It’s called The Magic Circle Game, and many of our children have likely played it in school. The game works like this: each day one child is given a badge that says, “I am great.” Then, the other children take turns praising the “great” child and, eventually, these compliments are written down and given to the child.
On the surface, this simple game may not seem damaging. Every child needs to feel valued, right?
But upon close inspection, and despite its intentions, this game is actually doing more harm than good.
This game and others like it came about as part of the self-esteem movement—a philosophy that began in the late 1970’s which contradicts our Orthodox Christian way of life. Experts say it was started because educators were becoming increasingly aware that many of their students were dealing with stressful circumstances outside of school and they needed something positive to build their sense of self.
Self-esteem is difficult to define. On the most basic level, it can be defined as how one views themselves. The concept of self-esteem can be divided into two major categories: worth and competence.
The self-esteem movement was assumed to be so effective that the children of the movement would be the first fruits of a better, more positive, and productive society.
Their assumption may be wrong.
Two recent articles have revealed some important information on the children of the self-esteem age—children who are currently growing up or are already adults.
The first, published in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work,” sheds light on how these self-esteem children are doing as young adults. The author, Jeffrey Zaslow, reports that both bosses and professors are feeling the need to lavish more praise on young adults, particularly twentysomethings, or else they would “wither under an unfamiliarly compliment deficit.” He adds that a lot of today’s young adults tend to feel insecure if they’re not regularly stroked or complimented. What’s more, corporations are going so far as to hire consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email and prize packages for simply doing little more than showing up to work.
Another article by the Associate Press, cites a new study that found today’s college students are significantly more narcissistic than their predecessors. Narcissism is a personality disorder marked specifically by an inflated sense of importance, a lack of empathy, an incapability of learning from others, and an inability to accept criticism, even if it’s constructive. Psychologists worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society. The researchers who conducted the study describe it as the largest ever of its type, and report that the average college student was 30 percent more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.
This problem of too much praise is not one that has escaped some of the contemporary elders of our Church. Elder Porphyrios writes in The Divine Flame that we often harm our children by building them up too much. “We constantly say to our children “well done, well done’ and the poor things grow up all puffed up with egos. We do great harm to our children.”
In the book, With Pain and Love, Elder Paisios of Mount Athos cites the attitudes of today’s youth as a major concern and discusses why children today are much worse than they were in earlier generations. The Elder states that the children who are hurt the most are the ones whose parents do not realize the harm they do to them by the admiration and praise they show them. “Instead of respect,” Elder Paisios says, “they are full of egoism and nerves. They will take no advice, no discipline of any kind.”
Thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think is called pride. Thinking less highly of ourselves than we ought to think is false humility. Thinking about ourselves soberly is true humility. The key to reaching this sober state centers on the fact that our sense of worth stems from Christ’s saving action. We are not totally worthless because Christ died for us. Yet narcissistic tendencies in society are strong indicators that we aren’t living soberly.
In looking at the topic of self-esteem, it is important to understand that the distinction between secular society and the Bible centers on the fact that our sense of personal value shouldn’t be determined by what others think about us, but by what God thinks of us. This is not to say that children don’t need a compliment here or there, because they do. But these compliments need to be tempered and used judiciously.
It needs to be said that the goal for each parent is to guide their child to the undisputable truth that their worth is directly related to the love that God has shown us through Christ. But this can only happen when one establishes an active relationship with God through both corporate and private worship in the home and at Church—not just on Sundays.
Compliments on individual accomplishments carry little weight when our relationship with God is strong. We see this from studying the lives of holy people, who shunned individual compliments as if they were some kind of toxin for the soul. Miracles are proof that the Holy Spirit works through these people and allows them to do things that the most confident person in the world couldn’t do.
For example, it was said of Elder Porphyrios that doctors used to visit him for advice on how to proceed with a medical procedure with certain patients. Elder Porphrios had a first grade education. His level of competence, measured secularly, had no merit in the medical field. But because he was blessed by God, he was able to correctly advise educated doctors on medical procedures.
The Bible itself does not use the terminology of self-esteem, but many passages point toward having a relatively low assessment of oneself. For example, St Paul says in Philippians 2:3–4 that we should, “Do nothing from selfishness and empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” And in Galatians 6:3 St. Paul states, “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
It’s interesting that educators once thought the self-esteem movement would one day serve as a type of vaccine for our children. They were wrong. Research is telling us that the movement has turned us into a more narcissistic society. Indeed, the only true vaccine any child or adult ever needs is a life in Christ, who wards off any threat we face as Christian in the secular world. Even when the threat comes in the form of a seemingly innocent school activity called the Magic Circle Game.
Tom Papagiannis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a former teacher. He is presently in the Masters of Divinity program at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Tom and his wife, Katerina, are from the Metropolis of Chicago.