Why Not Fail?: Children, Grades and Self-Esteem Some British schools want to erase "Failure" off report cards -- in favor of "deferred success." The idea is to spare the self-esteem of struggling or indifferent students. But is a good self-image the product of praise or real achievement? Neal Conan and guests discuss what really builds self-esteem in children.
NPR logo

Why Not Fail?: Children, Grades and Self-Esteem

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4783882/4783883" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why Not Fail?: Children, Grades and Self-Esteem

Why Not Fail?: Children, Grades and Self-Esteem

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4783882/4783883" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our image of British elementary schools--itchy school uniforms, intense bullying, headmasters of terrifying strictness--was more than a little out of date. Even so it's a little surprising to learn that recently, some in Britain took a serious look at a proposal to eliminate failing grades from report cards. The proposed alternate term was `deferred success.' The idea that children shouldn't be told that they failed at anything represents one side of an ongoing debate over self-esteem. Does a positive self-image translate to a happier, healthier and more successful life? Is it borne of praise and acceptance or actual achievement earned at the risk of failure? The tug-of-war plays out in many arenas: scoreless soccer games vs. hypercompetitive spelling bees; deferred success in Britain, an end to social promotion in the United States. What does it mean for the children who grow up under these different philosophies, and how much of a difference does it make to the adults they become?

Later in the program, the life and death of rock guitar god Jimi Hendrix. A new biography is out called "Room Full of Mirrors." But now positive self-image: What it actually means in a person's life and different strategies for building it at home and at school. We'd like to hear from you. Can self-esteem be nurtured, or must it be earned? How do you balance the two? What experiences built or reduced your self-image as a kid? Is failure an option? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us to talk about the latest research on the subject is Jennifer Crocker. She's a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. She's been researching the topic for over 20 years, and she's with us from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Professor JENNIFER CROCKER (University of Michigan): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Is there a definition of self-esteem that social scientists agree on?

Prof. CROCKER: Well, I think the very simple definition of self-esteem is that it's a belief or judgment about the worth or value of the self. So just an overall sense that `I'm a person of worth, I'm a person with value.'

CONAN: How does it relate to the, I guess, older-fashioned concept of character?

Prof. CROCKER: Oh, well, character is usually considered to be virtues like perseverance or morality...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CROCKER: ...and self-esteem might be based on those things or it might be quite independent of those. So it's not clear that people with high self-esteem necessarily have character in that old-fashioned sense.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And similarly, is it clear that people who have discipline, perseverance, good moral values have high self-esteem?

Prof. CROCKER: Not necessarily, no. They're really pretty independent constructs.


Prof. CROCKER: So...

CONAN: There's been a lot of disagreement about self-esteem over the years. Can you briefly recount a decade or so of debates?

Prof. CROCKER: Yeah. Self-esteem research really burgeoned in the 1960s when standard ways of measuring self-esteem were developed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CROCKER: And very quickly, psychologists began to ask: `What are the benefits of self-esteem? What's it associated with?' And we know for sure it's related to having more positive emotions; people with high self-esteem are more happier, they're more satisfied with their lives.

But psychologists began to think that self-esteem might have benefits that go far beyond that, that kids with high self-esteem might do better in school, be less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, be less likely to get pregnant as teen-agers and so on. So interest quickly shifted to this idea that self-esteem might actually--high self-esteem might actually prevent people from having all these problems later in life.

CONAN: And did that prove to be the case?

Prof. CROCKER: Well, it has turned out not to be the case. So the idea that high self-esteem actually causes people to be more successful in their life or that low self-esteem is the cause of problems like drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy and poor school achievement, the evidence is just very, very thin for that kind of argument. The associations are very weak and we don't know for sure whether high self-esteem cause a little bit of improvement in school achievement or better school achievement actually causes high self-esteem.

CONAN: So let me just go back on that just a little bit.

Prof. CROCKER: Yeah.

CONAN: I mean, if you have high self-esteem, you're happier, but you could be satisfied with just average grades.

Prof. CROCKER: That's right. So high self-esteem people sometimes maintain their high self-esteem by blaming other people, by saying, `I just don't care whether I succeed in that area.' So there are a lot of things people can do to maintain and sustain a sense of their own self-worth that aren't necessarily going to promote success.

