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by Laura L. Smith and Charles H. Elliott
Prima Publishing, 2001
Review by Kevin M. Purday on Aug 2nd 2002

Hollow Kids

This book has a very straightforward thesis – the Self-Esteem Movement, which made raising the esteem of mainly young people the panacea of all personal and social ills, which really started to make an impact during the 1960s and has been a formidable force ever since, has not only failed to cure the ills which it was designed to combat but, on the contrary, has produced a generation of children who are narcissistic, self-absorbed, lacking in real values, prone to self-destructive habits and violent towards others. As you can tell already, this book does not pull any punches! The main thrust of the book is aimed at this movement in the U.S.A. but its general argument is thoroughly applicable to what has happened in many societies throughout the world.

            Let’s start with the authors – are they in a position to support their thesis? Both are practising psychologists and specialists in school (L.L.Smith) or paediatric (C.H.Elliott) psychology. Both are clinical psychologists and faculty members at the Fielding Graduate Institute. They have both worked in their field for more than twenty years. No fault to be found there!

            So how do they support their thesis? The answer is that they use two methods – one the way of the professional psychologist and the other that commonly employed by journalists. Taking them separately, the professional approach is based upon a wide and critical reading of the literature on, among other things, the effectiveness, or otherwise, of self-esteem raising techniques on individuals’ ability to adjust to reality, the links between high self-esteem and neurotic or psychotic behaviour, the attitudes of those with low self-esteem, the similarities between the reaction to failure of those with low self-esteem and those with punctured high-esteem, and much more. This part of the book is well researched and forcefully argued. It is generally very convincing and is supported by a first-rate critical apparatus. The book is deliberately written so that the non-specialist can read the body of the work smoothly without obtrusive technicalities. The endnotes, however, contain a wealth of technical information enabling the specialist to follow up on any point and to check the references if s/he feels the need. So no problem here.

            The second, journalistic, method is to produce juvenile crime statistics regarding drug abuse, rape, assault, theft, etc. and link these with educational data regarding, for example, falling SAT results, the forging of test results, the artificial inflation of High School (and Middle and even Elementary School) grades in order to keep everyone happy and then to correlate these crime/educational statistics with the rise of the Self-Esteem Movement. The authors truthfully admit that we are dealing with correlations rather than causal relationships but they paint a fairly convincing picture even if a few reservations did pop up in the mind of this reader. To make that picture stick, the authors very cleverly use little cameo stories of youngsters coping, or not coping, with various difficult situations and linking these, point by point, with realistic self-esteem or artificially high self-esteem and sometimes low self-esteem. The persuasive effect of these cameos is going to be quite strong with the general reader.

            Along the way there is a great deal of common sense about parenting and teaching in particular. Several groups in society come in for a good deal of scathing comment. Obviously the Self-Esteem gurus receive the most vitriolic treatment. However, authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative) and permissive parents along with liberal “I am only a facilitator” teachers also come in for a good deal of tongue-lashing.

            So do I recommend you to read this book and what are the reservations I mentioned earlier? It is not only the U.S.A. which is suffering from self-obsessed, narcissistic young people who lack self-control and empathy for others. It is a common problem in certain sorts of cultural situation. This is an issue to which I will return shortly. In the U.S.A. and some other countries the problem is severe ( but whether as severe as the authors suggest is a moot point) and I personally agree with the authors that undue emphasis on self-esteem is a major factor but where I disagree with them is that I think that it is not the only factor. To answer the first question – yes, this is a book which all parents and teachers ought to read. It is also a book which all child psychologists and especially educational psychologists ought to read. Although the authors do not castigate their own brethren, they too are partly responsible for the situation.

            The reservations? The roots of the Self-Esteem Movement are to be found in the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow but it seems to me to be unfair to include them in the blame. They were trying to counteract various deterministic tendencies in psychology. In trying to get people in general and young people in particular to take responsibility for their actions, Rogers and Maslow are the good guys and are on the side of responsible parents and teachers. I have lived and taught in three countries including a former communist state and a country in the Middle East. I mention these facts because I think that they are relevant. The real problem arises out of the unholy alliance between the Self-Esteem gurus and, in the opinion of the reviewer, the unfettered global capitalism which has been unleashed on the world. Young people have been faced for many years now with a mind-boggling materialism which promises instant gratification, political leaders who say one thing and do another, religions which are either intolerant or have sold out to materialism (or both), media which are entirely profit-driven including the ubiquitous television which caters almost exclusively for the lowest possible common denominator, preening pop stars and self-adulatory idols of all sorts and, in short, an all-pervasive culture of individualism. In other words, my main reservation about this book is that, although its central thesis is correct, the issue needs to be placed in a wider social context. The Self-Esteem Movement could only have taken root in a society which has an overly strong streak of narcissism, self-regard and individualism. Societies which still place a huge emphasis on the “we” and not just the “I” have not yet been plagued greatly by this problem. Parents as parents and teachers as teachers can not, on their own, solve the problem. If the problem is one about which we are concerned then we all need to put on our political hat and try to mould the type of society where individuals can derive meaning from playing a constructive role with and for others in a society where “we” are important.

            Please – read this book and see whether you agree!

 

© 2002 Kevin M. Purday                      

Kevin M. Purday is the head of an international school in Jordan, and is currently a distance-learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.