Teaching teenage girls self-esteem

During a self-empowerment workshop titled “You Are Beautiful,” a 13-year-old girl raised her hand and asked, “Have you ever hurt yourself?” 
Gabby Diaz, the counselor moderating this particular workshop and a radio host at 105.9 FM (Power 106), was at a loss for words as the room fell silent. Astonished and concerned, she asked, “Sweetheart, did you get to that point?” 
The eighth-grader spoke slowly with eyes cast down when she responded, “I gave up on the world, and it gave up on me.”
It was for teenage girls in need like this that Donna Maher organized this event — an afternoon completely devoted to them. It took place Dec. 14 as she stood behind a podium at Hillel at UCLA and spoke to 35 girls, ages 13 to 17. The day’s topics covered everything from social media safety to self-empowerment.
 “Every action we do has an impact,” she told the assembled girls before the workshop officially began.
Maher, 26, grew up in Orange County as a first-generation American; both of her parents were born in Iran. She grew up speaking Farsi and Hebrew at home, and as a result, felt extremely connected to her culture but estranged from her peers at school. She knew what it was like to be an outsider. 
Maher, who now lives in Bel Air and works as a marketing strategist at a tech startup, said she was moved to plan the event by a sense of tikkun olam (repairing the world). So, she collected a group of like-minded friends, started a crowdfunder (where, in Maher’s words, “complete strangers covered the costs for the event”), reached out to Power 106 and marched forward.
The day began with a speech by Maher, followed by a PowerPoint presentation and three workshops. It was topped off by a dance party (music supplied by Power 106).
During the PowerPoint presentation, the image of a piece of pottery was projected onto the front wall. In the cracks, a gold lacquer was used to piece together the fragmented pottery.
“Kintsukuroi is an old Japanese technique that repairs broken pottery with gold and silver,” explained Shalyn Tharayil, a high-school counselor at Alliance Ouchi-O’Donovan 6-12 Complex, part of a network of free, public charter middle schools and high schools in the Los Angeles area. “A lot of times you’re not broken, you’re just going to be fixed into a better version of yourself.”
During a “cross the line” activity, Tharayil read 15 statements as the 35 girls stood in a line. Whenever a statement applied to an individual girl, she was told to take one step forward.
“I am a girl,” Tharayil said as her first statement. All the girls stepped forward. 
“I am an only child.” Some girls took a step. 
“I have felt betrayed by a friend.” Half the girls stepped forward. 
“I cried in the last two weeks.” Most girls took a step as they looked around, gauging the other responses.
“When Shalyn asked if any of the girls had ever felt unworthy and all of them stepped forward, I was really holding back tears,” Maher said. “Partially because I’ve been there and I can relate to that, but I was also really proud of them for admitting it.”
One soft-spoken high-school senior who asked to remain anonymous, the oldest of four siblings, said she plays the matriarch in her family unit. During a social media workshop, she was the only participating student who didn’t have a Facebook account — because of the ruthless cyberbullying by her high-school peers, who taunted her by spreading vicious rumors. 
Maher said in today’s world, social media make it particularly hard to be a teen and that she hoped these classes would provide them with the tools to succeed. “You don’t get these lessons in school,” she added.
After the nutrition workshop, one high-schooler said she once suffered from anorexia and bulimia and that she had gone on an extreme water diet. Other girls also admitted to extreme dieting tactics.
“It was comforting to see other people who experienced the same situation as me,” said the girl, who asked not to give her name.
Participating schools included Alliance Ouchi-O’Donovan 6-12 Complex, Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy 5 and Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High School. 
“I wanted a multicultural, diverse audience,” said Maher. Much like herself, a majority of the girls attending her workshop were first-generation Hispanic Americans. 
During the self-compassion workshop, Diaz told a group of students, “You are all strong in here. You know why you’re strong? Because you came here today.”

Self Esteem

I will use my old friend Richard Gunther’s accompanying letter as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the self-esteem movement.

First to some specifics in his letter, which can be read in full on page 7.

“True self-esteem comes from a personal recognition of a job well done — of a life well lived.”

