There was a fad years ago where parents drove around with yellow and black “Baby on Board” signs in their car window. That period marked the start of helicopter parenting, the give everyone a trophy mindset and other changes in child rearing that many “credit” for creating a generation of children many feel cannot solve problems themselves and have unrealistic expectations in the workplace. The selfie-obsessed may have been over parented, but a new study offer suggestions for today’s parents who may be afraid they need a “Narcissist on Board” sign.
Over inflating the self-esteem of one’s progeny is never a parent’s intention. However, the reality is that many children are receiving unintended poisonous potions of praise, which could lead to narcissistic behavior, according to a new study from Ohio State University.
The Ohio State study results suggest that constant praise for children’s tiniest accomplishments may create over-inflated egos. This can have consequences with the children’s social skills in school and later on in life. Narcissism was already higher in Western countries, and narcissist levels have been steadily increasing among Western youth for decades, the study’s authors noted in their Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences write-up.
The research they conducted tested two competing theories of narcissism as well as measuring its effects. The social learning theory postulates that children become narcissists when their parents overvalue or overpraise them (the “my child can do no wrong” school of parenting). The psychoanalytic theory suggests that children get narcissistic when their parents withhold warmth so they seek it elsewhere.
To test the theories and determine what is perpetuating the narcissism, the team had 565 children and their parents in the Netherlands complete questionnaires every six months for a year and a half. The children, who were ages 7 to 12, were asked to rate how much they agreed with phrases like, “Kids like me are happy with themselves as a person” and “Kids like me deserve something extra.” Their parents were asked to rate the “value” of their offspring, e.g., “My child is a great example for other children to follow.” Both groups rated how much warmth the parents give their spawn.
The results showed that parental overvaluation was an indicator of a child’s tendency to narcissism. However, overdoing the praise did not predict their self-esteem as they aged. In other words, telling kids how exceptional they are does not create healthy self-esteem; it just increases narcissism. One of the study’s authors, Brad Bushman, explained, “People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas a narcissist thinks they’re better than others.” He added that children tend to believe it when their parents keep telling them they are better than others, which may not be good in the long run.
“Self esteem is more about feeling good about yourself,” added Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, who was a coauthor. By comparison, a narcissist is seeking “to feel good about yourself.”
Dealing with childhood narcissism is such a new phenomenon that experts have not developed science-backed parenting advice to combat it. They recommend that parents who want to avoid feeling they have a narcissist on board every time they set out should express genuine warmth and affection to raise their self esteem without falsities or putting children on a pedestal.
By Dyanne Weiss