Self-Esteem as a Goal of Early Childhood Education

The development and strengthening of the young child's self-esteem is typically listed as a major goal in the guides for state and school district kindergarten curricula. While early childhood education has long been blessed with many curriculum approaches that emphasize and advocate diverse goals and methods, all seem to concur that helping children to "feel good about themselves" is an important goal of early education. The terms applied to this goal are variously designated as self-esteem, self-regard, self-concept, self-worth, and self-confidence. Frequently, the phrase positive self-concept is used, even though, semantically speaking, a concept cannot be positive or negative. Some sources refer to high self-concepts, even though a concept cannot, technically speaking, be high or low. The term self-esteem is preferred because it refers to a calibrated estimation of the value or worthiness of the self.

For example, in a document titled Early Childhood Education and the Elementary School Principal, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) issued "Standards for Quality Programs for Young Children." The first on the list of twelve characteristics of quality early childhood programs is that children "develop a positive self-image" (p. 2).

Numerous books, kits, packets, and newsletters produced for teachers urge them to help children gain "positive self-concepts." A typical example of this view is given by Sandy McDaniel (1986) as quoted in the National Education Association's New Options:

[T]he basis for everything we do is self-esteem. Therefore, if we can do something to give children a stronger sense of themselves, starting in preschool, they'll be [wiser] in the choices they make. (p. 1)

Along similar lines, the prestigious Corporation for Public Broadcasting (no date) issued a twenty-page pamphlet, apparently directed to teenagers, entitled Celebrate Yourself: Six Steps to Building Your Self-Esteem. The first major heading in the pamphlet is "Learn to Love Yourself Again." This section asserts that we all loved ourselves as babies, but as we grew up "we found that not everyone liked everything we did" (p. 1), so we "started picking on ourselves." Six steps toward self-celebration are presented. Step 1 is "Spot Your Self-Attacks." Step 2, "See What Makes You Special," recommends that the reader compile a list of items that relate to "My Character" (such as "awesome"), "My Talents" (such as "playing trivia"), and so forth. The remaining four steps toward self-celebration are "Attack your Self-Attacks," "Make Loving Yourself a Habit," "Go for the Goal," and "Lend a Hand to Others."

Perhaps it is just this kind of literature that accounts for the presence of a large poster in the entrance hall of a suburban school, with the declaration "We applaud ourselves" surrounded by pictures of clapping hands! While the purpose of the sign might have been to help children "feel good about themselves," it does so by directing their attention inward and urging self-congratulation. The poster makes no reference to other ways of deserving applause, for example, by considering the feelings or needs of others. Many schools also feature posters listing the Citizen of the Week, Person of the Week, Super Spellers, Handwriting Honors, and similar displays that often seem to encourage showing off.

Similarly, over the principal's office in an urban elementary school a sign says, "Watch your behavior, you are on display!" While its purpose may be to encourage appropriate conduct, it does so by directing children's attention to how they appear to others rather than to any possible functions of appropriate behavior. The examples listed above exemplify a confusion between self-esteem and narcissism.

Early Childhood Practices: Narcissism versus Self-Esteem

The possibility of confusing self-esteem and narcissism is exemplified in a practice observed in a first grade class in a suburban elementary school. Each child had produced a booklet titled "All About Me," consisting of dittoed pages prepared by the teacher, on which the child had provided information about himself or herself. The first page asked for a list of basic information about the child's home and family. The second page was titled "What I like to eat," the third "What I like to watch on TV," the next "What I want for a present," another "Where I want to go on vacation," and so forth. On each page the child's attention was directed toward his or her own inner gratifications. The topic of each page in these identical booklets put the child in the role of consumer: consumer of food, entertainment, gifts, and recreation. No page was included that put the child in the role of producer, investigator, initiator, outreacher, explorer, experimenter, puzzler, wonderer, or problem solver.

In these booklets, like many others encountered around the country, no page had a title such as "What I want to know more about," or "What I am curious about," or "What I want to explore, find out, solve, figure out," or even "What I want to make." Instead of encouraging children to reach out and understand or investigate phenomena worthy of their attention, the headings of the pages turned their attention toward themselves.

A similar manifestation of practices intended to foster self-esteem but that may contribute to self-preoccupation was observed in a suburban school kindergarten. Here, displayed on a bulletin board were comments made by the morning and afternoon children about their visit to a dairy farm. Each of the forty-seven children's sentences listed on the bulletin board began with the words "I liked": "I liked the cows," "I liked the milking machine," "I liked the chicks." But there was no sentence such as "What surprised me was...," "What I am curious about is...," or "What I want know more about is...."

The children's sentences could be analyzed on many levels. But for the purposes of this discussion, they point out two characteristics of the particular teaching practice in the suburban kindergarten, namely, the tendency to encourage children's exclusive focus on gratification and the missed opportunity to encourage children's disposition to examine worthwhile phenomena around them. Surely there were features of the visit to the dairy farm that aroused some children's curiosity about the real world and that could spark some further investigations. But such responses were not in evidence and were therefore unlikely to have been appreciated and strengthened.

Another common example of practices intended to enhance self-esteem but unlikely to do so was a display of kindergartners' work consisting of nine identical, large, paper doll-like figures, each with a balloon containing a sentence stem beginning "I am special because." The sentences depicted in the display read "I am special because I can color," "...I can ride a bike," "...I like to play with my friends," "...I know how to play," and so forth. Although there is certainly value in these skills, traits, or activities, is there not some danger in stressing that children's specialness is dependent on these comparatively trivial things, rather than on more enduring skills and traits such as the ability to persist in the face of difficulty and the desire to help their classmates? The examples described above are not unusual; very similar work can be seen in many schools all over the country.