Agreed. But the self-esteem movement is about self-esteem that has nothing to do with “a job well done.” Kids are given sports trophies for merely playing, not for a job well done. That is phony and unearned self-esteem. And self-esteem that is unearned is as worthless as happiness that is unearned (people who earn $60,000 a year are happier than people who win millions in a lottery).

“This aim of doing good works is the goal (of the self-esteem movement).”

That was the announced goal of the self-esteem movement. It is also its key fallacy. The movement is based on the false premise that self-esteem leads to good works. It doesn’t. 

If you don’t believe me, here are some experts.

Writing in The New York Times, one of its science writers, Erica Goode, wrote: 

“ ‘D’ students, it turns out, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers.”

Goode further notes: “Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, argues that … ‘The pursuit of self-esteem … ultimately divert[s] people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and lead[s] to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.’ ”

Self-esteem not only doesn’t lead to good acts, it often leads to bad ones. Roy Baumeister, a Florida State University professor of psychology who has devoted much of his professional life to studying violent criminals, told me on my radio show, and has written repeatedly, that violent criminals have particularly high self-esteem.

And in an extensive review of relevant studies, Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found that high self-esteem, “was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors.” 

In short, the self-esteem movement is based on nonsense when it posits that self-esteem leads to responsible behavior. On the contrary, thanks to it, we are producing a generation of self-satisfied, unproductive narcissists.

I suspect none of this will matter to Richard Gunther or to any of the millions of others who believe in the importance of self-esteem. But those who believe in the importance of self-esteem might want to engage in this experiment: Ask the individuals whose ethical and moral character you most respect, the people you most admire for their integrity and goodness, if they had high self-esteem when they were children. When virtually none of them answers “yes,” will you still believe that self-esteem in children is morally significant?

Based on the scientific evidence and on my own experiences in life, I have become convinced that self-esteem in children is actually a bad sign. When I meet a child or a teenager with high self-esteem, I worry for them and, more importantly, I worry for those who will come into contact with them.

In this regard I will briefly — and, admittedly, self-consciously — respond to Richard Gunther’s assessment of me: “I have known Dennis for many years, and he has an ample supply of self-esteem.”

The truth is that I never suffered from high self-esteem. I have long had self-confidence with regard to specific abilities. But I had little self-esteem as a child, and as an adult, I have earned whatever self-esteem I have. Moreover, in the depths of my soul I believe that the janitors in my building are not one whit less worthy or valuable than me. From the earliest age, I assimilated the Jewish view that we are all created in God’s image, all infinitely precious. And I see myself as being as answerable to the same God and to the same Torah as any of my fellow Jews. 

The Torah describes Moses as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Clearly Moses had the self-confidence needed to confront the Pharaoh, and lead the Jewish people. But, as the verse suggests, it is doubtful that he had high self-esteem.

The self-esteem movement has caused great damage. It has been just one more expression of an age that values feelings more than behavior. And, yes, just one more example of another naïve and therefore destructive progressive idea.

If you want to make good human beings, ignore their self-esteem and be preoccupied with their self-control. Another good Jewish and conservative idea. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Judaism’s greatest lesson: Behavior matters most

If I were asked to identify the greatest Jewish teaching, the most important lesson to be learned from all of Judaism, I would argue that, aside from ethical monotheism, it is that behavior matters more than anything else, and certainly more than feelings.

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.


The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.


The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act. 

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

Social Justice

“Social justice” is a politically loaded term. Nevertheless, I will deal here only with the intent of those committed to “social justice” — to helping people who are less well-off than we are. 

We have here another prime example of the relevance of the Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters: Making social policies that work is what matters. Too often, social justice policies are enacted because they make their proponents feel good because they think they are doing good, not because they actually do good. To give but one of many examples, everything I have read confirms what common sense suggests: Lowering standards for college admission for blacks has done far more harm than good for black students. But proponents don’t seem to care about that; what they care about is feeling that they are helping a historically persecuted group.


In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.


The rule that one should not rely on feelings to determine one’s behavior even applies to sex with one’s spouse. That is why the Talmud actually lists the number of times per week/month/year a man owes his wife sex. The same holds true for wives. If a woman is married to a good man whom she loves, in general she shouldn’t allow her mood alone to be the sole determinant of whether she has sex with her husband. It is far better for her, for her husband and for their marriage to have sex even on some occasions when she is not in the mood. Of course, it is his obligation to then try to get her in the mood, but she should allow him to at least try to do so even on occasions when she is not in the mood.


