One-Minute Book Reviews

February 4, 2009

The Book That Started the Backlash Against Self-Esteem as a Cure-All for Children’s Woes – William Damon’s ‘Greater Expectations’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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Greater Expectations was one of the three or four best books about children that I reviewed in my 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and it’s the one I’ve recommended most often to parents. This trailblazing indictment of many popular educational theories was among the earliest to expose the myth that raising children’s self-esteem leads to higher achievement in school and elsewhere.

The arguments in Greater Expectations: Nurturing the Moral Child (Free Press, 304 pp., $20.95) are powerful in their own right. They have all the more force because they come from one of the nation’s most distinguished educators: William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University and editor-in-chief of the latest edition of The Handbook of Child Psychology.

Damon maintains that something has gone badly wrong in “the passing of essential standards between the generations.” Children at all levels of society grow up in an unwholesome atmosphere that goes beyond drugs, violence and similar woes: It involves a focus on the self and a devaluation of spirituality and faith. Damon blames part of this on influential childrearing experts such as David Elkind and Penelope Leach, whose approaches may encourage adults to infantilize children on the pretext of protecting them.

One of the Damon’s main contributions is that he documents painstakingly the lack of a connection between high self-esteem and high-achievement. Researchers have tried many times to link the two but “have not even provided convincing correlational data,” let alone causal links. Quite the opposite: High-self esteem doesn’t lead to high achievement but high achievement may increase self-esteem. Developing either, Damon says, is a slow process:

“There are no easy shortcuts to this. The child cannot be quickly inoculated with self-confidence through facile phrases such as ‘I’m great’ or ‘I’m terrific.’”

If there’s no evidence that self-esteem fosters academic success, why have school systems thrown so much money at programs that claim to build it? Damon deals with that, too. And his reasoning no doubt has helped to fuel the recent and overdue backlash against the self-esteem frenzy, so that many psychologists now urge adults to focus on giving children sincere and thoughtful praise, not cheerleading for trivial efforts. Some parents may see the new moderation as too late, given how much money schools have squandered on programs of no proven value. If so, it’s only the common sense that has arrived belatedly. First published in 1995, Greater Expectations was – and, in some ways, still is – ahead of its time.

This is the third of the daily posts this week about some of my favorite books. Monday’s post dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title and Tuesday’s with Middlemarch.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. If you haven’t already seen it, you might also enjoy this article from The New Yorker: “The Child Trap: The Rise of Over-parenting.”

    Comment by sarahsk — February 5, 2009 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

    • What a great link. I hadn’t seen the New Yorker article until you pointed it out but recommend it to anyone looking for related reading on the issues raised in Greater Expectations. Bet Damon is in the end notes for some of the books mentioned in “The Child Trap.”

      In the New Yorker article, Joan Acocella raises many good questions about overparenting (and deals well with the obvious issue: Is it really so harmful?). Her comments struck me as every fair and even-handed. When she quotes that Harvard professor as saying that the baby-video industry is a scam, she could have carried the argument even further and noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that children under two shouldn’t have any “screen time” at all (whether it involves watching TV or those “Baby Einstein” DVDs or anything else).

      I’m really interested in topics like these because they relate directly to reading: Screen time, alas, so often takes the place of time with books. Thanks so much for directing me to such a good resource.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 6, 2009 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  2. I came across William Damon via his co-authorship of the book “Good Work”. At the time my daughter was born in UK the top child care advice, at least for middle class parents, was from Miriam Stoppard though I also retained fondness for Penelope Leach from her earlier books.

    I guess that the ‘gurus’ in any arena as important as child rearing have much more influence these days as the families spread around and young people do not have the same level of benefit of advice and help from their family and elders. The whole business of pressure to achieve gets into early stages and becomes a sort of competition- I was guilty of putting up the word cards in my daughter’s cot and having her look at them as soon as she could sit up!

    She spent little time with television and much more reading, starting with Baby Ben and Alfie books. As long as there was something naughty going on she was happy! The love of books carried on as she learnt to read before starting school. In fact, encountering slow process of teaching to read first phonetically meant deliberately slowing her down. Since I learn English as a second language the whole ‘phonetics’ process was a new thing for me.

