We are raising a generation of narcissists, says a recent study conducted by researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the University of Southampton in England, and The Ohio State University. [View the study here] In short, the study found that parents who “over-value” their children (i.e., believe their children are smarter and/or more special than others) have children who rate higher on the 10-item Child Narcissism Scale.
The study defined narcissists as individuals who “feel superior to others, fantasize about personal successes, and believe they deserve special treatment.”
The problem with over-valuing children
While all young children are naturally a tad self-centered, the prospect that we, as parents, are nurturing ego-maniacs is concerning for our society. You might think: “Aren’t I just improving my child’s self-esteem when I tell him he is special and smarter than other kids?” Maybe, if done in moderation, but the study notes the nefarious side of narcissism:
“When narcissists feel humiliated, they are prone to lash out aggressively or even violently. Narcissists are also at increased risk for mental health problems, including drug addiction, depression, and anxiety. Research shows that narcissism is higher in Western than non-Western countries, and suggests that narcissism levels have been steadily increasing among Western youth over the past few decades.”
While I’m certain that I’ll never be Mother of the Year, there is one particular quality that I strive to nurture in my children, and I’m proud of the results thus far: gratitude. Beyond “please” and “thank you,” my husband and I frequently remind our boys that they are not special or better than others, but that they are fortunate to have all that they do, and that there are people who are not as lucky as they are.
“We are privileged, and the duty of privilege is absolute integrity.”
—John O’Donohue, Irish poet & philosopher
One way we have driven this point home has been with no-gift birthday parties. Beginning with our older son’s 4th birthday, we asked his friends to bring canned goods for the local food pantry instead of gifts. I initially worried that people would think I was the meanest mommy in town–depriving my child of a bevy of new toys–but to my pleasant surprise, the other parents were actually appreciative, not only for saving them a trip to the toy store, but also for allowing them a teaching moment with their own children on why we should help those in need.
Parents asked how we got our children on board with the no-gifts concept, but that was quite easy. I believe that children instinctively want to help others. We told our boys that there are people in the world who don’t have enough food to eat…and reminded them that we already have a lot of toys to play with…so wouldn’t it be nice if we could use this birthday party to help the people who don’t have food? And they have agreed.
This week, we celebrated our older son’s birthday, and once again, instead of gifts, he collected canned goods for the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council food pantry at his safari-themed party at The Children’s Museum at Saratoga. As we drove to drop-off the donated items, we talked about how lucky we are to have plenty of food to eat, and how nice it was for him to think of others on this birthday. I looked at him in the rear-view mirror, buckled in his carseat, and I could see the pride in his face, knowing he was doing something good to help others. To me, that is how you build a child’s self-esteem.