Should society tell 10-year-olds, “The world is better off with you”?

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A few weeks ago the New York Times published a photo of what I had reason to believe was an elementary school classroom. I couldn’t help but notice a large, colorful sign in the classroom that read, “The world is a better place with you.

Using an example from a fifth-grade classroom, I told my radio audience that I found the sign insane, even stupid.

I consider this to be part of the narcissism-inducing trend started in the 1970s with another dumb idea, the “self-esteem movement”, which was started, no shock, in California by a senator of state who was, it won’t be a shock, a Democrat. I wrote and said at the time that this would lead to terrible consequences.

My reasoning was that self-esteem has to be earned, it cannot and should not be given away. People who walk around with undeserved high self-esteem are often a danger to society. This has been confirmed by one of the nation’s most renowned criminologists, Professor Roy Baumeister, who wrote and told me on my radio show that murderers possess higher self-esteem than almost anyone else members of society. This is perfectly logical. You must think you are better than others to take another person’s life.

So what’s wrong with this message to fifth graders? Isn’t it a positive thing for a 10-year-old to be told that the world is a better place just because he’s there?

Apparently not. Given how long such messages have been communicated to young Americans, they should be among the happiest young people in American history. Indeed, they should be among the happiest young people compared to young people living in any other country.

We’ve spent 50 years telling young people how great, brilliant and special they are, giving young people trophies even when they or their teams lose, and most recently abolishing valedictorian majors for fear that graduate students don’t think badly. Yet all this shower of esteem has been accompanied by the highest rates of depression and suicide ever recorded among young Americans.

Equally horrific, all of that undeserved praise has produced at least two generations of young and now middle-aged Americans who are indeed special — in their narcissism and in their inability to deal with setbacks. If I’m so awesome, if the world is lucky to have me, why isn’t life rewarding me? Why is life so difficult?

This is the genesis of the “safe spaces” that nearly all contemporary American campuses provide for students who find having an on-campus lecturer they differ with is so traumatic that they retreat to a “safe space.” There, they are provided with hot chocolate, Play-Doh and videos of kittens frolicking so they can soothe their perceived trauma.

Telling every CM2 student that the world is better because they are there fuels this feeling of undeserved importance. Not to mention that this is rarely true. Their family may think it’s a better place because they were born, and if a parent wants to communicate that feeling, it can be a helpful thing to say on occasion.

However, it raises the question of whether it was a bad thing that few parents, let alone schools, before the 1970s told their young children this. In some cases, like a child who thinks excessively badly of himself, it can sometimes be good. However, given the growing number of narcissistic and depressed young Americans over the past half-century, it has certainly not been a good thing for society to constantly communicate such messages.

Let me compare this poster in the elementary school classroom with posters I remember hanging on the walls of my elementary school, a religious Jewish school known as a yeshiva.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Watch your tongue” (gossip is a big no-no in Judaism).

“Who is strong? The one who conquers his desires.

In other words, traditional religious education revolved around making children better people, precisely so that one day the world would be a better place for us to have been.

Even traditional American public schools—until the mid-20th century—emphasized self-control, not self-esteem. And Christian schools have always emphasized humility – practically the opposite of undeserved self-esteem.

My review of the “The world is a better place with you in it” poster in elementary schools went viral after a left-leaning website tweeted a small portion of my talk show video. At one point last week, it was actually the top trending tweet on Twitter.

Like every time I’ve been attacked on left-wing sites, either a small out-of-context portion of what I said was quoted or a headline simply lied about what I said. An example of both was this headline on the left-leaning site AlterNet: “‘What a stupid post’: Dennis Prager lambasted for suggesting children are useless.”

One of the hosts of the left-leaning “Young Turks” podcast actually said my dad obviously didn’t like me because I said it was inconceivable that he told me when I was in fifth year that the world is a better place because I was there.

My view is that my dad and his dad and his dad and his dad going back to the beginning of recorded history probably never said that to their 10 year olds precisely because they loved them enough to want to make some mature and non-mature adults remain children in a constant – and exaggerated – quest for affirmation.

We call the World War II generation “the greatest generation”. How many of this generation do you think were told when they were in fifth grade that the world was a better place because they were in it?

I suspect next to nothing. Their parents and schools emphasized self-control, not self-esteem.

It’s one of the main reasons they made the world a better place.

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