New research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at the “Origins of narcissism in children” and finds that “narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others.”
But wait, what if my child really is the smartest at math in his class, or the best soccer player on her team, or the fastest fourth grader in the school? Is this study of narcissism in children suggesting that I hold back from praising my child’s skills, or areas in which he or she is genuinely exceptional? Well, based on the study, it seems that part of the answer is in the difference between narcissism and self-esteem. According to The Ohio State University communication and psychology professor Brad Bushman, who co-authored the study, “People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others.” In other words, yes, by all means, we should praise and love our children, but we should be cautious when it comes to “overvaluing” our children and telling them things that make them believe they are “more special than other children” or that they “deserve something extra in life.”
This study was based on surveys of 565 Dutch children (aged 7-11 when the study began) and their parents. As one might expect, the study found that when parents overvalued their children, they would often claim that their child knew more than a child possibly could — even about fabricated information. I wonder if that’s because these parents felt that if they claimed their children knew more than other children, that would mean that they are also superior examples of parents. What better way to sustain one’s own impulse toward overvaluation than by elevating the intellectual stature of our progeny — it’s like narcissism by proxy.
But let’s get back to that key distinction between narcissism and healthy self-esteem. It turns out that even in children with a natural predilection toward narcissism (it isn’t all nurture, after all), if parents show them more warmth and affection rather than overvaluation, it can help curtail that tendency toward narcissism. Perhaps if this study gains enough attention, and more children get warmth and affection along with positive encouragement, we’ll see fewer teenagers (and adults) walking in beautiful places taking selfies instead of appreciating what’s in front of them.