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The Imposition of the Ashes
Out, out, damn spots, says the Church of Self-Esteem.


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I feel pretty
Oh so pretty
That the city should give me its key
A committee
Should be organized to honor me!
— Maria in West Side Story

Three mornings a week, in the interest of her mother’s sanity, four-year-old Katherine Grace Graham goes to a neighborhood preschool that emphasizes unstructured play, which the American Academy of Pediatrics considers essential for the development of young children.

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Regrettably, the AAP also considers self-esteem essential to the development of young children, which has led to a poster positioned above the lost-and-found bin. The poster is headlined “Why I Am Special,” and on it, Katherine and her esteemed classmates get to announce, in their own words, why they are such wonderful kids. This week, Katherine is special because “I have a big brother.”

Now, I shouldn’t complain. As anyone possessing a preschooler knows, anytime someone asks a four-year-old to fill in the blank, public humiliation may follow. In what passes for logic in her tiny little brain, Katherine could be special because her mother gets Botox. I should just take “I have a big brother” and be happy.

But, as the mother of Katherine, I, too, am special, and this week, I’m special because I’m cranky. And it makes me exceedingly cranky to see my kids petted and praised for being ordinary.

There are, I presume, other children at the Playhouse Preschool who have big brothers. So, Katherine, darling, you’re NOT special, at least not for that. Think of something else.

That’s what I would have said. But some well-meaning teacher (really, babysitter, let’s be honest) no doubt smiled and nodded affirmingly as she wrote the Canticle of Katherine on a tablet and carried it down the mountain. It will soon, no doubt, arrive in your inbox as a smiley-faced spam that says “Please read! The Wisdom of Toddlers!”

My advice: Don’t. Truth is, most preschoolers aren’t really so wise or special, and if they are, they don’t need to know. That’s the conclusion of Po Bronson, author of this week’s cover story in New York magazine. Bronson’s interviews for the piece, which summarizes research showing that excess praise backfires and produces insecure, underperforming twerps, prompted him to drop the cloying excesses with his own kindergartner, who so far hasn’t renounced his father. The article quotes Dr. Robert Cloninger of Washington University in St. Louis, who regularly abuses mice and rats by refusing to reward them when they scamper to the end of a maze. (Someone call PETA.)

Writes Bronson: “Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. ‘The key is intermittent reinforcement,’ says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. ‘A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear’.”

This is distressing news for the self-esteem caucus, which believes that children need constant affirmation of how special and smart they are. And it’s terrible timing, given that this is Boost Your Self-Esteem Month. You may have missed this, being distracted by Canned Food Month and National Cat Health Month, but of course there’s a self-esteem month, just like of course there’s a National Association for Self-Esteem which one can join for a mere $20 (half that if you’re a student).

I want to take the National Association for Self-Esteem seriously; one article on its website makes the radical claim that self-esteem should be connected to competence. But then I took its Rate Your Self-Esteem survey, with all the seriousness I could muster, and I got to the end, after the strenuous work of answering nine questions about myself, and there was a punchline: GREAT JOB!

Thanks! – I feel pretty and witty and smart!

But here it is Ash Wednesday, and I’m left to wonder whether the great mind that thought up Boost Your Self-Esteem Month has ever been to church. If so, is this person simply a product of a public school, or is she a closet curmudgeon with a wicked sense of irony?

In the Christian liturgical year, February is the one month in which the Church requests that we deflate, not inflate, ourselves. The Scripture readings for the past two weeks have been all about worthiness, or the lack thereof: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” a stricken Peter says to Jesus; “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips,” wails Isaiah, facing his God.

And then: “I feel pretty, oh so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and bright” trill West Side Story’s Maria and all her descendents in our society of self-admiration.

There once was a time when a nagging sense of unworthiness was considered a good thing. This was before 1969, when Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which sanctioned narcissism and pronounced self-esteem as the cornerstone of success. As the cult of self-esteem swelled, the art of self-deprecation — even in jest — became a character flaw, indicative of an interior smoldering heap of insecurity and self-loathing. Humility displaced pride as the seventh deadly sin.

Creaky old relic that it is, the Church persists in thinking that human beings are imperfect creatures that benefit from the occasional sober contemplations of their flaws. Today, the dies cinerum, is one such day. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and even some rogue evangelicals mark the beginning of Lent with ashes smudged on their foreheads, a sooty reminder of mortality and sin: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. As self-esteem goes, you can’t go any lower than this. The ashes, in truth, impose. The Rev. Mark D. Roberts, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote in a Lenten meditation that some congregants complain that the Ash Wednesday service is a “downer.” (Note to these people: Good Friday looms. Get Prozac.)

Somewhere, in the Church of Self-Esteem, a pastor today will smear StriVectin on foreheads, not ashes. “You are special,” he’ll whisper, and the worshiper will smile.

– Jennifer Graham is a writer in the suburbs of Boston.



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