Self-Esteem and Dignity

Do American children suffer from an excess of self-
esteem? The answer, according to recent essays, is a definite yes. (See, for starters, the cover article in the current Atlantic Monthly, "How to Land Your Children in Therapy" and the November, 2010 National Review article "Self-Esteem and Character.")  My take on this is pretty simple: parents, coaches, etc. should forget about cultivating self-esteem and focus instead on helping children understand and develop a sense of dignity. (Many people like to talk about "character development," but character has always seemed to me a vague and dubious notion.)  I'm probably somewhat self-delusional, but I like to think that as a parent I had an instinctive sense from the beginning that self-esteem was a bogus concept. I'm sure that my ideas about dignity are heavily influenced by Spanish culture, which, I believe, has created complicated links between concrete, exterior signs and behaviors, on the one hand, and abstract ideas about self and worth on the other. In this view, a "proper" sense of self, of "being-in-the-world" renders low self-esteem irrelevant.  (Spaniards do coddle their children in some ways, and I have had numerous experiences where visitors have wondered if Spanish parents weren't spoiling their kids. On the other hand, many Spanish parents (and teachers!) feel quite a bit more free to tell kids what dumb asses they are! What Spanish kid hasn't been told a hundred times he's idiota, estúpido, tonto!  Kids do do stupid things and they should be called out on it. Euphemisms and lies just confuse. The "Mafalda" comic strip above shows Mafalda somewhat confused: the sign says "Keep Off the Grass," but for the joke to make sense we need to translate it more literally: "stepping on the lawn prohibited."  The girl's response: "And not dignity?" That is, so stepping on the grass is off-limits, but what about stepping on dignity?  ("Mafalda" is a famous creation of the great Argentine cartoonist Quino.) The vignette is very funny and it makes a serious point: you can mess with people's "self-esteem" and not worry about it, for surely life itself will put it in its proper place eventually. But don't mess with dignity.  In adulthood, a very well developed sense of dignity makes one almost impervious to the vicissitudes of life. But there's always self-immolation.  This month's example: Anthony Weiner.

One of the things I value most highly about Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is how it functions as a powerful antidote to the "touchy feely" qualities of contemporary culture: no trophies, no undeserved commendations, no lies about how wonderfully talented everyone is from the get go.  These kids know what it takes.

Finally, yesterday I came across a kid with dignity. This video may seem very strange to anyone unfamiliar with Spanish culture generally, and Andalusian culture specifically. This boy, Fernando Caballo, sings a saeta to an image of the Virgin Mary in a Holy Week procession in the town of Marchena, near Seville. (This was nine years ago; he's still at it today as a young man.)  It's interesting how he's surrounded mainly by men. Watch it here. Let me know what you think.

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