WHO HAD higher self-esteem: Gandhi or Hitler? Columbine High School's valedictorian or the two Columbine students who, that April, killed a teacher, fellow students and then themselves? Albert Einstein or Adolph Eichmann? Popeye or Bluto?

If you picked the first person in each pair (the hero/high achiever), you're wrong. The bad guys, not the good guys, have high self-esteem. So says Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, whose article, "Violent Pride," featured in the April issue of Scientific American, should be made required reading for every school board member, principal, teacher, therapist and parent in America. Baumeister, a social scientist at Case Western Reserve University, has studied the relationship between aggression and self-esteem for more than a decade. His findings completely explode the self-esteem mythology that has driven American parenting and education for more than a quarter-century and explain why, in the "bad old days" when parents and teachers reinforced humility and modesty rather than false pride, America's kids were much better behaved and far less prone to violent outbursts.

People with high self-esteem, says Baumeister, are likely to respond aggressively when their inflated view of themselves is threatened by criticism or perceived insult or when someone obstructs their need for gratification. Gang members have high self-esteem. So do spouse abusers. On a narcissism scale, violent criminals, long thought to be "acting out" low self-esteem, obtained a higher mean score than people in any other category.

In short: the higher one's self-esteem, the lower one's self-control. Doesn't it make perfect sense that the higher one thinks of oneself, the less regard one has for others? Doesn't it make perfect common sense that humble and modest people possess a more functional sense of social responsibility than people who think they are members of a special social elite?

Doesn't it make perfect sense that a school teeming with kids who've been repeatedly told that there is nothing about themselves that requires improvement, that each of them is — to quote a banner I saw hanging in a public elementary school, "one of the most special people in the whole wide world" — not as safe as a school populated with kids whose teachers and parents set high expectations, dispense criticism when it's due and are intolerant of egotistic behavior?

Baumeister makes clear that he finds no fault with performance-based self-esteem, better known as self-competency — the feeling that one is capable of mustering whatever it takes to overcome challenge and adversity. His warnings are exclusive to the brand of self-esteem that develops when parents and teachers dispense praise, reward and good grades "unconditionally" — irrespective of merit. Unfortunately, it's the latter sort that today's kids tend to be "high" on.

The Bible tells us that pride comes before a fall. Unfortunately, as Baumeister's research demonstrates, the people who end up taking the "falls" in question are often those who have run-ins with the prideful. John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, NC 28054 and through his web site.

I think that the move towards promoting self-esteem in children was both well-intentioned and, when it started, an admirable goal. As I recall, the general thought was that students with better self-esteem would, because they thought well of themselves, try harder in school because it would benefit them in the long run, that sort of thing. However, the concept of self-esteem has become something of an uncontrolled juggernaut, and now we find that many teachers, and some parents, encourage students to feel good about themselves even if they are not exerting any effort to do well, much less actually doing well. A related move, i.e., the move toward encouraging students to respect their fellow students, their teachers, etc., has, to some extent, tempered the self-esteem movement, but I tend to agree with Rosemond (with whom I rarely agree, by the way) that encouraging humility and modesty were good things. We all tended to roll our eyes when we were in school and we were lectured about being "good citizens", but frankly, being a good citizen is an admirable thing that should be promoted.

I suppose being a parent with a son who always has a very high opinion of himself, regardless of the circumstances, has flavored my thinking on this subject somewhat. I am reminded of the statement of a friend who is a mother of four to the effect that "Our kids tend to think that they can do anything they decide they want to do – and my job is to crush that thought!"

And remember – You are a special, unique individual – just like everyone else!

Jeffrey L. Patten, Esquire