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.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.