Judaism itself is built on this behavioral paradigm. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur only if we are in the mood to do so. A Jew doesn’t observe Shabbat only if he is in the mood to do so at sunset on Friday. One simply does so, and if done well, religious feelings follow.

You want to raise good children? Communicate to them that how they feel is of no concern to almost anyone in the world. But how they act is of concern to everyone they will ever meet. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Club Kung Fu teaches special kids lots more than skill

It was Monday, Jan. 8, the day of the college football national championship game, which I was eager to watch, since it was my favorite sport. But the game also fell on the day of the opening of Club Kung Fu at The Friendship Circle. I was a volunteer in the program.

What should I do? Watch the big game or fulfill my commitment? I realized that there were more important things in life than football, and this was one of them.

Club Kung Fu is a martial arts program for Jewish special-needs children ages 9-15 that is designed to improve self-discipline, self-esteem and physical fitness. Right now, about eight boys meet weekly, but the program is expanding, thanks to a Cutting Edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

It all started when I met Rabbi Michy RavNoy, executive director of The Friendship Circle, an organization set up to pair volunteers with special-needs children. My family and I became very involved because my Uncle Brian (of blessed memory) had been a special-needs child who could have benefited from the program. Since volunteering has always been highly valued in my family and since I love sports, this program was a natural fit for me.

The students in the club have disabilities that aren’t visible from the outside but do exist, making their lives hard in many ways. They have autism, severe learning disabilities or behavioral challenges. Most of them lack social skills and are very lonely.

Even with these disabilities, they all have a good chance of functioning well in society with some additional assistance and support. This program gives these kids the opportunity to socialize and interact with others, while learning important self-defense skills.

Furthermore, with some Torah lessons from Rabbi Michy during class, their Jewish pride is strengthened. They are making friends while strengthening themselves both physically and emotionally. Since the participants are often targets of bullying, it is perfect because they also learn how to protect themselves.

The children are upbeat, learning the art of kung fu and having tons of fun doing it. Jack Huang, the leader, is not only a great teacher but a great guy. Although he is not Jewish, he seems to be attuned to Judaism.

He once said to Rabbi Michy, “I’m sure God says somewhere [in the Bible] that if you help yourself, God will help you.” He understands these kids and relates well to them. He can be serious and funny at the same time. He is well respected.

Along with two other volunteers, I act as a personal assistant to Huang. Together we help the participants master the moves that Huang teaches by helping them practice kicks, punches and blocks.

It is unfortunate that for most of these kids, this is the only time in the week they get out and interact with others, besides at school. They definitely take advantage of it. The impact of the program is huge, and I can clearly see the changes in them. At the beginning they were all very shy, but now they come into class noisy and ready to learn and have fun.

One student in particular, Michael, started off extremely shy. He would hardly interact with anyone and preferred to play video games at home all day. But as time went on, he started to come to each class with a huge smile on his face.

He has gone from being the quietest to the loudest and most enthusiastic. He is comfortable being around both the assistants and his other classmates and, in addition, is constantly cracking hilarious jokes.

One boy, Akiva, started out as a student but soon, instead of being assisted, started to assist others. I have watched him mature greatly. He now works so well with the other students that they have begun to look up to him, which has been great for his self-esteem. He is so committed to the class that one time, when his parents were going out of town, he insisted that they make sure that he could get a ride to Club Kung Fu.

This program means so much to me. I love seeing these kids grow up and improve their social skills, and I feel good about being a part of their development. It is amazing to watch them work hard and, with pride, receive their first belts. I, too, had the added satisfaction of earning my own belt.

I will always have opportunities to watch football, but watching these special-needs children integrate into society is far more satisfying.

Nathan Sobol is a 10th-grader at Hamilton High School Academy of Music.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15; deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Grading Parents on Report Card Day


Report card season is meant as judgment day for kids, but in many cases it is the parents who come under scrutiny — most notably by the kids themselves.

How a parent reacts can bring a kid’s self-esteem up or knock it down, can encourage them to put forth more effort or to become complacent and can send strong messages about priorities, values and dealing with being judged.

