Building self-esteem
Illustration: ILoveDust
Self-esteem can be learned, taught, developed, and, best of all, spread around like crazy.
Hinsdale, Illinois, is an affluent suburb about 20 miles west of Chicago, a community of large, gracious homes on manicured lawns, with a local Ferrari/Maserati dealership and a shop window promoting a "cashmere sport coat event." It is quietly acknowledged among the residents that prospective Masters of the Universe are being reared here, the future oligarchs of companies such as Enron or Tyco, which have not exactly earned a reputation for fostering strong character. And so several years ago, with an eye to building integrity in the next generation, the Hinsdale school district incorporated a program called Lions Quest, based on the idea that students who function well both socially and emotionally are best equipped to succeed, in school and beyond. All grades, kindergarten through eighth, have innovative lesson plans about "growing as a group," "making positive decisions," "setting goals for service," and other ways to be good citizens of the world.

At 8 a.m. one morning, social worker Jane Herron gathers a dozen or so of her eighth-grade charges at Hinsdale Middle School for an "advisory" hour. She lays two long strips of masking tape on the floor and tells the kids to imagine the foot-wide swath as a log in the forest. They are to rearrange themselves according to birthdays, without stepping off the log and without talking. One tall blond boy, reminiscent of the young Hubbell Gardner, for whom "things came too easily" in The Way We Were, automatically goes to the head of the line, only to discover through hand signals (two fingers held up for February, three for March) that his real place is somewhere in the middle. After a good deal of fumbling, gesturing, and creative attempts at nonverbal communication, they get the job done, then sort themselves out according to shoe size.

"What made you successful?" asks Herron, and the thoughtful responses range from "demonstrating" to "using a light touch," with one kid joking, "Who's our MVP?" It's clear that these teens have been subtly indoctrinated with some ideas about negotiation, frustration, false assumptions, and teamwork.

Ten or 20 years ago, social and emotional skills would not have been given much consideration in a school curriculum. It was the era of self-esteem, with a bandwagon of educators and mental health professionals intent on helping kids become more capable wielders of the world by making them feel good about themselves, even absent any measurable accomplishment. But in recent years, researchers have found that self-esteem falls far short of its anticipated benefits. What's more important is a sense of self-mastery—getting along in the world and knowing you can handle yourself in myriad situations. The concept is liberating for adults too: Rather than facing the daunting task of going back into your childhood to figure out why you are insecure, you can learn specific skills right now to become competent. No one's suggesting that you deny your feelings of inadequacy; you simply prove them wrong.

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