How (Not) to Raise a Narcissist

We are raising narcissists, or so a new study reports.

The study, authored by Brad J. Bushman, PhD, professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University, asked 565 children aged 7 to 11 years – the years when kids start to compare themselves with other children – and their parents about self-esteem, parental warmth, “overvaluation” and narcissism in their familial interactions and relationships. He found that children of parents who “overvalue” them are much more likely to become narcissistic ― a trait linked to aggression and violence. The study was published online March 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Overvalue our kids?2012-10-27_07-21-25_577

  • give them all trophies
  • run to rescue them from error or misbehavior
  • buffer them from disappointment
  • run interference so they can get ahead

Yes, I have seen all that out there. Have you? But apparently the consequences are even bigger than we realized. Our honest attempts at preserving their self esteem and giving them quality time have gotten a bit out of hand. In fact, we seem to have handed them the keys to the car and forgotten they don’t know how to drive. Not only that, but they think they’re really good drivers; in fact, better than all the other ones out on the road, and you’d better stay out of their way.

That’s what Dr. Bushman is recognizing as narcissism in these kids. The difference between self-esteem and narcissism is that with the former, individuals believe they are as good as other people, whereas the latter means individuals believe they are superior to others. “When narcissists don’t get the special treatment they think they’re entitled to, they become angry and aggressive; they lash out at others in an aggressive manner.” Empathy declines and aggression rises.

Research shows that narcissism levels have been increasing for the past 3 decades, whereas empathy levels have been decreasing, said Dr Bushman. “Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of another person, and narcissistic individuals don’t do that; they only think about themselves.”

Are we contributing this? Can we really be too focused on our kids? The research seems to say so.

How did we get here? I see three trends that seem to have led us here:

  • The Mommy Wars: Working Moms and Stay-at-Home Moms pelting each other with blame regarding how they were either neglecting or coddling their kids. Both groups threw themselves whole-heartedly into “supporting” their kids in a frenzy of showing how they could be the better parent. When “quantity” of time was limited, we made up for it with enthusiasm. Be vocal. Be supportive. Be involved.
  • The give everyone the same size trophy: We’re at every game, on hand to praise everything our kid did, of course, because we wouldn’t want their self esteem to fall short. And if they didn’t play so well, or didn’t behave so well, or didn’t perform as expected, still we praised. If it really wasn’t praiseworthy, rather than say so, we excused or we rescued. The other team cheated. That ref was biased. Those judges played favorites. There, there, now don’t you feel better about yourself? we seemed to say.
  • The time crunch and the paid parent-substitute (be it coach, trainer, tutor, nanny): Mom and Dad can’t afford the time to make sure junior succeeds, but it’s okay, we’ll pay someone to do it for us. And they’d better do it or we’ll fire them. If junior isn’t happy and excelling, it’s not junior’s fault. Heads will roll and dollars will follow. Junior is worth it.

Apparently the kids believed us because now we’ve got more and more kids who have a ballooned impression of their gifts and talents without a clear sense of how fairly to evaluate themselves. Whatever they do, it must be okay. Mommy or Daddy said so with words, dollars, behavior, or all three.

The result is prideful, boastful kids, yes, but worse, they have failed to develop the empathy which comes from life when it upends us. By helping kids avoid hardship or disappointment we have, unwittingly, prevented this empathy from developing, and narcissism has come knocking.

Unfortunately, now Mommy and Daddy are paying the price. The kid they raised and excused and “overvalued” now has no time for them. Have you seen this, too? Kids who treat their parents like an accessory item, giving them no thanks, no respect, no regard.

Dr. Bushman indicts too much use of social media for creating this narcissism in the kids, but this seems evidence of the effect rather than the cause. Our young ones may seek to reinforce their inflated self worth and find that in the attention of ‘likes’ or comments and thumbs up’s. Language and bravado are a-okay if they get attention. I see this as a call for help, not an evil force that corrupts.

The corruption, I fear, started with us. It began with our huge desire to supply everything our kids need and our failure to admit our inability to do it for them.

There’s hope, though. The field of play is a perfect place for kids to work out these lessons. On those fields there are rules, boundaries, referees, rewards and consequences, everything a kid needs to discover the world, if we’ll let them. We’ve got to let them.

We carry them

We hold their hand

We walk beside

We walk behind

We wave from a distance

We tell them to be home by midnight.

Can we do this?

Next week’s post will highlight a coach who has helped families do just this for over two decades!

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