In a Jewish community where academic pressure is high, keeping things in focus during report card season is essential. Positive and specific feedback, goal-setting and, above all, open communication — among the parent, the student and the school — is essential.

“When the report card comes the parent should ask themselves a few questions and have a good conversation with their child,” advised Ronni Ephraim, chief instructional officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). “The first thing you have to ask yourself is ‘do I have good communication with my school?’ and ‘what can I do as a parent?’ and ‘what can I ask my school to do better to help me understand where my child is before I get the news in the mail?'”

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, head of school at Temple Emanuel Day School in Beverly Hills, said most schools today see the report card as one part of an ongoing narrative of the child’s social and academic progress through the school year, with conferences, progress reports and as-needed phone calls or meetings laying the context for what comes in the mail.

But even if the grade comes as no surprise, seeing the concrete letter or number on an official slip of paper acts as an important moment in a child’s school year, and knowing how to interpret the grade is essential.

“If a child is far behind, you need to ask why,” Ephraim said. “Are they doing their homework, are they attending class, are they attentive when they are in class, are they working as hard as they can? Depending on those answers, the parent knows how to engage with the school and the child.”

If effort and assiduousness don’t seem to be the issue, look to things such as the child’s emotional and physical health, where she sits and what her learning style is and work out a plan with the school and the student to bring things to a better level, Ephraim said.

Mapping those strategies out before the report card actually comes can soften the blow of a bad grade.

Parents also need to be realistic about their expectations.

“A lot of parents want their children to do better then they did and are pushing them harder because of their own issues, but they are pushing past what a child is capable of handling,” said Dr. Deborah Cutter, a family therapist who has taught classes in positive parenting.

But when a child is performing below his capability, Cutter advised letting the child know that while you expect better, your support and love is unconditional.

“You want to have an environment where the child can feel comfortable communicating and that they understand that you are there to support them no matter what,” Cutter said. “You don’t want to put the child on the defensive, because they are not going to listen and just shut you out.”

Even when a child is doing well, let him or her know that maintaining that standard will take more work as the material gets more challenging.

“I think it is really important to celebrate good grades, but to always set new goals,” Ephraim said. “A grade is just a grade in time.”

Cutter said the old-fashioned idea of rewards for grades hasn’t lost its power.

“I’ve found that using behavior modification with children really works,” she said, for example, offering $5 or $10 per “A” for older kids or a trip to the toy store for younger kids.

Any punishments, Cutter said, should be a natural consequence. For example, if a child has procrastinated on a report because she was instant-messaging all night, limit computer privileges.

Schools are working to make sure that parents know more about what is going on with their children.

At Emanuel, marks are very specific, so rather than a generic math grade, children get marks in things like addition, subtraction and fractions.

Like many other schools — including LAUSD elementary schools — Emanuel has moved to a one-through-four number system.

LAUSD ties those grades to the standards set out by the state, so that if a child gets a four (exceeds the standards) or a two (partially meets the standards) a parent can go to www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ and www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/offices/instruct/standards, and see what specific academic criteria the child is or isn’t meeting. (Colleges expect letter grades, so high schools are still on the A-F scale.)

Going from letters to numbers also reduced the number of marks from five (A, B, C, D, F) to four, eliminating the default grade of C.

“You are either meeting or not meeting standards,” Ephraim said. “The middle-of-the-road grade was taken out.”

Whether report card day means a celebratory dinner or lots of slammed doors, Ephraim advises parents and kids to keep things in perspective.

“We have to be sensible about it and know that these kids have a long life of grades ahead of them, from kindergarten, through high school and even in college,” she said (speaking more as a Jewish mother than an educational professional, she admits). “We have to be careful about how we react to those grades in a way that doesn’t harm their self-esteem and at the same time that doesn’t let them be lazy. It’s a fine balance, and that is what parenting is about.”

How To React — and Not React — to Grades


• Don’t compare kids to their siblings or classmates.


• Feedback should be specific (nice work figuring out adding fractions), not general personality assessments (you’re a math genius).


• Point out what a child has done right along with what he has done wrong.


• Reward effort and incremental change, not just bottom-line grades.


• Keep communication open and don’t put the child on the defensive.

