You know all those parenting manuals that say that you can build children’s self-esteem by piling on praise like, “You’re special”? And how a lot of schools apply the advice by assigning essays on topics like, “I’m special because …” If U.S. News & World Report is right, some people might want to ask for refunds from the boards of education that have used tax dollars to pay for such projects. Telling kids “You’re special” fosters narcissism, not self esteem, Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State and the author of Generation Me (Free Press, 2007), says in the magazine. U.S. News also says that you’re squandering your praise if you keeping telling the kids, “Good job!” If the magazine is right on that one, many parents deserve additional refunds from the publishers of the waves of books on child-rearing that have been promoting that phrase for years.
July 15, 2009
April 25, 2009
Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament
Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.
By Janice Harayda
Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:
“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”
That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.
So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.
Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.
Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”
Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”
Published: February 2009
Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool. Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.
About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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’
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.