I have been talking a lot to colleagues about this issue and felt it might be an interesting issue to put out here for some discussion. I will kick off by stating my personal position: we have got this wrong for years. The linking of people who bully to low self-esteem and a belief that improving children’s self-esteem when they have been bullied is all we need to do, is taking us down the wrong path.
The focus and almost universal acceptance of self-esteem as the singular capacity we all need in order to have better lives and experiences doesn’t ever really stand up to scrutiny. So what is self-esteem?
Definitions tend to cover the following –
How you feel about yourself — your self-worth or your pride or confidence in yourself; A person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value that involves beliefs about the self, such as the appraisal of one’s own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviours.
We have for years seemed to accept that we must make sure nothing we do ‘damages’ a child’s self-esteem. From the mythically ridiculous beliefs that awards for excellence in participation and non-competitive sports days will help our children and young people flourish, to some genuinely helpful learning, like being able to identify and talk about how you feel.
‘People who bully have low self-esteem’. This is a generalisation, it can sometimes be the case but a lot of children who bully possess very high self-esteem, they feel great about themselves, are confident in how they feel and look to the point they can identify and target others. It is a truly unhelpful generalisation to suggest children who bully are secretly all ‘cowards’ who have low self-esteem and are scared of the people they bully. Some are of course but many are not.
When we start to believe the stereotypes we then ignore people who are bullying because they don’t fit in with how we think they should look or act. Children who bully need to have their behaviour challenged, their prejudices challenged and their values and beliefs that what they are doing is okay challenged.
Do we ever talk of ways to help lower self-esteem in children? ‘Oh that child is far too confident and thinks they are the bee’s knees, they need brought down a peg or two’. Now I am not suggesting some adults don’t think like that but it’s definitely not in the self-esteem workbook. So could a focus on improving self-esteem of some children who bully really do anything other than make them worse? Or does this lead to the absurd notion that they can perhaps get bullied a bit to lower their self-esteem to the required level for acceptable social functioning? I am not suggesting this but merely that our approach to self-esteem is a one way street.
‘Bullying can cause low self-esteem’. Of course it can, being bullied can make you feel terrible about yourself, it can affect your confidence, and how you see yourself. If you are bullied it will impact on the self-esteem you have, high or low. Bullying affects your agency, your ability to feel in control and make choices – we need to help restore that feeling, you need this whether you have high or low self-esteem.
And for many of us – something can affect our levels of self-esteem today, an incident or some bad news can impact on it for a short period – it isn’t a fixed thing as some things can lift it and some give it a dent. We can’t get hung up on trying to attain a permanent state of improvement and lifting of self-esteem.
The challenge is when we focus solely on self-esteem as the answer to or the cause of bullying. Trying only things we believe will improve a child’s self-esteem might not work. Telling a bullied child they are wonderful and the person picking on them is just horrible and envious of who they are can satisfy how we feel as adults but does little for the person being bullied. It’s not focussing on solutions.
Involving them in what they want to happen, exploring ways to manage these risks and to take steps to feel better and identify the ways they want to cope and respond is far more effective. They will be learning great life skills, learning how to manage relationships and difficulties. A focus on trying to make sure all our children and young people have high and/or improved self-esteem will not make them immune to bullying. They need to know how to respond, to explore choices and find ways to cope that they can have control over.
This improves their resilience and it might improve how they feel about themselves but they may still go through life with low self-esteem. They may still not boast about their skills and wonderfulness and may continue to underplay any achievements and take a while to get to know people, but that might be just fine for them. This is not a deficit that always needs corrected.
A few years ago I spoke at a school awards ceremony and genuinely struggled with what to say to a bunch of 14 year olds and their parents and grandparents. Some would feel bored, some would feel awesome and some might not have had anyone there to celebrate their achievements with. Everyone gets something though! No one leaves without an award of some description. So after a bit of thinking I decided to go for the message I have always believed in since I was a teenager and also one that has helped me through work and study as an adult.
I said ‘There will always someone who is infinitely better at something than you are, at playing the guitar, at singing, or at English, Maths or football. As good as you are, and it is good to be good at something, it is great to excel at things but if you can accept someone somewhere will be a bit faster, a bit smarter or just a bit better – you will do just fine’. I encouraged them not to judge their own success by what others achieve but by how hard they worked. This input actually went down quite well with the children and young people but with many parents and especially their grandparents.
