Self-Esteem vs. Resilience

The September cover of Maclean’s Magazine  displayed two youthful faces, a boy and a girl, the former kindly but quietly fearful, the latter openly stressed, perhaps at a breaking point.  The text announced: “CRISIS ON CAMPUS:  The Broken Generation–A shocking number of Canadian students feel depressed, even suicidal.  Why our best and brightest are so troubled.” 

The story inside depicts high-achiever Canadian and U.S. college students as egos on the edge, compiling brilliant academic and extra-curricular records but concealing acute suffering.  At University of Alberta, for instance, 51 percent of students answered “Yes” to a survey question asking whether in the last 12 months they ever felt that “things were hopeless.”  Cornell University has constructed metal nets across the gorges on campus in order to prevent any more students from leaping to their deaths.  A sociologist at University of Virginia finds that admission to the selective University doesn’t produce triumph, but failure: “Students experience it as a kind of downward mobility.  Maybe you were in your high school gifted program, and suddenly you’re no longer the brightest student in the room.  You might not even be close.”

The question is, Why are these students so fragile?  Why do they seem unable to handle stress and failure?  

In a speech in Atlanta the other night, psychologist Leonard Sax issued a diagnosis.  Author of Why Gender Matters: what parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differencesBoys Adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys, and Girls on the Edge, Sax attributes the problem to overprotective, yet achievement-oriented parents.  These parents care about grades, they monitor homework, they arrange piano lessons and math tutors, and they regard the right college as critical to success or failure.  They love their children, and they don’t want anything bad to happen to them.  Kids pick up the pressure and those who respond seem entirely on track and well-adjusted.  The score highly on tests, collect AP courses in high school, and volunteer.  Colleges want them badly.

But these high-performers only acquire half the skills of healthy living, Sax maintains.  They know how to succeed, but they don’t know how to fail.  They are motivated and bright, yes, and their parents create the conditions for them to excel.  But when an English paper in 10th grade receives a “B-” and the student feels demolished, the parents step in and do the wrong thing.  Either they blame the teacher and press the school to allow the student to try again, or they cushion the disappointment by helping and encouraging the student with ultra-positive assistance or by doing half the work for them. 

In either case, the student doesn’t deal with the failure on her own.  The parents believe that they do the right thing by intervening, but in fact, Sax contends, they prevent the student from learning how to deal with failure.  They build self-esteem in their children, but they hinder a trait Sax considers essential to a prosperous adulthood: resilience. Children must fail, and they must learn to handle that failure by themselves.  If they don’t, when they hit a roadblock in college or in the workplace after they’ve left the home, they don’t have the equipment to get past it.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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