I'm certainly no expert on self-esteem, but I do know that a teacher patting a student on the head for spelling "kat" and telling him, "Well, at least you tried" is not the way to create it. And that is now what some schools (government run, of course) are telling teachers to do, in hopes of not hurting students' feelings and making them feel good about themselves.
What they're doing isn't going to work. In reality, it's going to backfire on them and the students, and therefore on other people. Instead, the way I see it, part of true self-esteem comes from being competent at what you can be good at. It can be one thing or it can be many things.
Robert Heinlein is famous for the quote, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
I wouldn't go so far as to say specialization is for insects, because our advanced technological culture requires specialization. But I understand Heinlein's point: part of true self-esteem comes from being able to do something well. It doesn't come from teachers telling you that you are doing something well when you aren't.
John Taylor Gatto (his site here) wrote that the original purpose of education in America was to "make good people, make good citizens, and to make each student find some particular talents to develop to the maximum." Developing your talents to the maximum is one of the components of true self-esteem.
My father was a general contractor. By the time I was in my teens, I could build a house from the bottom to the top--electrical, plumbing, framing, drywall, shingles. I could do all of it. I still can. I'm rusty, but I can still do it.
Later, I bought a bunch of taxis. I learned to pull engines and transmissions, take cars apart, put them together, paint them. I used to carry parts in my trunk to fix the car if it broke down on the side of the road. I've changed starters and alternators in parking lots. If I blow a hose in the Mojave' desert, I'll have a replacement for it. If not that, then at least duct tape, which I've found will hold bumpers to cars.
Even later, because new computers cost so much, I learned to build them from scratch. I've only had one new computer, and that's the one I have now. When I need to upgrade the memory or chip, I'll do it myself.
All the aforementioned, I can do well. I'm not great at any of it, but I'm competent. The only thing I'm missing is looking like Sean Connery, and the chances of that are pretty darn slim indeed.
Some things I'm not good at. I never cared for sports, so I was never good at them. Except for, of all things, dodgeball in junior high and high school. For some unknown reason, I verged on being great. I was able to dodge balls the way those kung-fu guys are supposed to dodge bullets. I can still see the speechless look on guys' faces when a ball was aimed at me from five feet away and they missed because I moved a few inches.
If there are ever adult dodgeball teams, I'll mow everyone down.
But now, some schools are banning dodgeball, in case a kid gets hit and his feelings hurt. I got almost <i>knocked out</i> once when I was 12 and a ball that appeared to be going about 80 mph hit me in the temple and knocked me down. I didn't feel bad about getting nailed, though. It was the only sport I was ever good at. One mistake didn't matter.
If part of true self-esteem comes from being good at something, what's the opposite side of that coin? Not having any self-esteem because you're not good at something?
No, not necessarily. Not having any self-esteem, for students, comes from teachers telling you that you can do something when you can't. It's when you can't write a coherent sentence, or do arithmetic, or understand what you read, and you're told, "That's okay; at least you tried."
What we get instead are young people with an inflated (and therefore false) self-esteem, with nothing to back it up. You get that inflated pride on top, with shame underneath (and envy, too, which is why they expect entitlements without doing anything). They will never admit that shame, or that envy. They will, as is characteristic of human nature, blame their problems on others.
I see these people on the street. Fortunately, there's not many of them, but there's enough to be noticeable. They act arrogant, to cover up the fact they're losers. I don't mean losers in a pejorative way. A loser is someone who doesn't win. These people can't win because they can't do much of anything right.
Plato wrote, "The cause of all sins in every case lies in the person's excessive love of self." It's not true love of self he's talking about. It's more accurate to say, under pride is shame, under grandiosity is inferiority, under self-centeredness is self-worthlessness. Puncturing this fragile "self-esteem" sometimes leads to violence.
When schools tell students they are doing well, when they can't do much of anything, the students will grow up as examples of the preceding paragraph.
I cannot find the history of "self-esteem" in psychology. I can find many psychologists who have dealt with happiness and true self-esteem as being the fulfillment of one's potential. That is, doing what you're good at. It's an old concept, one that runs back to at least the Greeks.
The writer Paul Vitz put it this way: ". . . accomplishment in the real world affects our attitudes. A child who learns to read, who can do mathematics, who can play the piano or baseball, will have a genuine sense of accomplishment and an appropriate sense of self-esteem. Schools that fail to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, corrupt the proper understanding of self-esteem. Educators, who say don't grade them, don't label them, you have to make them feel good about themselves, cause these problems. It makes no sense for students to be full of self-esteem if they have learned nothing. Reality will soon puncture their illusions and they will have to face two disturbing facts: that they are ignorant; and that the adults responsible for teaching them have lied to them."