04/16/2013 08:39 EDT | Updated 06/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Giving Kids a Fighting Chance

Everyone agrees that there is more bullying these days and that it could be handled better. However, no one is asking why the incidence of bullying has increased so markedly. People used to think that bullies act the way they do because they suffer from low self-esteem. The truth turned out to be exactly the opposite.

The bullying of Retaeh Parsons that led to her suicide is just the latest manifestation of a massive wave of bullying that just seems to keep on building. It's too late to help Retaeh, but for goodness sakes let's try to learn something from her death.

Everyone agrees that there is more bullying these days and that it could be handled better. However, no one is asking why the incidence of bullying has increased so markedly. This is unfortunate, because a better understanding of this trend might make it possible to come to grips with it.

The root of the problem may be found in the current emphasis on self-esteem among parents and teachers. In the 1970s, the term "self-esteem" was almost unknown, but researchers developed the theory that high self-esteem would lead to improvements in many personal and social problems. This appealed to teachers and parents and, beginning in the 1980s, they worked really hard on boosting children's self-esteem

Unfortunately, just at the time that programs to enhance self-esteem were taking over, researchers were discovering that boosting self-esteem was not in fact leading to more positive outcomes for children. By the 1990s, the researchers had discovered that the promotion of self-esteem was associated with a tendency to bullying and violence. This new message, however, has not gotten through to today's parents and teachers who are still placing an emphasis on building children's self-esteem.

Although people used to think that bullies acted the way they did because they suffered from low self-esteem, the truth turned out to be exactly the opposite. It seems that people with overly high self-esteem often have trouble coping with anything that threatens their good opinion of themselves, causing them to lash out angrily.

Back in the seventies and eighties, Dr. Roy Baumeister was one of the prime movers of the self-esteem movement, but now he has completely changed his views about its value. He is now warning parents and teachers about the dangers of boosting children's self-esteem, even pointing out that many violent criminals have inflated self-esteem and thus react violently when they do not receive the preferential treatment they feel they deserve. According to Dr. Baumeister, "the bully has a chip on his shoulder because he thinks you might want to deflate his favourable self-image."

This new understanding of inflated self-esteem - self-esteem that is out of proportion to accomplishment - may offer some insight into the bullying phenomenon in schools. The campaign to boost kids' self-esteem may have created an unusually-high percentage of little emperors and empresses who are prone to anger and aggression.

And, in a one-two punch combination, the same concern for children's self-esteem that is creating the problem of bullying is at the same time tying parents' and teachers' hands when it comes to dealing with the bullies - lest strong measures damage the bullies' precious self-esteem!

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Unfortunately, few parents and teachers are aware of the new research, and so they continue to boost children's self-esteem by praising their work, telling them how terrific they are, automatically promoting them to the next grade, hesitating to criticize them, and so on.

Until parents and teachers grasp that they are not doing children a favour by pumping up their self-esteem, it seems likely that the incidence of bullying will remain at its current high level.

The last word goes to Dr. Baumeister. "After all these years, my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline. Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society - and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep."

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