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.
“Origins of narcissism in children,” PANS 2015
Most people associate narcissism with adults, but today’s headlines suggest it is now children who are being pointed at for their narcissistic attitudes. Earlier this year, a team of child development and psychology researchers in the Netherlands and the US published an article about the origins of narcissism, arguing that most children learn narcissistic attitudes from their parents.
When children are seen by their parents as being more special and more entitled than other children, they may internalize the view that they are superior individuals, a view that is at the core of narcissism. But when children are treated by their parents with affection and appreciation, they may internalize the view that they are valuable individuals, a view that is at the core of self-esteem.
A schizophrenic media, eager to blame parents for raising narcissistic children, obsessively covered the study’s reports. The Christianity Daily, for example, cautioned about children’s tendency to become narcissists by “internalizing parents’ inflated views of them.” The Washington Post quoted Freud to note that “parents who over-evaluate are under a compulsion to ascribe every perfection to the child.” And The Pacific Standard explained at greater length:
Parents who “over-value” their kids—who say they agree with statements such as “My child is more special than other children”—are more likely to have kids that score highly on narcissism… Although what causes narcissism in adults is still under research, this experiment suggests it could start sometime in elementary school or junior high. And it’s over-wrought parental beliefs about their kids that’s the problem.
Of course, overestimating in general is bad enough, but there’s an important detail about the study’s understanding of “parental overvaluation” that the media consistently failed to acknowledge. Praising and overvaluing, much like self-esteem and narcissism, are not synonyms. High self-esteem means “thinking well of oneself, whereas narcissism involves passionately wanting to think well of oneself.” We might say, then, that praising generates high self-esteem and overvaluing generates narcissism. Yet most media accounts warned parents about over-praising their children. Diana Kennedy, a California-based educational therapist, disentangles this better in her critique of the media’s response, starting with a conceptual deconstruction of “overvaluing”:
The prefix over does not refer to the quantitative amount of valuing of a child or their artwork, as if parents could express the value of their children, but not too often or too many times. In other words, healthy praise does not become unhealthy simply by repeating it too often.
Unfortunately, this seems to be what most of the media stories, and many of the people reading them, seem to assume the study says.… [But] the study says nothing about the frequency of praise, nor, more accurately, the frequency of expressing positive valuations of children. . . .
The prefix over actually refers to the amount of value placed on a child or their actions. Think of overvalued currency. To overvalue in this case means to ascribe a value to a child’s qualities, actions or products that overstates their true value. In other words, placing a falsely high value on those qualities, actions or products.
And here is the crux of the problem. By definition, overvaluing is untrue. It is a caricature of praise. “Your drawing is better than anything Michelangelo ever drew” is inauthentic exaggeration.
I like Kennedy’s analysis because it offers a deeper understanding of a concept that was widely misinterpreted by an alarmist media. Kennedy’s remark is clear. Honest praising doesn’t create narcissistic people. Lying about a person’s qualities does. The saddest part here is that the media’s focus on wrong assumptions about parental praising throws a larger problem in the dark. Children need not to be told they are great if they are not. Most importantly, they need to be noted.
Authentic praise, no matter how frequent, bolsters children’s self-esteem, primarily because it demonstrates that parents are seeing their children. In fact, teachers the world over have learned that simply noting what a child has done is as powerful as telling them it is good (Kohn, 2001, Marshall, 1995). If you don’t believe me, try it. The next time your child shows you a picture they drew, respond with something neutral and detailed, like “you spent forty minutes on that!” or, “you used such bright colors!” and see if your child beams just as much as if you told her the picture was great.
One of the most profound needs of any child–or adult for that matter–is to be truly seen and appreciated for who they really are. Authentic praise shows your child that you do just that. I see you. I see what you did. I value both.
Overvaluing is qualitatively different from healthy praise because it shows just the opposite. Because it is by definition inauthentic and untrue, it makes a child feel unseen, rather than seen, unvalued rather than valued, and unappreciated rather than appreciated.