CONAN: And similarly on the other side, high-achievers can be driven to some degree by maybe low self-esteem.

Prof. CROCKER: Absolutely. So many people who work extremely hard and are simply trying to prove something about themselves because they harbor doubts about their own worth.

CONAN: Is self-esteem something that we are born with, or something that is nurtured?

Prof. CROCKER: It's probably some of both. There's some evidence of a genetic basis of self-esteem, although it might be more of a genetic tendency to experience positive emotions more generally. So that's clearly part of the story.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CROCKER: But we also know that self-esteem is related to parent child-rearing techniques. For example, kids with secure attachment styles who believe that their caregivers will be there for them reliably tend to have high self-esteem. So there are those early effects on self-esteem and then there are experiences throughout life that can shape people's self-esteem. So losing a job can hurt your self-esteem.

CONAN: We are talking about that very concept today, self-esteem, and the continuing debates over it. If you'd like to join the conversation today, our number is (800) 989-8255, and the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And I wanted to begin with an e-mail we got from Marshall Scott in Kansas City: `I remember growing up that some parents never praised their children, believing their children would develop inappropriate pride. Some based that in religious values. On the other hand, I've seen in my own children's lives that children praised without meaningful accomplishment come to distrust the praise they receive. Sometimes I think we're doomed to poor self-esteem either way.'

Prof. CROCKER: I think that's right. In a way, both of those are the flip side of the same coin. So when you praise kids for not really accomplishing anything, or you're afraid to give them failure feedback, you're communicating the message that failure's unacceptable. So in a way, that's just as bad as never praising them, saying `You're never good enough.'

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get some callers on the line. Here's a caller, Kelly. Kelly's with us from Cleveland.

KELLY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

KELLY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

KELLY: I just wanted to say that I certainly agree with your guest today and certainly agree with the topic that academic achievement isn't tied with self-esteem. I was--when I was in high school, I was the valedictorian. I recently graduated from a good university magna cum laude, and I certainly was driven to my academic success through low self-esteem. I was--you know, I struggled with a lot of depression and self-injury issues when I was in college and high school, and it's only now that I'm out and not really struggling with academics that I've found self-esteem. And I think that it's really important not to put--you know, put academics and self-esteem together.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Was it a struggle with academics, or a struggle with high school?

KELLY: Excuse me?

CONAN: Was it a struggle with academics, or was it a struggle with the social situation there in high school?

KELLY: It wasn't really--it was academics that I really pushed for. I really pushed for my academics. I did have--you know, I went to a small school and I wasn't exactly, you know, the popular girl, but I made academics my life and I made, you know, getting good grades and being the valedictorian and all that stuff and going to a good school on a full ride my goal and kind of ignored who I really was as a person.

CONAN: Hmm. I wonder, is--do we tend to measure ourselves by objective standards, like Kelly was talking about, by her grades, or is there more subjective judgment involved in determining our self-esteem?

KELLY: Well...

Prof. CROCKER: Almost...

KELLY: OK. I'm sorry.

Prof. CROCKER: Sorry.

CONAN: No, why don't you go ahead.

Prof. CROCKER: Are you talking to me now, Jenny?

CONAN: Yeah, Jennifer. Go ahead.

Prof. CROCKER: Yes. OK. So it's almost impossible to evaluate yourself according to objective standards without having some basis of comparison. So even grades and when you're valedictorian, those are objectively good grades, but it also means you're better than everybody else in your class.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CROCKER: So these subjective comparisons are very important in how we evaluate ourselves.

CONAN: Kelly, did you want to weigh in?

KELLY: Oh, yeah. I just want to say I agree with that.


KELLY: I really do.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

KELLY: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: And let's get another voice in on the conversation. How a person's self-esteem operates in the everyday world is complex. There are outside influence, uncontrollable factors. As you get older, it gets harder to change. With us now to discuss these is Thomas Phelan, the author of several books on children development; the latest is "Self-Esteem Revolutions in Children." And he's with us from our bureau in Chicago.

