Experts argue over whether narcissism is really on the rise among young people, but whether you think kids these days are more prone to think they're special flowers or not, one thing is pretty much guaranteed--you personally don't want to raise a narcissist.
But if basically every parent out there is trying to avoid endowing their kids with an inflated sense of self-worth, how did we end up with so many narcissists running around? Or to put it another way, what causes decent kids to turn into egotistical adults?
While that's a complicated question that likely has multiple answers, science suggests that in many cases parental behavior is at least a significant factor. According to one recent study, in fact, one common thing done by many well-intentioned parents puts their kids at a higher risk of becoming narcissists.
The right way and the wrong way to encourage your kids
The study was led by Eddie Brummelman, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and conducted in conjunction with Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman. For the research, Brummelman and Bushman followed the families of 565 Dutch kids aged 7 to 11 for two years.
Every six months the researchers would assess how much the parents in the study group overvalued their kids (by using a questionnaire that asked them how much they agreed with statements like "My child is a great example for other children to follow") and how warm they were with their kids (via another survey with questions like "I let my child know I love him/her"). At the same time, the kids were tracked for signs of narcissism.
The results indicated that while showing your kids warmth and love, unsurprisingly, helps them develop healthy self-esteem, praising them as better than others or exceptional in comparison with their peers (i.e., overvaluing them) had more worrying effects. Over the course of the study, kids whose parents showered them with excess praise showed a measurable uptick in narcissism.
Will every kid who is told he or she is special become a raging brat? Certainly not. When it comes to personality development, genetic and environmental factors are almost certainly at play too, but this study does suggest that parents should think twice before they tell their kids they're above other kids.
"Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society," Bushman commented. In fact, the results of this line of research even convinced the scientists themselves to modify their parenting behavior.
"When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I'm careful not to do that now," he said.
The takeaway for concerned parents is simple: While there is no such thing as too many hugs or too much love, you probably shouldn't tell your kid her third place finish at field day makes her the next best thing to Usain Bolt or always compare your son favorably with his "less gifted" classmates.