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School and Self Esteem, or: Thank You for Making Those Socks!

Authentic gratitude is enough of an acknowledgment to foster self-esteem without leading to the kind of dependency on others that "good job" seems to do.
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Written by Elisa (EJ) Sobo

I saw my first back-to-school ad last night, and thought "already?" But in truth I think about school all the time: I'm a medical anthropologist studying Waldorf education. My focus is on pre-K through grade 3. My concern is healthy child development.

If you've heard anything about Waldorf schools, it might be that Waldorf students play outside a lot and even in the rain, or that classrooms have chalk boards still, and hardly any computers. You may know, too, that academic lessons don't start until children are seven. I knew all that when my study began. What shocked me instead was a palpable lack of recognizable "positive reinforcement." It surprised me not to hear the teachers say "good job."

Anthropologists often look for, and try to explain, cross-cultural differences. In other settings, adults reward children with "good job" regularly. I'd learned as a parent myself that saying "good job" helps cultivate self-esteem which, I'd been told, is crucial to life success. I'd heard coaches, teachers, and day-care workers praising their charges for even small accomplishments (and sometimes non-accomplishments as well).

I've started doing it too, in undergraduate teaching. The students seem to need it, perhaps due to having been raised in a culture where, as the Dodo said to Alice, "everybody has won, and all must have prizes" (Carroll 1865, Chapter 3). If anything today's students seem to have less real self-esteem than the prior generation.

But "good job" was not part of the discourse at the Waldorf school where I did my research. In fact the teachers hardly ever gave overt kudos of any kind to the children -- at least not that I could recognize initially.

A search through my field notes revealed that the closest anyone got to saying "good job" within my earshot in those first weeks was when two boys, each about four years of age, had tied some chairs together and to some cabinet handles (they were taming a dragon, or some such). The boys created quite a tangle, and then moved on to other pursuits. During clean-up time, prior to taking the class outside, the teacher announced "I need an expert electrician to come and unhook the power lines." One of the boys came over and she left him to it while helping other children with coats and shoes. This done, she walked back to the boy-electrician, who seemed to have succeeded in getting out the toughest knot: "Oh, you did it!" she called with a smile.

This congratulation may seem paltry compared to the gushing "good job" kind of stroke we are so used to hearing. But the teacher followed up with another two bits of reinforcement, adding, "You're almost done. Thank you!"

I confess, I did not see that last bit as important until I mentioned my impression to another teacher later. "Oh, no!" she replied with concern, pointing out that she and the other teachers always thanked children when they did what was needed, whether during clean up time, meal or snack time, craft time, or in outdoor play. This teacher, and others when asked, knew that their students were receiving the kind of positive reinforcement necessary for healthy development.

Here's an example of a thanks given en masse; it's from a second grade painting class. A child, noting a reddish shape emerging in the teacher's sample of the assignment, called out, "it's a mango!" The teacher, unhappy at this interruption, said only, "Thank you to all of you who are not calling out. You are maybe thinking something in your head but you are not calling out to ruin things for your neighbor. That is very polite."

Authentic gratitude is enough of an acknowledgment to foster self-esteem without leading to the kind of dependency on others that "good job" seems to do. In saying "thank you," a teacher says to a child "I see you. I see that you are doing something positive." In an ideal world, that kind of acknowledgment is all that is needed for the seeds of self-esteem and self-confidence to take root and grow in a healthy, non-narcissistic direction. Children cultivated toward dependence on external praise through constant positive stroking are at risk for growing into poorly-adjusted adults who must always look to others for approval. They never have a chance to develop their own internal resources.

In fifth grade or thereabouts, students at many Waldorf schools must knit a pair of socks. They figure out a pattern by inspecting a model sock that the teacher provides. Then, they work to produce a wearable pair. There are many reasons given for this assignment but the one I want to highlight here is that knitting a pair of socks (not an easy task!) means figuring things out, managing frustration, and surmounting challenges. It's no coincidence that the students here must not only make one sock but then -- having just managed to get through that -- they have to go back and repeat the struggle over to complete the second. The main point is not learning to knit per se, but the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. If students learn that they can make their own socks (grow their own food, build their own computers, etc.), they also have learned that there isn't much that they cannot do. In learning of this kind, students self-produce self-esteem.

This evening, my son and I plan to wash all the window screens. I won't say "good job," if I can help it -- but I will say "thank you" when we are done. Making socks? That comes later.

Elisa (EJ) Sobo is a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. She is on the editorial boards of Anthropology & Medicine and Medical Anthropology and she is the Book Reviews Editor for Medical Anthropology Quarterly. She has served as an elected member of the Society for Medical Anthropology's executive board and is presently co-chair of the American Anthropological Association's Committee on Public Policy.

Dr. Sobo has written numerous peer-reviewed journal articles as well having authored, co-authored, and co-edited twelve books on various topics. Her latest books are Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity: A Unified Approach (forthcoming), The Cultural Context of Health, Illness, and Medicine (2010), and Culture and Meaning in Health Services Research (2009).

Dr. Sobo's current projects include a study exploring cultural models of child development as applied in classroom teaching, particularly in the Waldorf or Steiner education system. Findings from that study inspired this essay.

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