Why should children's attention be turned so insistently inward toward themselves? Can such superficial flattery boost self-esteem? Can young children's minds be intellectually engaged by such exercises? Can their dispositions to explore and investigate worthwhile topics be strengthened by such activities? Is it possible that the cumulative effect of such practices, when used frequently, is to undermine children's perceptions of their teachers as thoughtful and knowledgeable adults who are worthy of respect?

Teachers who use the "All About Me" booklets described above have expressed their belief that the intentions behind the common "All About Me" exercise is to make children "feel good about themselves" and to motivate them by beginning "where they are." However, the same intentions could be satisfied in other ways. Starting "where children are" can be accomplished by providing topics that would encourage curiosity about others and themselves, reduce emphasis on consumer activities, and at the same time strengthen the intellectual ethos of the classroom.

Indeed, starting "where the children are" can just as easily be satisfied by pooling the class data in a project entitled "All About Us." The individual data could be collected, summarized, graphed, compared, and analyzed in a variety of ways so as to minimize focusing the children's attention exclusively on themselves.

Such a project was observed in a rural British infant school several years ago. A large display on the bulletin board was titled "We Are a Class Full of Bodies." Just below the title was the heading "Here Are the Details." All the display space was taken up with bar graphs of the children's birth and current weights and heights, eye colors, numbers of lost teeth, shoe sizes, and so forth, in which the data for the whole class were pooled. As the children worked in small groups collecting information brought from home, taking measurements, preparing graphs together, and helping each other to mount displays of analyses of many individual characteristics, the teacher was able to create an ethos of a community of researchers looking for averages, trends, and ranges. This project began "where the children were" by collecting, pooling, analyzing, and displaying data derived from each child in the class. Projects such as this can foster children's self-esteem without encouraging excessive or exclusive preoccupation with self and self-gratification, and can maintain children's respect for their teachers.

Materials for Teachers

Many books and kits for teachers recommend exercises to help children "feel good about themselves." One typical example, a booklet with tear-out worksheets for easy duplication, is called Building Self-Esteem with Koala-Roo (Fendel & Ecker, 1989). One such worksheet (p. 82) is bordered by fourteen repetitions in capital letters of the phrase "YOU ARE SPECIAL!" At the top left-hand corner is a drawing of a smiling koala bear waving its left paw, holding in the other paw a heart saying, "I love you!" The heading on the page is "You Are Special." Below the heading is a line for a child's name followed by the phrase "You Are Special!" again. This is followed by "I am very glad that I have been your X grade teacher," though no space is provided for the teacher's name. This line is followed by more text, including "There's no one else quite like you," "You're one of a kind," "You're unique," and so forth.

It is doubtful whether the complete text of the page described above meets the readability index for kindergartners or first graders or other children young enough to be taken in by such excessive coddling. It would be surprising and disappointing if children old enough to read those pages could be inspired by its content. Page 81 of the same book (Fendel & Ecker, 1989) lists other materials available, such as "Can-Do Kid of the Week" certificates, "Can-Do Deliveroo" with a welcome-to-school note on it, and a "Can-Do Kid of the Week" bulletin board design.

Another example of the genre, found in an advertisement in a popular teachers' magazine, is a kit for teachers titled "Excellence in Early Childhood!" The advertisement promotes a unit of activities entitled "I am Special" for three-, four- and five-year-olds. The advertisement lists a kit that includes a Student Activity Book filled with colorful hands-on projects and illustrated stories, and a Teacher Guide for twenty-nine lesson plans, stories, finger plays, and so forth, designed to promote "feeling good about oneself." In answer to the question "What Will Children Learn from the 'I am Special' kit?" the advertisement claims that they "become aware that they are created in a very special and unique way" and "see themselves as good and worthwhile individuals." These illustrations are simply two examples among many (see also Borba & Borba, 1978; Hamilton & Flemming, 1990). Many similar teaching aids in early childhood classrooms all over the United States have been observed.

The concept of specialness expressed in these activities seems, by definition, self-contradictory: if everyone is special, nobody is special. Furthermore, frequent feedback about how special one is might even raise some doubt along the lines of "Me thinks thou dost protest too much!" While each individual may indeed be unique, we surely want to cultivate in children the view that, while we are unique in some respects, we also have a great deal in common.

Another common practice which some educators believe helps support children's self-esteem is "Show and Tell." It is not clear, however, whether this common feature of early childhood programs (sometimes referred to as "bring and brag") does as much to enhance self-esteem as it does to encourage children to be unduly concerned about the impressions they make on others, and to engage in one-upmanship. Many early childhood specialists justify the practice on the grounds that it provides children with an opportunity to practice an early form of public speaking and thereby to strengthen their verbal expressive skills. Some teachers also hope that children will sharpen their listening skills as they attend to the showing and telling by their peers. However, it is not clear what happens to children who feel that what they have to show and tell cannot compete with their peers' contributions. Furthermore, observations of many such group sessions suggest that more than a few of the children seem to be learning to tune out their peers rather than listen to them. There are other more meaningful and intellectually defensible ways that children can speak to groups of their peers. For example, children can report the discoveries, ideas, and experiences derived from their own efforts and real accomplishments to groups of peers and parents (see Katz & Chard, 1989).

The trend toward excessive emphasis on self-esteem and self-congratulation described above may be due to a general desire to correct earlier traditions of eschewing complimenting children for fear of making them conceited. However, the current practices described above seem to be overcorrections of such traditions. The argument presented in this essay, that the practices intended to strengthen children's self-esteem may inadvertently foster narcissism, is explored below with a brief discussion of the meanings of these two terms.


Continue to Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism.

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