Overpraising Kids May Turn Them Into Narcissists

When I was about five years-old, I asked my dad if I was as good a singer as Billie Holiday. He told me I was not, and I cried quite a bit over this. I was reasonably sure, at that age, that my parents were supposed to believe that I, Robyn Elyse Pennacchia, was the best at everything.

Looking back, however, I am really grateful for this reality check–because if my parents had told me, at age five, that I was as good at singing as Billie Holiday, I might not ever have bothered to actually work at it. Who knows? Maybe I never would have bothered to actually hone my voice, thinking I was just magically great, and then later embarrassed myself at an American Idol audition.

Yet, when I have related this story to people, they are often completely horrified. Much like my five year-old self, they believe that parents are supposed to “encourage” their children “no matter what.” Even, apparently, if that means telling their 8 year-old child that they can totally join the Ziegfeld Follies if that is their dream.

However, according to a recent study published, I may have my parents’ insistence upon not blowing smoke up my ass to thank for the fact that I am not a narcissist. The study, published in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, by a team led by Eddie Brummelman of the University of Amsterdam, suggests that overpraising children and constantly telling them they are special snowflakes may lead to narcissistic personality disorder later in life.

Narcissistic individuals feel superior to others, fantasize about personal successes, and believe they deserve special treatment. When they feel humiliated, they often lash out aggressively or even violently. Unfortunately, little is known about the origins of narcissism. Such knowledge is important for designing interventions to curtail narcissistic development. We demonstrate that narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others. In contrast, high self-esteem in children is cultivated by parental warmth: parents expressing affection and appreciation toward their child. These findings show that narcissism is partly rooted in early socialization experiences, and suggest that parent-training interventions can help curtail narcissistic development and reduce its costs for society.

The study also suggests that overpraising does not, in fact, lead to higher actual self-esteem. I think this makes sense, because if you tell a kid they’re the most brilliant thing on two legs their whole life, they are bound to be pretty dismayed when they meet someone else who is smarter or more talented than they are.

Further, it says that what children need, more than constant praise, is parental warmth. I really dig that. I would imagine it’s probably more helpful for kids to realize they can fail at something, or totally fuck up, and yet still be madly loved by their parents then to feel as though their parents love hinges on them being super amazing special snowflakes who are somehow better than everyone else.

 

Additionally, I think that constantly telling a kid that everything they do is great will lead to them not really trusting you or actually believing you when you are praising them. Or anyone, even. If my mom tells me she loves something I wrote, I believe her, because I know she’ll tell me if she thinks it sucks.

Of course, lots of studies say different things all the time. It’s possible someone will come out with a study soon saying the complete opposite. I may be inclined to believe this study more simply because I have an extreme lack of patience–and trust–for “special snowflake” types. Generally speaking, I do not find them to be especially loyal or empathetic people unless it benefits them directly, and those are probably the personality characteristics I place the most value on–in myself as well as others.

Is that narcissism? Partially, maybe, I don’t know. If the “lashing out” part is a characteristic of narcissism, then that’s definitely something I’ve seen happen a lot before– though usually when I’ve suggested that “having some perspective” might be beneficial. Special Snowflakes are definitely horrified by the suggestion that they consider those who might have things worse than they do, and I have seen them actually react violently to this. Still, my finding it unappealing and undignified doesn’t necessarily make it a full-on personality disorder, but perhaps it’s worth looking into a bit more.

[Psychological and Cognitive Sciences Journal]

[NYMag]