The above title on a magazine piece caught my eye precisely because it is a distinction that I have been thinking about a lot. I have written in the past about the damage wrought over the last 40 years by American education’s emphasis on developing self-esteem. The self-esteem movement has resulted in ever growing rates of narcissism, without any commensurate increase in achievement.
I remember a study from a decade or more ago showing that American students gave themselves the highest rating in the world when asked to evaluate their mathematical abilities. Yet at that time, only one in a thousand American high school students would have cracked the top ten percent of Japanese math students.
Thomas H. Benton, writing in the Journal of Higher Education of the grade inflation that is so widespread in American higher education, describes students “who have never written anything more than short answers on exams, who do not read much at all, who lack foundational skills in math and science, yet are completely convinced of their abilities and resist any criticism of their work to the point of tears and tantrums.”
Even students who are genuinely gifted are harmed by too much harping on their gifts, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown. Being told how brilliant they are limits them in unforeseen ways. They are often unwilling to try new subjects in which they are not sure of their success, lest they lose their “genius” image. When they find themselves forced to work hard to understand difficult concepts or perform challenging tasks, they often freeze or give up easily.
Though I have not seen this point in Dweck’s research, it also strikes me that self-esteem is often maintained at the expense of learning to take responsibility for failure. When those who have been told that they are the most brilliant or most talented fail in some way that calls that designation into question, either they or their parents are often quick to make excuses or blame others. So much has been invested in a particular designation that it must be protected at all costs. But nothing makes happiness in life more elusive than a tendency to blame others for everything that goes wrong.
Still, all parents and educators recognize that a positive self-image is essential to a child’s healthy development toward adulthood. How can we foster a positive self-image without all the negative effects of the self-esteem movement?
First and foremost, children must experience their parents’ love and concern as something unconditional, and not based on how they stack up compared to siblings or anyone else.
A proper Torah hashkafah emphasizes the importance — indeed essential nature — of each Jew’s existence. That too fosters a positive self-image. If our children really believe that their every thought, word, or deed has the power to bring Divine blessing to the world, their life becomes a matter of great significance. By itself, the immense potential that they possess makes them neither good nor bad — that all depends on how the potential is used. But understanding that one’s life is not just an unnoticed speck in a world with seven billion other human beings, but rather is of immediate concern to the Creator of the Universe, emphasizes one’s intrinsic importance.
And while every Jew contains within the power to open up the conduits of Divine brachah to the world, each Jew also has a role, given to no other, in revealing Hashem to the world. Again, the message is that one’s life is vital — the Divine plan depends upon it.
The goal of parents should not be bolstering their children’s self-esteem with constant comments on how bright or beautiful they are, but rather instilling within them self-confidence. What is the essential difference between self-esteem and self-confidence? Self-esteem is generally measured in comparison to others and based on feelings of one’s superiority. Self-confidence is based on a strong sense of self, and measured against one’s own potential and unique mission in the world, and not in comparison to anyone else.
The crucial measure of self-confidence, to my mind, is the willingness to attempt new tasks, without fear of failure. That lack of fear is based on understanding that there is nothing humiliating about having failed to achieve a certain goal. But not having tried at all or failing to give it one’s best is embarrassing.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg is invariably described by those who were close to him as the most empowering person they ever met. Part of his success in this area was the relish with which he described his many failures in the early years of trying to jump-start a baal teshuvah movement. The failures were enumerated in loving detail. His lack of embarrassment about failures made it much easier for his talmidim to shoot for the moon, even as they knew that success was far from guaranteed.
How can parents help to foster this self-confidence in their children? Dweck’s research here is helpful. One of the keys is to avoid praising our children overly for those traits that are innate — literally, gifts from Hashem. They should be aware of the strengths and talents with which they were blessed, but not treat those gifts as if they confer any merit or serve as a source of entitlement.
If we praise our children for their effort and for not giving up when confronted with a difficulty, Dweck’s research shows, they will learn to enjoy challenges and approach them with zest. That will free them to spend their energy on goals that they view as intrinsically important rather than on preserving a certain self-image.
I can still remember how liberating I found learning Hebrew in ulpan more than 30 years ago. For the first time in my life it did not make the slightest difference to me whether everyone in the class learned more quickly than I did, as long as I learned too. Fellow students were no longer competitors, but rather partners toward a common goal.
Only the thing itself — acquiring knowledge of Hebrew — mattered. Grades were irrelevant. My only test was against my own limited linguistic abilities, not against anybody else. As I said — liberating.
Just before Pesach, best-selling novelist Naomi Ragen was socked with the largest plagiarism judgment ever in Israel. District court judge Yosef Shapira ordered her to pay Sarah Shapiro 233,000 shekels for scenes “stolen” from Shapiro’s memoir Growing with My Children for Ragen’s novel Sotah.
Ragen accused Sarah Shapiro of having sued her “out of a desire to silence my criticism of the Haredi community’s treatment of women.” On Israel TV, she derided the verdict as worthy of a “banana republic.”
In a lengthy interview in Yediot Ahronot published over Pesach, Ragen charged that she was the victim of a chareidi conspiracy. Asked how the chareidim had ensnared a highly respected jurist and former military judge with the rank of colonel into their plot, Ragen did not answer directly. Elsewhere in the interview, however, she implied some kind of improper political influence on the judge: “It’s no wonder Shas very much wants this judge to be the next state comptroller.” (I’d be surprised if one Shas MK has ever heard of Ragen.)
Later in the interview, Ragen expressed her wonder that the intelligentsia had not rallied to her cause: “Just as [they] did not initially understand what the mehadrin buses were, now they don’t understand … that the chareidi influence has entered into the judicial system.”
But Judge Shapira did not render judgment in a cultural war. His 92-page verdict was a meticulous examination of the two works, which led him to conclude, “[S]imilarities between the two works are so essential that any explanation other than plagiarism is untenable.”
Ragen’s appropriations from another chareidi woman writer, Sudi Rosengarten, are even more blatant than those in Sotah. The plot and even the descriptive details of Rosengarten’s story “A Match Made in Heaven” appear to have been lifted almost in toto and incorporated as Chapter 24 in Ragen’s novel The Sacrifice of Tamar. (Readers can compare for themselves.) Rosengarten, whose story appeared in Our Lives Vol. I, an anthology edited, ironically, by Sarah Shapiro, has also sued.
Shapiro’s case went beyond the appropriation of one fictional plot into another work of fiction. Growing with My Children is a memoir of her own struggles and sense of failure as a young mother feeling overwhelmed by many children in close succession. The use of her brave and path-breaking account in another author’s fiction was nothing less than identity theft.
How diabolically clever of those chareidim to trick Ragen into copying their works in order to discredit her.