The authors of a new study say their research demonstrates 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.
"It comes pretty naturally," said senior study author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. "Most parents think their children are special, and deserve better treatment. But when our children receive special treatment, they become narcissistic and come to believe they deserve more and are superior to others."
On the opposite end of the scale, researchers found that children raised in an atmosphere of simple parental warmth were more likely to have an appropriate level of self-esteem, but not narcissism.
"It's good to be a warm parent and a loving parent, but it's not OK to treat your children as if they are better than others," Bushman concluded. "Everyone we meet is better than us at something, and the fact that we're all human beings makes us equally valuable."
In the study, researchers evaluated 565 children aged 7 to 11 from middle-class neighborhoods in the Netherlands, along with their parents.
Parents and children answered a series of questions designed to assess a child's narcissism and self-esteem, as well as a parent's warmth and overvaluation of their child. Researchers administered the questionnaires four times over a period of 18 months.
The research team found that parents who overvalued their children -- reflected in statements such as "my child is more special than other children" -- did end up with children who were overly convinced of their own importance.
"I honestly believe one of the most dangerous beliefs that a person can have is that they are [more] superior than others," Bushman said. "When people think they are superior to others, they behave very badly. It's much better to treat everybody like we are all part of the human family, and are all worthy of respect."
The study did not prove that parents who idolize their children cause their child to be narcissistic; it only showed a link between the two.
Bushman believes that children should earn their rewards and not simply be given them.
"In America, we have it all backward. We assume if we boost our child's self-esteem, they'll behave well. We assume self-esteem is the panacea for every ill," he said. "Rather than boost self-esteem and hope our kids act well, we should wait for good behavior and then give them a pat on the back for that."
James Garbarino, senior faculty fellow at the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago, warned that parents who treat their children as though they walk on water are setting them up to sink like stones later in life.
"It's a good investment to temper narcissism, because otherwise you are setting your kids up for a big fall later in life," Garbarino said. "Eventually, life shows you that you're not that special. You've heard the saying, 'Time heals all wounds?' In this case, 'Time wounds all heels.' "
What is narcissism? Narcissism is an obsession with one’s self and an exaggerated sense of entitlement. A narcissistic personality seeks attention constantly and considers themselves better than others. When they feel humiliated, they can lash out aggressively or even violently. They set unrealistic goals and often take advantage of others to achieve those goals.
An appropriate amount of self-esteem comes and goes in cycles. It’s a child’s sense of worth and belonging. Family, friends, failure, skills and accomplishments play a large role in the building and re-building of self-esteem. A child is better able to achieve a healthy dose of self-esteem when parents offer realistic support and respect in their child’s struggles. Self-esteem can also come from helping others.
As parents, most of us believe that our children are indeed special – that’s a normal parental outlook. This study however, looks at the type of parent that believes his or her child is not only special (in their eyes) but should also be seated far above all others. The kind of parenting that teaches a child that everything they desire should be given to them even at the risk of hurting others.
The study was published in the March online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Sources: Dennis Thompson, http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20150309/overindulgent-parents-may-breed-narcissistic-children