ERIC Identifier: ED358973
Publication Date: 1993-08-00
Author: Katz, Lilian G.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice. ERIC
Helping children to "feel good about themselves" is frequently listed as an
important goal of early education. For example, the National Association of
Elementary School Principals (1990) listed the development of "a positive
self-image" first among the characteristics of a good quality early childhood
program. One newsletter for teachers quotes a statement that "the basis for
everything we do is self-esteem. Therefore, if we can do something to give
children a stronger sense of themselves, starting in preschool, they'll be [a
lot wiser] in the choices they make" (McDaniel, 1986).
EARLY CHILDHOOD PRACTICES: NARCISSISM VERSUS SELF
While the development of high self-esteem seems a worthwhile goal,
many practices designed to reach it may instead be encouraging narcissism. This
confusion is exemplified by a practice observed in a first grade classroom. Each
child had produced a booklet titled "All About Me," consisting of dittoed pages
prepared by the teacher, on which the child had provided information. The first
page asked for a list of basic information about the child's home and family.
The second page was titled "What I like to eat," the third "What I like to watch
on TV," the next "What I want for a present," and so forth. On each page the
child's attention was directed toward his or her own inner gratification. The
topic of each page in these booklets put the child in the role of consumer. No
page was included that put the child in the role of producer, explorer, or
Another common example of practices intended to enhance self-esteem but
unlikely to do so was a display of kindergartners' work consisting of nine paper
doll-like figures, each with a balloon containing a sentence stem beginning "I
am special because..." The sentences depicted in the display read "I am special
because I can color," "...I can ride a bike," and so forth. Although these
skills are valuable, is there not some risk in encouraging children to believe
that their specialness is dependent on these comparatively trivial things,
rather than on more enduring dispositions such as persistence in the face of
difficulty and readiness to help their classmates?
Teachers often employ practices intended to motivate children by beginning
"where they are." However, the same intentions could be satisfied in other ways.
Starting "where children are" can be accomplished by providing topics that would
encourage curiosity about others "AND" themselves, reduce emphasis on
consumerism, and at the same time strengthen the intellectual ethos of the
Such a project was observed in a rural British infant school. A large display
on the bulletin board was titled "We Are a Class Full of Bodies." Just below the
title was the heading "Here Are the Details." The display space was taken up
with bar graphs of the children's weights and heights, eye colors, shoe sizes,
and so forth. As the children worked in small groups collecting information
brought from home, taking measurements, and preparing graphs together, the
teacher was able to create an ethos of a community of researchers. This project
began "where the children were" by collecting, pooling, analyzing, and
displaying data derived from all the children in the class.
SELF-ESTEEM: DEVELOPMENTAL AND CROSS-CULTURAL
In an examination of developmental considerations, Bednar,
Wells, and Peterson (1989) suggest that feelings of competence and the
self-esteem associated with them are enhanced in children when their parents
provide an optimum mixture of acceptance, affection, limits, and expectations.
In a similar way, teachers are likely to engender positive feelings when they
provide such a combination of acceptance, limits, and expectations concerning
behavior and effort (Lamborn et al., 1991).
Markus and Kitayama (1991) point out that the concept of the self varies
among cultures, and that Westerners typically construe themselves as
"independent", stable entities. On the other hand, they assert that in Asia and
Africa the self is viewed as "interdependent" and connected with the social
context. Westerners view the self as an autonomous entity consisting of a unique
configuration of traits. The Asian view is that the self exists primarily in
relation to specific social contexts, and is esteemed to the extent that it can
adjust to others and maintain harmony.
The trend toward excessive emphasis
on self-esteem and self-congratulation described above may be due to a general
desire to correct earlier traditions of avoiding complimenting children for fear
of making them conceited. However, the current practices described above may be
overcorrections of such traditions.
Self-esteem is most likely to be fostered when children are esteemed and
treated respectfully and receive the right kind of positive, meaningful feedback
in the form of appreciation, rather than empty praise and flattery. Appreciation
is positive feedback related explicitly and directly to the "content" of the
child's interest and effort. A teacher might, for example, bring a new reference
book to class in response to a question raised by a child. In this way, the
teacher provides positive feedback without taking the children's minds off the
subject. Self-esteem can be based on increased understanding and competence, as
well as on contributing to the work of the group.
Healthy self-esteem is more likely to be developed when children are engaged
in activities for which they can make real decisions and contributions than in
activities that are frivolous and cute. Early childhood educators have
traditionally emphasized the fact that play is children's natural way of
learning (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 1988). Besides play, however, it is just
as natural for young children to learn through investigation. Young children are
born scientists. They devote enormous amounts of time and energy to
investigating the environments in which they are raised.
Teachers can capitalize on these in-born dispositions by engaging children in
investigations through project work, investigations that are in-depth studies of
real topics, environments, events, and objects worthy of children's attention
and understanding (Katz & Chard, 1989). In the course of such undertakings,
children negotiate with their teachers to determine the questions to be
answered, the studies to be undertaken, and ways of representing their findings
in media such as painting, drawing, and dramatic play. Project work provides
children with opportunity for discussion, decision making, cooperation,
initiative, negotiation, compromise, and evaluation of the outcomes of their own
efforts. In this way, children's self-esteem can be based on their contribution
to the work of the group.
Children's self-esteem can also be strengthened when they have the
opportunity to develop and apply criteria for evaluating their own work. For
example, instead of taking work home daily, they can be encouraged to collect it
for a week or more, after which the teacher can discuss possible criteria for
selecting an item they wish to take home. The emphasis should not be on whether
they like a piece of work, but on whether the piece includes all they want it
to, or whether it is as clear or informative as they want it to be. Similarly,
when children are engaged in project work with others, they can evaluate the
extent to which they have answered the questions they began with, and assess the
work accomplished on criteria developed with their teacher concerning the
accuracy, completeness, and interest value of their final products (Katz &
Practices which engage children's minds in
investigating aspects of their own experiences and environments can help them
develop realistic criteria of self-esteem. Such practices are more likely than
trivial practices which engender self-preoccupation to build in children a deep
sense of competence and self-worth that can provide a firm foundation for their
Editor's Note: This Digest is excerpted from the paper "Distinctions between
Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice" (available from
ERIC/EECE; approximately 80 pages; $10.00).
Bednar, R.L., Wells, M.G., and Peterson, S.R. "Self-Esteem: Paradoxes and Innovations in Clinical Theory and Practice." Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 1989.
Isenberg, J., and Quisenberry, N.L. PLAY: A necessity for all children. A
position paper of the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI).
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Katz, L.G., and Chard, S.C. "Engaging Children's Minds: The Project
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Lamborn, S., Mounts, N.S., Steinberg, L., and Dornbusch, S. Patterns of
Competence and Adjustment among Adolescents from Authoritative, Authoritarian,
Indulgent and Neglectful Families. "Child Development" v62 n5 (Oct 1991):
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Markus, H.R., and Kitayama, S. Culture and the Self: Implications for
Cognition, Emotions, and Motivation. "Psychological Review" v8 n2 (1991):
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"NewOptions" n27 (April 28,1986): 1.
National Association of Elementary School Principals. "Early Childhood
Education and the Elementary School Principal: Standards for Quality Programs
for Young Children." Arlington, VA: Author. 1990.