When my friend’s daughter Rosie was 5, she turned to her mother and said, “I know all the other parents tell their kids that they’re the cutest kids in the world, but with me it’s true, right?” Clementine, another 5-year-old, after just a few months in kindergarten chess club, proclaimed herself “The Chess Master.” When told there were actual grown people who worked many years to become bona fide chess masters, she replied, “Okay, so there are others. But I’m the best.”
Pretty much all parents have a story about their own progeny acting like pint-size egomaniacs. It’s unlikely that any of these kids will to grow up to be an actual narcissist—they were just expressing a developmentally appropriate level of self-love. Everyone is born a narcissist—the natural self-centeredness of the young is one of their most prominent and universal characteristics. Even Sigmund Freud felt that narcissism in early childhood was healthy (he called it “primary, or normal” narcissism), a phase summed up by his phrase “his majesty, the baby.” It’s not just psychological; some evolutionary biologists argue that infantile self-centeredness is a valuable survival tool in a species whose newborns are ill-equipped to care for themselves.
But what about narcissism that persists long after your kid is out of strollers and car seats? Some scientists have warned recently that an increasing number of children are demonstrating signs of a persistent and unhealthy level of narcissism. Naturally, it’s our fault. Parents who raise narcissists, it turns out, are those who tend to subscribe to beliefs that their kids are special, different, and more entitled than the other kids to good things in life.
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Among the statements in the questionnaire given to kids was this one: “Kids like me deserve something extra.” (Kids who had healthy self-esteem but were not narcissists were more likely to agree with this one: “Kids like me are happy with themselves as a person.”) For parents, narcissism-detector statements included these: “My child deserves special treatment” and “I would find it disappointing if my child was just a ‘regular’ child.”
We all know this is terrible parenting, right? It’s like a blueprint for raising the villain in every children’s movie ever. And yet these narcissistic parents and their offspring seem to be everywhere we turn these days. There are the self-absorbed, navel-gazing Brooklyn parents of The Slap, who manage to both hypercurate and totally ignore their marauding tot. There are the hard-core anti-vaccinators who, when asked about the role of herd immunity in keeping the community’s kids safe, respond “It’s not my job.”
Still, there’s perception and then there’s reality. Not every neighborhood is so precious or so permissive.
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“One thing that’s important to clarify is that there are big race, class, and cultural differences in this,” says Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Educational Development. “There are a lot of immigrant families, African-American families, working class families, low-income families, where kids are pitching in a lot, there is much more of a sense of collective responsibility, there isn’t this hyperattention to self-esteem, there isn’t this allergy to kids experiencing adversity of any kind.”
Nor is the rise in narcissistic kids solely the fault of bad parenting. “We think the four major causes are parenting, social media and the Internet, celebrity culture, and easy credit, which makes you look better off than you actually are,” says Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
And then there’s politics. No matter how sane and centered we want to be, all we have to do is read the news to see examples of institutional narcissism, starting with the current craze for American Exceptionalism. If a politician somehow fails to proclaim repeatedly that this is the best country on Earth, more special and deserving than all others—it’s as if a whole nation has gotten too big for its britches. As Colson Whitehead wrote in the New York Times Magazine, the content-free tautologies of politicians and others perfectly represent “our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.”
Still, enough of us are raising our kids this way that it’s a growing problem. And parenting is likely the only way we can really solve it.
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“The majority of the evidence does point in the direction of these more recent generations having higher narcissism than the generations who preceded them,” says Twenge. “When you have parents who overvalue kids, who tell them they’re special and deserve special treatment, then those children go on to have higher levels of narcissism.”
A lot of these parenting failures stem from a misguided attempt to boost our kids’ self-esteem, which is itself a problem, says Weissbourd, who also co-directs the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “There is a difference between having high self-esteem and being narcissistic,” he says, adding that bullies often have high self-esteem. “But we shouldn’t just focus on high self-esteem, because by itself it doesn’t in any way guarantee that people are going to be caring or empathic or good citizens.”
Instead, he says, “parents have to be really deliberate about this, about kids doing chores, helping around the house, meeting their obligations to their communities, their schools. I think parents have to be purposeful about doing these things. I also think parents can’t let themselves be treated like doormats.”
“I think what this study suggests is that instead of saying to your kid, ‘you’re special,’ say, ‘I love you,’” adds Twenge. “In terms of praise, it should be specific rather than general, and the praise should focus on hard work rather than inherent qualities like being smart.”
“In a lot of eras there was more character education, but the forces that used to counteract selfishness are diminishing,” Weissbourd points out. “So in a way it’s more on parents to do that. Parents can work against this tide, and it’s really important that we do.” Part of the problem is that political parties have carved out different meanings for morality; but, he adds, “There’s another kind of morality which I think we have quite a lot of common ground about, which is that kids should be taught to be respectful, caring, and fair.”
Raising kind children takes work, and sometimes it feels as if you’re swimming against the tide. But everything about parenting is hard work; you can work hard and raise a narcissist or you can work hard—at slightly different things—and raise a mensch.
After all, the original Narcissus met his end because he fell in love with his own reflection, jumped in a pond, and drowned. We are our kids’ first mirrors, their reflecting pools. We can show them that while they may be at the center of our worlds, they aren’t the center of The World—and that’s perfectly okay.