Nice of you to join us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. THOMAS PHELAN (Author, "Self-Esteem Revolutions in Children"): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Where does self-esteem come from?

Mr. PHELAN: Well, I think, you know, life is complex and I see self-esteem as really reflecting that complexity. And I think we should talk about self-esteems, plural, instead of just self-esteem.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHELAN: As your conversation has mentioned a couple of times, I think there's a social part to it, which you were just talking to the last caller about. I think there is a competence part to it, which for kids is often academic and school related.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHELAN: I think there's also a physical part to it, which a lot of people don't like to talk about, which has to do with physical appearance, possessions, kind of the materialistic part of self-esteem. And then I think there's another thing that you've mentioned and that's character and your ability to follow the rules, to be courageous, to confront anxiety, to persevere and to be concerned for other people. So I think what you find is that we all have what you might call a self-esteem profile. Some people are good in all four areas, some are good in a couple and not so hot in a couple, as the caller was. I think she said, `Socially, I felt like I had a hole in my self-esteem, but academically I tried to make up for that and it didn't totally work.'

CONAN: Hmm. Well, sometimes those things can get in the way of each other. But I wonder, Jennifer Crocker, do you think self-esteem can be worked on and improved as many advice books will say?

Prof. CROCKER: I think people can improve their self-esteem, but ironically, I think it happens most when you don't work on your self-esteem directly but try to--well, let me back up and say I think that people often think that if they could raise their self-esteem, it would solve their problems, that there are things they can't do or are afraid to do because they lack self-esteem. And if only they had self-esteem, then they would be able to do what it is they really want to do with their lives.


Prof. CROCKER: And instead of that, I think it's much more likely to be the case that if people are really acting on their goals, they will ultimately derive a sense of self-worth from that.

CONAN: Hmm. Jennifer Crocker, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.


CONAN: Jennifer Crocker, a professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She was with us from the studios of member station WUOM there in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When we come back from a short break, we'll continue our conversation about self-esteem and the sometimes contradictory strategies to build it in children. With your kids, do you emphasize praise no matter how well they do, or do you find a value in failure as well? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan, back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about self-image and whether the common assumption that a good one is necessary for a successful life is actually correct. You're invited to join the conversation. Are you parenting your child with his or her self-esteem in mind? Do you think it's made a difference in their lives? How so? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org. Our guest is Thomas Phelan, author of "Self-Esteem Revolutions in Children."

And, Thomas Phelan, what are the consequences of low self-esteem, and what are the benefits of high self-esteem?

Mr. PHELAN: Well, high self-esteem--you've got to keep in mind, you want high

self-esteem to be realistic high self-esteem. There are a lot of people otherwise known as sociopaths who have very high self-esteem, but their personalities are quite abrasive, they're overly aggressive and on. So if we want high, realistic, positive self-esteem, I think that is a byproduct of a life well lived. And so if you're a parent or if you're an adult, I think--and you want to have high self-esteem, as Jennifer was saying, I really think it's true: You don't focus on self-esteem so much; you focus on living your life well, doing good in school, getting along with people, you know, following the rules and so on.

Low self-esteem is an interesting thing. There used to be a syndrome a number of years ago called the imposter phenomenon, and that described a person who was doing very well in life but they always evaluated themselves negatively. And it's kind of like Avis, `We're number two, we try harder.' A lot of people's low self-esteem actually benefit from that because they are more successful, they get along better with other people. Internally, they suffer a lot, but for the rest of the world, they're often a boon to humanity. I always tell employers if you're going to hire somebody, don't hire somebody with too high self-esteem; you might consider hiring somebody with too low self-esteem.

CONAN: Yeah. There are a lot of people who are objectively very successful in life but who feel that, `Well, if I can do it, it can't be hard.'

Mr. PHELAN: That's right. And at the end of the day, they've done well again and they've put themselves down. And I tell you something, these people are a psychotherapist's dream because they're just wonderful patients. So...

CONAN: They're also successful so they can pay for it.

