Think telling your children they’re special will help them reach higher, work harder and bravely pursue their dreams? Maybe. But you might also be making them narcissists.
New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that children whose parents told them they were “special” and “superior” grew more narcissistic over time.
Everyone recognizes a narcissist, said Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and author of “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “Generation Me.” Narcissists have an overinflated sense of self, and suffer from vanity, materialism, entitlement, a lack of empathy and overvaluing their abilities and skills.
In short, “they’re jerks,” Twenge said.
Narcissistic traits start appearing in children as young as seven. That’s the age they start comparing themselves to others.
And narcissism is not to be confused with high self-esteem, especially in young children, said Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam and lead author of the study.
“Narcissistic children feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and want to be admired by others. Children with high self-esteem feel satisfied with themselves” as people, he wrote in an email.
But the narcissists are also aggressive, prone to bullying others and lashing out when they don’t get their way. They have problems maintaining personal relationships. And narcissism doesn’t lead to success, Twenge said.
“There’s this idea that you have to be self-absorbed to succeed, and that’s not true. (Narcissists) end up failing,” she said. “They alienate people. They take too many risks.”
Millennials, those born between 1980 and the early 2000s, have been accused of being the most narcissistic generation, but it’s a trend that’s been rising in Western cultures since at least the 1970s, Twenge said. And some research indicates that the increasing emphasis on the individual goes all the way back to the Renaissance, she said.
But why do kids grow up to be narcissists? There are two prevailing — and contradictory — theories, Twenge said. Some say parents who overpraise and emphasize a child’s specialness raise narcissists. Others say it stems from the opposite: kids who are undervalued and treated harshly.
Brummelman studied 565 children in the Netherlands between the ages of 7 and 11 and their parents. They surveyed the families four times, with six months between each visit. Children filled out questionnaires, ranking statements like “kids like me deserve something extra” and “kids like me are happy with themselves as a person,” and “my father/mother lets me know he/she loves me”. Parents were asked how they regarded their children, either by overvaluing (“my child is more special than other children”) or how warmly they treated them (“I tell my child I love him/her”).
Brummelman found that parental warmth led to high self-esteem. And children whose parents believed they were more special or entitled than other children were more likely to be narcissistic.
“When people attempt to raise children’s self-esteem, they might sometimes inadvertently use ‘overvaluing’ practices, such as conveying to children that they are superior to others. Instead of raising self-esteem, these practices may predict higher narcissism levels,” Brummelman said.
Overall, the study found that fathers were more likely than mothers to overvalue their children, saying that their kids were more special or entitled. It could be that those parents were a bit narcissistic themselves, Brummelman said, and narcissism may be passed on from one generation to the next.
So how do you raise kids with high self-esteem who aren’t narcissists?
“Instead of saying, ‘You’re special,’ say ‘I love you,’” said Twenge, who has three daughters of her own. People have confused overvaluing specialness with love, she said. Saying “I love you” rather than emphasizing your child’s specialness sounds overly simple, but it works, she said.
“That’s what parents mean anyway, and it’s a much better message.”
Parents, do you overvalue your kids? Take the survey used by researchers.