Study: Overvaluing can lead to narcissism

  • 16/08/2015
Study: Overvaluing can lead to narcissism

For some time social scientists have been puzzling over soaring narcissism levels in Western society. Some blame social media – Facebook, Instagram – for this rise in self-obsession.

But Dutch researchers now believe that Generation Selfie could actually be blamed on the parents who overvalue and over-praise their kids. They say we need to think very carefully about how we sing the praises of our children.

For three decades now parents have been sold the idea they can't praise their kids enough.

Toning down the praise is an old-school idea gaining new currency, rekindled by a ground-breaking study in Holland that's hit a chord across the Western world.

The research warns that overvaluation by parents might turn our kids into self-centred little so-and-sos.

Dutch researchers had noted the rising levels of narcissism in Western youth. What they wondered was whether this could be connected with the way in which we've been talking to our children.

Psychologist Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam is heading up the study into narcissism in children.

"I think it is very healthy for parents to feel their child is special to them, but it is something else to say 'my child is more special than other children' and that's the belief that might contribute to narcissism," says Professor Brummelman.

The word narcissism comes from the Greek myth about Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection.

In Holland, Europe and across the Western world it's become accepted practice to try and boost kids' confidence right from the start – all thanks to something called the self-esteem movement.

"[That] emerged around the 1980s, which thought low self-esteem was at the root of all social ills – from teen pregnancy to violence – so people started thinking about how we can we raise children's self-esteem."

So we started praising and praising and praising.

But it could backfire by turning kids into self-loving adults prone to aggression and violence. It starts younger than you might think. Professor Brummelman looked at 500 families over two years, repeatedly questioning kids aged seven to twelve and their mums and dads, discovering the first clear link between narcissism and overvaluing parents – "when parents see their child as God's gift to humanity and think their child is the most special and entitled person on this planet".

Overvaluing starts from day one with baby names – a good indication of whether a child is going to be overvalued.

"We found that parents who overvalue also give their children more unique, uncommon first names, so from the moment they are born they want their child to stand out from the crowd."

Kim Kardashian named her girl after a wind – North West.

Believing your kids are super special tends to go hand in hand with excess praise. Researchers found that overvaluing parents praise their kids 60 percent more.

"It's the praise that conveys to children that they are better than others that is the message at the core of the overvaluation and that might contribute to narcissism, not self-esteem."

So instead of lifting self-esteem, all this child worshipping may simply have produced a generation of little narcissists. So what's the answer? Do we have to get a bit meaner?

"I do praise them; I'm just very selective about what I praise," says mother Rachel Goodchild.

Ms Goodchild has got three daughters.

"I was a teacher who praised a lot before I became a parent. I definitely was a teacher who really believed in a lot of praise."

But at the suggestion of a colleague, she tried dialling the praise back.

"I discovered the children I had with me started to make these huge goals and started to make these huge rooms forward and their speed of learning started to increase.:

She carried on that philosophy as a mother.

"I do have really high standards for them and I want to make sure that they know if they get the praise it's because they deserve it and they have achieved something. I don't want to overpraise them or praise them just for the sake of building up their ego."

Besides the narcissism concern, Ms Goodchild is convinced that too much praise actually stops kids achieving.

Ms Goodchild tells a story about a father at the climbing wall with his boy who couldn't make it to the top.

"Every time he'd move up, his father, to try and get him to go further, would say, 'Well done, you're doing a great job.' The minute he'd hear the praise the boy would come back down again because he heard 'great job, well done', and what does that tell you normally? You're at the end, you've done it, so he'd stop."

Ms Goodchild politely suggested to his dad that he stop with the praise.

"Within 10 minutes this boy, who had spent 40 minutes going up and down, was up the top of the climbing frame."

That's reinforced by another piece of research out of Amsterdam. Professor Brummelman found that praising, especially the wrong sort of praising, might actually be bad for children, especially those with low self-esteem.

"I think praising your children is not wrong – it's very good for parents to express their affection and appreciation – but things can go wrong when parents don't think about the way they phrase their praise."

So how should we phrase our praise? He says one of the things parents can do wrong is exaggerate.

"They say, 'You made an incredibly beautiful drawing.'"

That's called inflated praise. Kids see right through it.

The second no-no is focusing praise on the child themselves – "You're so smart. You're so beautiful. You're so pretty."

That is something called person praise – not good either.

In his view, both of those types of praise tend to stop children pushing themselves because they are afraid of failing and tarnishing your very high opinion of them.

"It leads them to avoid challenges to give up easily in the face of failure because they feel they don't have what it takes."

So what should we be doing as parents? Think about your praise, Professor Brummelman says. Is it meaningful or just a mindless gap filler like "good job, well done"?

Instead of "good job, well done", maybe you could say: "I see you tried really hard; you worked really hard."

Try to be specific with your praise, says Professor Brummelman: "I really like the strategies you used to solve that puzzle."

Concentrate on the effort they're putting in. That increases resilience.

"Focus on children's effort and strategies that might help them persist in the face of failure and it might help them seek challenges."

Don't worry, it's absolutely okay to think your kids are special. It's not going to turn them all into narcissists, so long as you don't think they're more special than anyone else.

"Some parents feel, of course my child is special but not more special than others. That's it. 'You're special. You're special but you're not above anyone else.'"

Eddie Brummelman wrote a few pieces for The Conversation that provide an overview of his research:

Jane Merrick, Political Editor of The Independent on Sunday, wrote an opinion piece on why she believes it's important to praise.