Mr. PHELAN: Yeah, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PHELAN: There are many reasons. But they are good patients. They work hard, they're easy to work with, they're good listeners and so on. And it's just--it's also a lot of fun for--being a psychotherapist to see them gradually realize how good they are, assuming that they are.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Angie Lawless(ph): `As opposed to never telling children they failed at anything, help them to understand that failure is not disgraceful and is not the end of the world. It's an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and do better the next time. Everyone fails, and failure is actually crucial to success. However, our society has no tolerance for failure, and this is exceedingly detrimental to the self-esteem of individuals. How we learn to process failure or criticism will affect our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.' What do you think of that?

Mr. PHELAN: I think that's true. I think--if a kid messes up, you should tell them that they mess up. There's an old story about a teacher who was one of these `Don't let them fail' things and she was teaching a geography class to her fifth grade and she said to the class, `Class, what's the capital of Egypt?' And one little boy raised his hand and he said, `Mississippi.' And the teacher said, `That's the correct answer to another question.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PHELAN: An adroit sidestepping of the issue. What she should have said was, `Wrong.'

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ishmael(ph), Ishmael calling from Sacramento.

ISHMAEL (Caller): Yeah. Hey, Neal.


ISHMAEL: I had a question. Just to what extent do physical characteristics such as beauty have on self-esteem? And I guess I can take my questions or comments off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call. Thomas Phelan, you were talking about that a couple of minutes ago.

Mr. PHELAN: I knew somebody would ask this question. This is one of the touchy one about self-esteem, the thing about the materialistic or the appearance. It does have an effect on self-esteem, there's no doubt about it. It's one of those four parts that I was talking about before. You will find a lot of people, you know, if they are--just happen to be good-looking, this is one of the things where luck will affect your self-esteem. But you want to keep in mind it's only one out of the four, and it's funny because a lot of people--they may be good-looking, but they don't do well in school and they don't have any friends and their character stinks. Their self-esteem is still going to have a lot of problems with it.

You also have people who are quite physically attractive but they have a little bit of this imposter thing we were just talking about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHELAN: And, you know, everybody else thinks they're really good-looking, but they think that their ears are just a little bit too big, their nose sticks out a little too much and they can't appreciate what they have.

CONAN: Or something like acne, which comes up a lot of adolescence.

Mr. PHELAN: Sure.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's go now to Christopher, Christopher calling from Portland.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hi, there.


CHRISTOPHER: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRISTOPHER: I had a comment about growing up gay and how that affected your self-esteem knowing that you were different and how society has, you know, really chastised children and there's a high suicide rate for homosexual kids and just how it's affected their self-esteem growing up and you really don't catch up with that until later in life.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thomas Phelan.

Mr. PHELAN: Yeah. Growing up gay--I mean, you think about it, a lot of people kind of go through their sexual awakening when they're getting into the adolescent years. And teen-agers want to be normal, which means like everybody else. Well, imagine that all of a sudden you realize, as you're sexually awakening, that you're attracted to the same sex. Well, that's not normal and it's a real shock to a lot of people, and society still has a lot of mixed feelings about it. There is--as the caller said, there's a lot more depression, anxiety, suicide risk is harder in people that are gay. And a lot of people--you know, they argue about what's the percentage of the population that experiences that and it might be quite significant. Some people say if you include, you know, heterosexual and bisexual, it may be over 10 percent. That's a lot of people.

CONAN: Christopher, obviously, you know, thanks for the call.


CONAN: But I wanted to ask you--continue Thomas Phelan, obviously being gay is very distinctive, but nevertheless doesn't every kid growing up thinking they're different for some reason?

Mr. PHELAN: I think most people--yeah, if you ask people, you know, `What's the most different thing about you?' I think everybody will have something to say. And that brings up another interesting point is: Doesn't everybody really feel, deep in their heart, that they have some significant hole in their self-esteem?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHELAN: And I think they do. I--you know, and the reason I say that is because from the outside, you look at everybody else, they look kind of confident like they're, you know, moseying through life and they're not having too much trouble. Well, you don't know what's going on inside them. And the more--I think maybe being a psychotherapist had something to do with this, although people don't come to tell you how happy they are, but I think as you get to know people, even your friends, you find out that everybody has gone through some significant self-esteem trial, I think.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller in. This is Don, Don calling from Detroit.