For some pupils getting a B in English is a huge achievement, they have made sacrifices, worked as hard as possible, overturned challenges and that B signifies a developing growth mind-set, the beginning of a new belief that they can achieve things through hard work. It is a success. They may sit next to someone who has always got an A, will always get an A and it seems to come naturally to them. These pupils should not be judged against each other or one simply gets more praise for the higher mark, it’s the effort we must praise. The pupil with the A might have low self-esteem, they might be quiet and withdrawn and would never tell anyone that they think they are great at anything but they listen, they study hard and do well.
This is not about making these pupils ‘feel better’ about themselves, nor is it about improving their self-esteem. There is research that shows quite clearly there is no link between high self-esteem and academic achievement. In fact very high self-esteem has been shown to be a barrier to achievement in later life as these people find criticism harder to take and cannot reflect that they may have done poorly. I would always at this stage direct people to Jean Twenge’s wonderful book ’Generation Me’ to look at her extensive research and wonderful discussion of the impact this has had over the last 30 years.
There are two examples I use a lot from popular culture that I think highlight where we have ended up in relation to self-esteem as the be all and end all.
The first is X factor. It is an easy target I know and I have enjoyed watching it at times as much as the next person, although not for a few years to be fair! . I know it makes great car crash telly but what is interesting is the mantra given out by the judges and contestants and crucially by their families that ‘if you believe it and follow your dream and you can do it’ ‘How much do you want this?’ ‘I want this so bad and will do anything to get it, I will work so hard, and I am passionate and desperate’ ‘I want to make my mum proud’.
‘Yes, but can you sing?’ would be my response. You can want it all day, you can feel entitled to it, inspired by people, desperate for success and fame and fortune as a singer but if you cannot sing a note, you won’t win it. There is real devastation on the faces of contestants who sing as badly as I do which if I may quote Billy Connelly, is ‘like a goose farting in the fog’. The disbelief on their mums faces while wearing a t-shirt with their child’s face on it saying ‘X Factor champion 2015’. A parent who has always said they were a ‘wonderful singer and could easily win the X Factor with a voice like that’ has seen some people genuinely unable to accept the critique that they sang badly. They assume the problem is the judges not spotting the brilliance and potential their mum has seen.
I am a parent of three and I am guilty of not wanting to do anything that makes them feel bad, it is a perfectly natural thing to want to do but if I felt any one of my children was in fact a terrible singer, I am not sure I would go along or even encourage a televised audition! All in the hope that encouraging them to believe in themselves would improve their self-esteem and they could be immune or less susceptible to negative experiences. I’m just setting them up for life to give them a few slaps in the face.
The other is from Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
‘The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself’ and also she has reminded us ‘Don’t forget to fall in love with yourself first.’
I remember at the time watching this and feeling ‘what a dreadful line’ I had discussed a few times at home that I though the character of Carrie is, well ‘a bit selfish’ and of course should have kept Aidan rather than Big but that’s not the point here – the advice given appears just so self-centred. It is ‘me first then I can cope with others’. I think that if people do feel like this they may never be truly ‘happy’ or feel their self-esteem is at the required level. How about focusing on how other people feel? Or seeing things from their point of view? Be challenged on things or help people who it more, and then you need might find that relationships aren’t as difficult as you might have thought.
The point if all this, I suppose is, that the focus on self-esteem and indeed on the ‘self’ may actually contribute a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion or in some cases the belief that all we have to do is try things we are told ‘improve your self-esteem’ and all will be well. It is possible to go through life with low-self-esteem and excel, to lead your field academically, or in music or arts or just in your own house. Low self-esteem doesn’t mean you lack ability or competence; you just frame these things differently and for some, they may decide to give some things up early as a result or for others they may persevere and work harder because they are self-critical.
None of this negates the impact of bullying; it can and does have significant long-term impacts on people and how they feel about themselves and their ability to trust or sustain relationships. All I want to do is reframe it a little and move the focus away from the self and onto teaching empathy and compassion. Our job is to help our children to develop the skills they need to manage relationships and to deal with adversity. A focus on making everyone feel great about themselves is unfair on those who go through life a bit doubtful and self-critical and it implies they are in a deficit of some sort. It can imply that all the really successful happy people in the world have high self-esteem, or that it is a pre-requisite of success. This just oversimplifies who we are and the way we relate to each other.
All children and young people need adults who love them and who thinks they are wonderful, someone who accepts them and is there for them. We do this because we need love, praise and recognition to develop properly and not get lost on trying to imbibe a false or misleading sense of who you are and what you need to be like to be happy and safe or that if you do have lower self-esteem you are somehow immediately at a disadvantage.