Self-Esteem or Grit - Which is Better for Success?

Boy winning a race
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When I was growing up, we rode our bikes without wearing a helmet. We hung upside down on monkey bars in the playground, we spun around as fast as we could on the merry-go-round at the park, and we went as high as we could on the swings, often jumping off when we reached the heights. Most of us fell off our bike more than once and got the wind knocked out of us. We also flew off the merry-go-round or slid across the dirt after jumping off the swings, ending up with bloody knees, and more than one kid in our school fell off the monkey bars and got hurt, one even breaking an arm.

These days it can be hard to find a playground or park with a merry-go-round or monkey bars. Many are even getting rid of swing sets, the soft cork that replaced the hard dirt apparently not enough to protect children from injuries. And before going out for a bike ride, kids need to "suit up." It's not enough to wear just a helmet. Knee pads are needed too. We could argue that we need to keep children safe from physical harm, but we might also argue that we are being overprotective. Accidents happen and it's impossible to protect children from every potential accident.

It's not just physical pain we try to protect our children from either. We also try to shield them from emotional pain. It hurts to see our child in pain, whether it's physical or emotional, but is it really good for our children to live a pain-free life?

The Importance of Positive Self-Esteem and the Self-Esteem Movement

Unquestionably, a positive self-esteem is beneficial.

The benefits of a positive self-esteem include greater happiness, more optimism, greater emotional security, and a greater ability to overcome adversity than those with a more negative self-esteem. It is no surprise, then, that we saw the rise of the self-esteem movement in the 1980s. If a positive self-esteem is so beneficial, then we should focus on ensuring that our children have one.

This movement had an effect on parenting at home and teaching at school. Children needed to be praised and nothing should be done that might make a child feel bad since that could damage a her self-esteem.

The self-esteem movement led to the elimination of awards or more likely, awards given not to winners, but to everyone who participated in an event. These were events rather than competitions because the word "competition" suggests that children were being compared to one another and some children would have to lose in order for someone to win. Losing makes kids feel bad, and as the thinking goes, hurts their self-esteem. According to the advocates of the self-esteem movement, it's much better to give every child an award for participating in the event rather than give one award to a winner, making all the "losers" feel bad.

Unfortunately, having children repeat mantras on how wonderful they are and sheltering them from hurt feelings are not the ways a healthy self-esteem develops. In fact, evidence suggests that the self-esteem movement has had negative effects.

The kind of self-esteem that comes from those mantras and protection from pain can lead to children not putting much effort into their work. They know that they are going to be praised no matter what they do and that praise becomes meaningless. And the irony of it all is that the self-esteem movement doesn't do what it was intended to do. Kay Hymowitz, in an article from the Wall Street Journal, noted that the 15,000 studies done on self-esteem show that "high self-esteem doesn't improve grades, reduce antisocial behavior, deter alcohol drinking, or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive."

The Greater Importance of Self-Efficacy

If the praise and sheltering from hurt feelings recommended by the self-esteem movement doesn't do any good for kids, what does? Accomplishment. Children who master new skills or reach a goal will feel a sense of accomplishment and as a result will feel pride and develop positive self-esteem. Of course, success doesn't always come easily and sometimes a desired goal may be impossible to reach. For example, a young man who is only 5' 2" is unlikely to become a basketball star. But that doesn't mean that the young man doesn't have skills in other areas.

Before the self-esteem movement took hold, children were encouraged to find their areas of strength and understand that we all have both strengths and weaknesses. Failure to succeed in one area did not mean the child was a failure as a human being. There was no need to dole out participation awards to every child. This doesn't mean that children weren't encouraged work hard to succeed. It was quite the opposite. Children were taught that success is the result of effort and hard work.

While a positive self-esteem is good to have, what we want our children to develop is a strong sense of self-efficacy. What is self-efficacy? Simply put, it is a kind of self-confidence. It is the belief one has that he or she can succeed in reaching a goal or accomplishing a task. When a child has a strong sense of self-efficacy, she is more likely to accept challenges and recover quickly from disappointments.

True Grit

A positive self-esteem will come from a sense of accomplishment and accomplishment comes from hard work and persistence. Children who give up are unlikely to succeed and children who don't have challenges to meet are unlikely to get a sense of accomplishment. They may succeed in completing a task, but if it is too easy and they don't have to work hard to complete it, there is no sense of accomplishment. What we want our children to develop is a strong sense of self-efficacy. We want them to be able to face a challenge and work hard to meet it. We want them to persist and persevere, not give up.

It's not high self-esteem that leads to success; it's strong efficacy. Or to put it in a more simple term: grit. It's easy to see why gifted children may not develop true grit since too often they do not get challenging work. They may succeed at reaching the goal or accomplishing the task, but if there is no challenge, there is no sense of accomplishment. There was no need to persist and persevere. Also, if the work is too easy, the chances of failing are pretty low (unless the child has become an underachiever).  However, if a child never fails, there isn't any need to learn to persevere. Many gifted children eventually encounter a challenge that they aren't prepared to meet. They have not learned to persevere. They have not developed true grit.

Final Thoughts

Rather than praising children endlessly for every little thing they do and protecting them from every potential hurt, we need to give them a chance to fail and yes, even to get hurt. We want to support them when they do fail and get hurt, helping them learn to cope with those failures and hurts. That is what will help them develop the grit they need to succeed. We don't need to put our children in harm's way, but we don't need to protect them from everything either. It's time to bring back the merry-go-rounds and the swing sets to parks and playgrounds. And it's time to bring the mental equivalents back to the classrooms. We need to give them, as Steve Baskin suggests, the gift of failure.

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