DON (Caller): Ah, yeah. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DON: I'd like to comment on sports and the role of teaching kids that their self-worth and all that. My son and daughter both were involved in sports, and at one time or another when they were younger, they wanted to quit at the beginning of the season. And it was one thing we never allowed was once you started into something, you completed it, and that taught them perseverance, which increased their character and also increased their self-worth is the way we looked at it. And both of them are very well-adjusted children.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHELAN: I think sports can be a wonderful thing for kids. In my framework I was talking about before, it involves both the physical part of your life as well as the character part, which means the effort and the courage and so on. My daughter, when she was in high school, went out for cross-country. And my daughter was not really a cross-country runner, and I said, `Why are you doing this?' And she said, `My goal was to never come in last.' And she never did and she was part of the team and there was some character building in that. But I think sports can really be helpful.

And sports also has this aspect of self-esteem that people don't like to talk about, but I think Jennifer mentioned it before, that is self-esteem is partly competitive. You can't tell your kids not to compare yourself to other kids or to other people, you know. That's what sports is about. If my team plays your team, we win, you lose. We feel good; you feel bad.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DON: Beginning when he was five years old, my son played baseball. And it was, `Don't keep track of the score. Don't keep track of the score.' The kids all knew the score.

Mr. PHELAN: Right.

DON: The parents didn't have to keep score.

Mr. PHELAN: No, that's ridiculous.

DON: Exactly.

CONAN: But games in particular, baseball--the greatest hitter fails seven times out of 10.

DON: Exactly.

CONAN: The greatest teams will lose 60 games a year.

Mr. PHELAN: That's right. And I think that's--you know, one of the things about growing up--and, Neal, it's what you were saying before about the--should we tell kids about their failures. You need to know about your failures and that makes you feel bad. And guess what? That's a motivator. What's it a motivator for? So you don't feel like that again, so you try harder the next time.

CONAN: Hmm. Don, thanks very much.

DON: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Thomas Phelan, thank you for your time today.

Mr. PHELAN: Thank you. Nice talking to you.

CONAN: Thomas Phelan is a clinical psychologist and author. His latest book is called "Self-Esteem Revolutions in Children." He was with us from our bureau in Chicago.

Outside of the home, teachers and schools are major battlefields for self-esteem philosophy, and we turn now to Michele Borba, an educator and author of "Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me." She joins us from the studios of member station KPBS in San Diego.

Thanks for being with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. MICHELE BORBA (Author, "Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me"): Oh, you're so welcome, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: How long have self-esteem programs been used in schools?

Ms. BORBA: They really started in about the 1960s, when teachers began to get wind that they were concerned about numbers of kids coming in who they perceived to have low self-esteem, not taking a risk or feeling as they were such a failure they weren't willing to try. And what they were looking for was an approach to help them develop--what they really wanted was an internally motivated kid. Someplace, though, along the way, Neal, I think we got lost into it by giving it too much of a `pump me up' approach or the vacuum--you know, the sticker, star approach. When--there's now been a backlash and teachers realize number one is it needs to be earned and deserved. I think we're right on board on that one. Number two, that--we really need to make sure that we create most of all, Neal, the conditions in a school or in a home that will nurture self-esteem. And we know that that is now something we can do. You can't teach self-esteem, but you can create the conditions, and you can also teach specific skills so kids can do this wonderful thing called bounce back when they do fail, which is going to be part of life.

CONAN: I'm wondering if--well, here's an e-mail that we got; this from John Santini(ph), I think is his name: `As a teacher, I got an incoming student from an Arizona private school, and his grading system was A, B, C, D and NY: not yet. Accurate, but hopeful.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BORBA: You know, one of the things I think we have to realize is we're not dealing with kids with low self-esteem here, thinking that--they're also very smart. So it doesn't make any difference if you use a green pen or a purple pen or an NY or an F; kids still get it and can interpret it one way or the other. What you really want kids to be able to do is figure out the `How do you cope with it?' and `How can you get back on board so you can become a better human being?'

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Bob, Bob calling from Kansas City.

BOB (Caller): Hello there.


BOB: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BOB: You have a great show.

CONAN: Thank you.

