingness to do only what is asked (however good that might be) rather than rewarding the end results, the risks taken or the processes that were improved
2) Placing unqualified individuals into positions they think can be handled – rewarding their efforts and desires – but potentially breeding frustration and encouraging an acceptance of failure unless appropriate orientation and/or training is provided
3) Praising an individual for trying hard hoping it will encourage better overall performance. In reality, such praise may establish lower expectations as being acceptable since verbal (and monetary) rewards are often provided to those “not rocking the boat” regardless of how much they do or do not do.
4) Rewarding everyone equally (providing the same pay increase) or treating all kids equally (rather than “equitably” as my boys became tired of hearing) to minimize confrontation. This practice actually helps to reward and/or retain the under-qualified while reward the average (and sometimes mediocre) while de-motivating high achievers (who will seek appropriate rewards for their efforts elsewhere at work or possibly “act out” at home to get the same attention that their siblings seemingly receive).Some say that a good self-concept breeds success – I believe that success creates a good self-concept. Some say students (workers and family members) need to work as equals within teams to accomplish anything – I believe all teams need a leader to champion the best cause and catalyze the troops to initiate and advance positive change. Some say that rewarding efforts will enhance creativity and minimize the fear of failure. I believe that rewarding an individual’s accomplishments and allowing them to learn from their mistakes rather than avoiding them at all costs while constructively addressing sub-standard efforts and providing corrective actions will foster creativity and encourage calculated risk-taking behavior that, in itself, reduces the fear of failure.
While it is good to think about a person’s “self-esteem,” perhaps it is better to encourage individual accomplishment by providing the tools and resources that foster positive results and build self-esteem - elevating people to the highest possible standard rather than homogenizing them to the lowest possible denominator. Perhaps it is time we once again gave to all according to their abilities rather than providing to all according to their needs to maximize individual contributions within our ever-changing world.