It is surprising, then, that every report other than Kennedy’s has gotten along with sharing wrong assumptions about parental overvaluation. Rather than warning against false praise, these reports have simply encouraged parents to reduce the amount of praising, ignoring details about lies and false values, and potentially increasing children’s want for praise. It would’ve been better, in my view, for the study to get no coverage and hope for an organic social understanding of the way in which adults recognize children’s actions.
— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor
To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families, published by Zeteo last fall.
Cover image: Narcissus (ca. 1597-99) is attributed to Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Caravaggio and is kept at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome.
Top images: credit unknown
Study: Eddie Brummelman, et al. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,Vol. 112 ,(No. 12), 3659-3662. doi:DOI10.1073/pnas.1420870112
* The report was based on data collected from interviews with 565 middle-class children (ages 7-12) and their parents.
(1) In one of its many articles on the topic, The Washington Post emphasizes an important scenario as a cause of narcissistic attitudes, where parents’ awareness of their own shortcomings are projected onto their offspring:
Though a narcissistic child may have received parental messages that he is special, he also may have been punished by neglectful and abusive parents. A parent of a narcissistic child may overcompensate for his own childhood’s narcissistic injuries, seeing the child as a reflection of himself. His self-worth becomes wrapped up in or projected onto the child. Or he might overcompensate for the guilt he feels, for disliking the child, by overprotecting him…The narcissistic child, therefore, develops a personality that must maintain his feeling of being special, having special talents and being entitled to special treatment.
(2) In another article by The Washington Post, Lenny Bernstain asks, So why do we care about children becoming narcissists? Well, we might take one of the study’s researchers’ word for it:
I’ve been studying aggression for about 30 years, and I’ve seen that the most harmful belief that a person can have is that they’re superior to others. “Men are better than women, my race is better than your race, my religion is superior to your religion.” When people believe they’re better than other people, they act accordingly.
(3) Even The Onion had a say on the topic.
(4) Kennedy further engages in a beautifully developed analysis of praise, quoted here fully:
Overvaluing rings false to a child. They know darned well that they aren’t actually a better artist than Michelangelo. So they have to wonder why their parent insists that they are. Does Mom really not see me? Or is she disappointed with who I am, so she has to lie to herself, everybody and me by saying I am something I am not? Does she want me to be a Michelangelo? What’s wrong with who I am? Overvaluing tells the child they are not ok how they really are.
It also sends the message that only spectacular accomplishments deserve attention. It teaches that there are only two ways to be in the world: super-duper amazing, or beneath notice. Weaknesses, flaws, limitations? Forget those. Only perfection is notable.
Overvaluing correlates with narcissism in children because it means a parent is paying more attention to the child they wished they had than the one in front of them. As such, overvaluing has more in common with unrelenting criticism than with healthy praise. Both communicate to a child that they are neither seen nor appreciated for who they are. On the other hand, authentic praise and realistic valuing are all about noticing, recognizing and accepting a child for exactly who s/he is. And that won’t make a child a narcissist no matter how often it is done.
So, for goodness sakes, don’t let the press’s puritanical, traditionalist misinterpretation of the Origins study make you feel guilty about telling your kid you are proud of his cartwheel, or battle against your natural parental instinct to tell her you were impressed by her home run. And don’t worry about how many times you express your positive valuations. Just make sure you are praising your child for who they actually are and what they actually have accomplished.
(5) An online reproduction of Caravaggio’s attributed Narcissus by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica shows a much darker image than the one used in the cover of this post. Such darker reproduction is probably a more faithful representation of the real painting. In Italy, the restoration process of old masters is slow, often letting paintings grow dark with dirt. However, we might use these two versions—visibly different from each other—to reflect on our capacity to see our own faults. The cover image of this post shows a boy and his reflection quite distinctly. But it is the darker image, with its low contrast, that might reflect our ability to analyze ourselves more accurately—our perceptions growing murkier and more confusing as we attempt to focus on an idealized reflection of ourselves.