BOB: I taught senior high school in Kansas City, Kansas, at partly inner-city and partly upper urban kids that went to it. And most of them came to class in the junior and the senior level, and probably read at the fifth-grade level, or I figured out they had finally learned they didn't have to work for a grade. I stuck with them for the whole year. The first two grading periods were pretty disastrous. After that, it began to improve, and you could see the self-esteem appear in their eyes. Their pride was worth looking at. I had very, very, very few failures, but we finally got the word from what we call the ivory tower there were too many old, white and--get this--men teachers who wouldn't change. The kids I had learned a great deal, and most of them have done well, that I know of. I believe in promoting self-esteem.

CONAN: Yeah. Michele Borba, is that the experience that went on, do you think, at many schools?

BOB: Oh...

Ms. BORBA: I--well, I love what Bob just said, because I think that's the most wonderful way to create self-esteem, is earned, deserved. And one of the things I think we did a little while back--you know, maybe, mm, about 20 years ago--is we thought that watering down our expectations would do justice to our children, and it certainly did not. I always tell a parent, though, you think of it like a rubber band. Your goal is to stretch your child and keep stretching them to be the best they can be, but your goal is to stretch them gently along the way, without snapping it, which means your expectations are always met with what were you currently--you know, what were you previously able to do--like Bob just mentioned, they started at the fifth-grade level--but you keep stretching and knowing that's where you start, and keep working your way up until you finally said, `I did it on my own.' That's the true point of the whole thing in self-esteem.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call.

BOB: It is good reward. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

We're talking about self-esteem, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail we got from Aaron Barnes(ph), band director. Ooh. Hmm. I'm not going to read that, for--he has--anyway...

Let's go to another call. Let's go to Dave, Dave calling from Erie, Colorado.

DAVE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

DAVE: I had a son who was in special ed during the '70s and also went to a private learning center to help him along, and it seemed the focus was on--everything was `We have to build his self-esteem. We have to build up his self-esteem.' So every little thing that he did was just bowled over with encouragement and it was the greatest thing in the world, and it seemed like it built a false sense of esteem in him, and he has gotten to the point where he can't take any kind of criticism, and anybody who praises--excuse me--him, tell--you know, acts kindly and friendly towards him, he gets drawn right into a lot of false relationships with people. And it seemed like it really stunted his social development, you know, rather than helping it.

CONAN: Hmm. Is it--is this specifically worse for kids with developmental problems, Michele?

Ms. BORBA: Yes. I was a special education teacher for years, and it is, because you're so aware of--you're comparing yourself to other children. You realize it's not easy for you. And I think the story he just mentioned is so right on. If we can think of self-esteem as a balance--and here's, I think, where the misconception went. It's--for so long, we looked at self-esteem as just a one-sided approach of making the child feel good and make him feel worthy. We now know that true self-esteem is an actual balance between two sides, one of which is helping a child feel that they're a worthy, valuable, significant human being, which is the approach that parents--the teacher was doing for the child there, but they forgot that there's another side to it, and that's also helping a child to feel confident to cope with life. That's the academic side. That's also the ability to help handle failure, to be able to bounce back, to get that resilience notion.

So if you think of a plane landing at night and there are two lights on both sides of that runway, and you're balancing those two elements, therefore, you're doing a darn good job in terms of your parenting because you're running in right there smooth in your landing. And that's the best approach we have to helping the child become adjusted in the real world without us, which is the only job--barometer that you're doing a good job of parenting: Your kid can survive without you, without pumping them up, making them feel good. They need to be able to thrive without us.

And we're seeing something that's kind of an interesting trend. Freshman year in college--fascinating new book came out that was actually published by Harvard, saying that they'd never seen no many kids who cannot cope with life but are also some of the smartest kids they've ever seen.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call.

DAVE: I just--one quick comment. It's...

CONAN: I'm afraid we don't have time for it, Dave. The break is just crushing us.

Michele Borba, thank you for your time today.

Ms. BORBA: You're so welcome.

CONAN: Michele Borba's latest book is "Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me." She was with us from KPBS in San Diego.

When we get back from the break, the life and death of Jimi Hendrix. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.