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Tag: narcissism

Want narcissistic children? Shower them with praise

This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph and shared online at RendezView 4/1/16.

Thanks to the “every child gets a medal” approach to raising children, many researchers argue we are now dealing with a generation of entitled, fragile “teacup” kids.

It seems the self-esteem movement of the late 1960s, which encouraged parents to boost their child’s self-confidence regardless of any real merit, has had some undesirable and unexpected outcomes.

Professor Helen McGrath cautions that “a lot of the people who gloated about how to develop self-esteem are now writing about how this is actually a dangerous thing to do because what we are really doing is producing kids who are narcissistic… we focus too much on telling them how good they are, how wonderful they are, how everything they do is fantastic”.American Ethan Couch may well serve as the poster boy to warn of the dangers in overindulging our offspring. At 16 years old, he killed four pedestrians while drink driving then claimed in court that he suffered from “affluenza” — that he no longer knew right from wrong as his parents had never held him accountable.

When the judge seemed to accept this defence and sentenced him to 10 years probation rather than prison, his mother then helped him flee (after first holding a going away party for him).

Both mother and son were arrested by authorities in Mexico last week.

It’s clear that Mr Couch and his mother need to be given some long overdue time out — in a jail cell.

But what’s less clear is where the line between supporting your child, and enabling your child, is drawn.

I’ve noticed that on social media, parents are now so loathe to appear to be boosting their child’s sense of self-worth that they begin posts with disclaimers such as “Warning: Proud Parent Brag”.

It strikes me as sad that we now feel worried about sharing our children’s triumphs for fear of being labelled as either pushy or posturing.

Because the real problem isn’t so much high self-esteem in kids, it is false self-esteem.

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Real self-esteem is about appreciating the skills and abilities you do have, learning how to upskill, and also respecting the gifts others have (in order to value yourself, you must first value the person next to you). It is about competence and connectedness.

And praise is the food that helps children thrive — if it is evidence based and spooned out judiciously.

This year I’d love to see more parents proudly sharing not just their frustrations — after all, there’s a longstanding tradition that allows for eye rolling at our kids — but their triumphs too.

Your child blitzed their exams? Three cheers! They coped well with a loss at soccer and helped rally their teammates? Do tell. They’ve just started their own car washing business to earn extra pocket money? I’m sharing the news.

When achievements are truly noteworthy, I’m all ears.

And when praise is genuine, children are all ears too. Kids have a finely-tuned radar for falsities and can see that the ribbon they scored just for participating is really fairly worthless.

Are we raising a generation of narcissists?

There are more narcissistic young people in this generation than ever before. That’s the finding of a long-running study by US psychology professor Jean Twenge, who was in Australia recently. She gave 16,000 university students across the United States psychological testing and found that 30 per cent were narcissistic. This is a doubling in the number of narcissists in just three decades.

Naturally her findings created a bit of a stir in the media, and I went on Mornings with Kerri-anne for an in-depth discussion about it:

The research potentially has major implications for this generation’s future, because narcissism isn’t just spending too much time in front of the mirror or being a bit “up yourself”, which is the way we often use the term in everyday language. A person is classified as narcissistic if they:

  • have an inflated sense of self
  • are arrogant
  • think they’re unique and special
  • believe they are entitled to be treated better than others
  • take the credit for others’ achievements
  • lack warmth and empathy
  • can’t form lasting relationships
  • are highly materialistic
  • continually seek attention and are very vain about their appearance
  • get angry or even violent when things don’t go their way.

Often, things initially do go the narcissist’s way, because they show great confidence and charm. But because their sense of self is built on a shaky foundation, the honeymoon—whether it’s in a new job, a relationship or a friendship—may end quickly and dramatically.

So then, what does Twenge’s research mean for our kids? How alarmed do we need to be?

First, let me say that while giving workshops in schools all over the country, I see far more under-confidence in girls than overconfidence, especially about their looks. I see less vanity and more anxiety. Rather than lack of empathy, I am usually overwhelmed by girls hugging me and saying “I love you” at the end of my session. In my experience, girls are often very keen to get involved in their community and help other people by doing volunteer work.  And even if girls are more focused on having the newest and best of everything than earlier generations were, let’s not forget that they are also the most marketed-to generation: they see between 400 and 600 ads per day.

Twenge’s research in fact backs up my observation that the majority of girls aren’t all that much more narcissistic than earlier generations. She points out on her website that “the average person is only moderately more narcissistic now than 15 years ago.” It’s at the far end of the scale, where a person could be diagnosed with clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that there is an alarming jump: “There are three times as many young people vs. older people with the disorder. That means there are many more highly narcissistic people now than just a decade or two ago.”

There are things we can do to stop the trend. It comes down to modelling the behaviour we’d like our children to show; as I always say, girls cannot be what they cannot see. If the culture around them is all about having the newest and best of everything, getting plastic surgery and being famous for doing nothing, can we blame kids for being focused on those things, too?

Young people are bombarded with images of celebrities who make narcissism look like a desirable lifestyle choice. (I’m sorry to say that Charlie Sheen’s approval rating has gone through the roof with young men recently, according to a poll in The Australian.) They are bombarded with advertising and marketing for products that will make them look richer, thinner, hotter (and more like a celebrity!). You will never be able to stem that tide—but you can talk to them about the media they consume and support them in forming their own judgments and values.

Protecting the next generation from rising narcissism also means making sure that when we praise our kids it really means something. There has been a trend over recent decades to repeat to children that they are special and unique. Increasingly, medals are awarded just for turning up. Of course, this has been done with love and the best of intentions to boost children’s self-esteem. But to create self-esteem that has a solid foundation, we need to:

  • acknowledge real achievement
  • encourage children to be involved in their community
  • encourage them to explore which skills they are good at and identify those they need to work on
  • help them understand that while they see instant successes on reality TV, for most people achievement is the result of hard work and discipline; a good way to do this is to encourage teens to take a starter job.

Finally, here is a great piece of advice from Jean Twenge, who is herself the mother of two young children. When she was asked on Melbourne radio what parents should do instead of telling their kids that they’re special, she answered:

What most parents mean when they say that to their children is “I love you”, so say that instead. That’s a much better message.

It occurred to me that perhaps if the research had been done on Australian or New Zealand young people the result may have been different. What do you think? I would love to hear your perspectives, and your stories about the girls in your life and how they’re developing their own sense of self.

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