There are about as many ways to parent as there are families out there. Some of them are beneficial. Some are tailored to a child’s unique needs or personality. And still others can be damaging to the point that it can detrimentally damage their future. A new study suggests that over-praising could be one of those damaging practices.
Based on a study of 565 children between the ages of 7 and 12, researchers found that children who were over-praised were more likely to develop narcissism. They say this is because the children are placed on a pedestal and are receiving unearned praise.
“It comes pretty naturally,” senior study author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, told CBS News. “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.”
In the study, children and their parents, all from the Netherlands, were asked a series of questions to assess each child’s narcissism and self-esteem. Parental warmth and overvaluation of their children were also measured. This was done in six month intervals over a period of 18 months.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that parents who overvalued their children—reflected in statements like “my child is more special than other children”—were more likely to have children that seemed to be overly confident in their own importance in respect to the world around them.
“I honestly believe one of the most dangerous beliefs that a person can have is that they are [more] superior to 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.”
But that’s not to say that warmth or affection will breed the same kind of behaviors, Bushman says.
“It’s good to be a warm parent and a loving parent, but it’s not okay to treat your children as if they are better than others,” he said. “Everyone we meet is better than us at something, and the fact that we’re all human beings makes us equally valuable.”
In fact, parents that provided warmth to their children—reflected in statements such as “I let my child know I love him/her”—tended to raise children that had healthy self-esteems and a more realistic understanding of their place in the world.
“Warmth doesn’t produce narcissism,” Bushman said. “It produces self-esteem, without all the egotistical part.”
Interestingly enough, though, researchers did not find a link between child narcissism and a lack of parental warmth. That’s pretty inconsistent with what psychology experts have claimed in the past, which is exactly why Bushman thinks parents began placing their children on a pedestal in the first place.
“In America, we have it all backward,” he said. “We assume if we boost our child’s self-esteem, they’ll behave well. We assume self-esteem is the panacea for every ill. 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.”
And, when supporting children, even failed efforts should be praised. However, Bushman says that the praise should be appropriate to the situation, rather than just being “blanket praise that’s not contingent on behavior.”
“Praise them for trying hard, and encourage them to persist and not give up in the face of failure,” he said. “But make praise realistic.”
James Garbarino, senior faculty fellow at the Center for Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago stands behind the study. In fact, he says that parents who treat their children as though they walk on water are only setting them up for failure later on 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 told CBS. “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.’”
But Garbarino did say that these findings might only apply to middle-class children. While children from poor or lower-class families can and sometimes do grow up narcissistic, there are likely different reasons for that.
“Those kids did not end up in this study, so you have to be careful about interpreting it,” he said.
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