To the Graduates

I can’t remember a word spoken by Ira Goldstein, the Plainview (NY) High School valedictorian, Class of 1965, but I’m sure his graduation address was brilliant. Ira, who apparently was in the Philosophy Club with me for three now-forgotten years, was the most brilliant boy in a class of brilliant boys. Girls were “smart” or “sweet” in those days; boys were “brilliant.”

“The difficult he does quickly; the impossible takes a little longer” was written under Ira’s school photo. He was destined for greatness, but I never heard about him again. I used to follow him home from school, padding along behind him since he lived around the corner from me. I can’t remember a word he said.Still, I miss him terribly. I know this sounds insane, but 35 years later I think I’m finally ready for high school. Having worked on my self-esteem for three decades, I’d finally be capable of talking to Ira about things that matter. Leslie Wiletzky, who had been a god to us girls as sophomore class president the year after I moved from the city to the suburbs, would no longer intimidate me either. I’m even ready for Bob Dickman (Fencing, Honor Society, Russian Magazine) now. And what about Allen Kranz, sports editor? I can still fake interest in football, if that’s how the game is played.

Yes, now I’m ready for high school. I’m confident I can enter the girls’ room on my own now, without a bodyguard. I’m not afraid of those “Leader of the Pack” gang girls with their teased hair and stiletto nails, though I still dream about them and break into a sweat.

The first time around, none of my outfits were good enough, and the fashion police in the sorority crowd had real fun snickering at my plaid skirts. I didn’t own a single Orlon sweater, let alone a twin set! These days, I’m an adult and wear jeans. But just in case I relapse into self-doubt, it’s good to know that I can have all the sweater sets I want – and in Lycra – since my mother no longer co-signs my charge card! I can afford my own Kate Spade bag, too, if I want one. You can’t be too well-armed against peer pressure.What a wuss I was. I hated lunch hour, spent writing morose poetry and trying on shades of lipstick, even though my best friend at the time, Diane Cobert, swore in my yearbook that we had endless fun. “I can still remember that first day in Caf 2A eating spaghetti,” she wrote in my yearbook. “Ever since it’s been a ball.”

What an actor I must have been. Everyone, it seems, admired my sense of humor. I burned my hair during the National Honor Society candle lighting ceremony. What a joke! David Don, however, took me seriously.

“Despite your liberal tendencies, you’re still OK,” he said. See, it began early.No matter what they say in the Plainview Gull, I was totally unhappy, and I mean every single day. Paul Kornreich (Chess, German Club) had the right idea. “Whenever you’re feeling gay,” he wrote, “just remember the miserable times we had in history; that will cure you.”

I made it look good, I guess, as did we all. I don’t remember my public speaking class, but Barry Aaronoff insists I alone made it endurable for him. “The only good spot of the period was you.” He never said a word to me, I swear it.

It’s no wonder that it took so long for the pain to ebb. We were just kids, hurting each other mercilessly in preparation for the real world, which has been kind in comparison. That’s why I’d like once again to look into Barry Aaronoff’s eyes.

“You wrote ‘I’ll never forget,'” I’d tell him, pointing to his own handwriting. “Did you?”

Since I’m on the topic of high school graduation, it’s not too early to address the college road ahead. Inspired by Maria Shriver’s best-selling “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known – Before I Went Out Into the Real World,” here are the first “Four Things I Wish I’d Known – Before I Went to That Hare Krishna Meeting” (with more to follow soon):

1) Learn who you are: Many people think college is the time to experience alienation, to respect other cultures more than your own and to bust the rules. Fine, but rebellion gets tiresome. Plan to take a Jewish studies course. There’s more to our tradition than your Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Your non-Jewish roommate may know more about religion than you do. 2) Get a support system: You may think Hillel is square, but come the High Holidays, you’ll be glad it’s there. Keep the number posted. Use It. 3) Watch out for loneliness. Suicidal thoughts and depression are too common among freshmen. Don’t be macho. Call home. Light candles. Keep your spiritual life alive. Get a subscription to your hometown Jewish newspaper. 4) Satisfy your curiosity, but don’t forget to come home. Of course you may want to date non-Jews.

But then get smart and see Rule 1): Learn who you are.Meanwhile, has anyone seen Ira Goldstein?

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com


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