    I should mention that my husband comes from a family of famous psychologists, with late Prof Hans Eysenck being his father. However, he never offered any ‘hot housing’ advice, on the contrary he treated my daughter’s views from an early age with great respect and they had some long arguments about books and ideas when she was only 8 or 9 years old.

    I guess my main gist is that rather than obsessing about the self-esteem it is much more important to build thinking capabilities of children along with their capacity to live and be happy in their daily environment among peers and family. That TV, DVDs and computer games now play a large part of their day is an ever increasing challenge- one we did not have to deal with until she had already developed a deep love for books which never left her!

    Comment by Lilly — February 6, 2009 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

    • Your point at the end — about how important it is to build thinking capacities — goes straight to the heart of this issue and Damon’s book. So much of the focus in U.S. education right now is on making kids feel good about themselves (as opposed to enabling them to think clearly). But Damon’s point is, in part, that they can’t feel good if they don’t have basic skills. And many of the exercises now done in schools (such as encouraging children to list the reasons why they’re terrific) won’t achieve the desired results if students can see clearly that they’re not terrific in some ways. For me, the ideal is balance: You want children to feel good about themselves but also to have all the skills they need to thrive.

      I also wanted to ask: When you mentioned Alfie and Baby Ben, are you talking about Shirley Hughes’s books? Her Alfie and Annie Rose series was very popular here for a while, but I couldn’t find anything listed on Amazon or elsewhere about a Baby Ben. I love Hughes’s books and said so regularly in print when I was at the Plain Dealer. But I’ve done little or nothing with them on One-Minute Book Reviews because many are harder to find here now. You may inspire me, though, because she is terrific: Her art is wonderful in a very natural and not self-consciously “arty” way, as the illustrations are in so many American picture books (which, you often sense are pitched more to parents than to kids). I just checked Amazon and saw that one of Hughes’s books that is still available here is The Alfie and Annie Rose Storybook.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 6, 2009 @ 5:47 pm | Reply

  3. Screen time, alas, so often takes the place of time with books. Thanks so much for directing me to such a good resource.

    Glad you liked it, Jan. It’s so hard to know what’s worthwhile and what’s detrimental for kids when there is so much conflicting information out there (and probably conflicting motivations for promoting each thing).

    Comment by sarahsk — February 6, 2009 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

    • “Conflicting motivations”? Yes! Many commentators on, for example, FOX news have made some of the points made by Damon, such as that children are growing up in an “unwholesome” atmosphere.

      But the pundits are so often promoting a political stance. One of the things I like about Damon’s book is that he is very careful to back up his points with research. You have the sense that he wanted to set the record straight (about what self-esteem does and doesn’t do) more than to achieve political goal.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 6, 2009 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

  4. I just heard rather horrifying, in the sense of what is appropriate at what age, story re LA nursery school for celebrity kids at election time late last year. Apparently they asked 3year olds to vote for either Obama or McCain. Ana Friel, Uk actress whose daughter attends the school, explained that her husband had to provide the context for their daughter that would make sense to her. So, he compared them to Kings and so the little girl said she preferred the ‘King with white hair’! father tried to influence her otherwise. In the end, the school ran ‘elections’ for kids on the day and sent the parents an email with results- every kid opted for a candidate except her daughter who was ‘undecided’! So, what are these kids actually learning?

    Yes, it was Shirley Hughes’s books. And we also loved Alan and Janet Ahlberg, especially The Jolly Postman! It was the first book with such clever little inset letters that all referred to fairy story characters, so encouraged reading them.

    When it comes to books for competent readers from 7+, Louisa May Alcott was a great favourite as was Lucy Maud Montgomery. Later on, Nancy Drew series and everything by Judy Blume. All are action packed and do not hide the harder side of life.

    Comment by Lilly — February 6, 2009 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

    • Don’t you admire that girl for voting “undecided”? It almost seems the only appropriate response at that age.

      I also like the Ahlbergs books and have recommended The Jolly Postman in this space. Alan might actually have just come out with a new one. Your suggestions are all so good.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 6, 2009 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

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