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Golis: A closet full of self-esteem

  • Former Democratic Assemblyman John Vasconcellos of San Jose, dubbed the Johnny Appleseed of the self-esteem movement. (Associated Press file, 2003)

In time for Thanksgiving, we dredged up the last box of old sports trophies from the bowels of a bedroom closet. For our adult sons, home for the holiday, the message is: These trophies need to go.

In the distant future, archeologists may puzzle over landfills crammed with plastic artifacts engraved with “Rose City Tournament, 4th Place, 1996,” or “SRYSL, Participant, 1989.”

Some of these mementos — and there are dozens of them — testify to our sons' contributions to winning teams; some were their reward for showing up.

Win or lose, the drill was usually the same: Year-end party, eat pizza, hand out trophies. I'm not sure when or how this ritual started, but it became what was expected for teams that won and teams that didn't.

This obligation never made sense. Kids know the score, and kids are tougher than that. But I never knew a parent to refuse. For parents, there was a mix of emotions at play in these season-ending rituals.

The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote last week about “the modern cult of self-esteem” and the recent opposition to more rigorous national standards for America's schools. Bruni's column asked the question: “Are kids too coddled?"

Bruni found his answer in an analysis from Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy: “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”

I'm not sure how, but Bruni even knew about the plastic statuary gathering dust in our spare bedroom closet. As proof of the ways we coddle kids, he mentioned trophies awarded “for participation.”

What Bruni didn't say is that the movement to shield children from consequences didn't begin in New York or Washington.

The self-esteem movement began — where else? — in California. In 1986, Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, signed into law the measure to create the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

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