Parents trying to boost their children's confidence may be going overboard — and raising kids who are totally full of themselves, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science finds.
The work comes from a team of Ohio State researchers, who wanted to dig into the roots of narcissism and how it develops. Sociologists measured how warm parents are to their kids (by asking kids if they agreed with statements like "My mother/father lets me know she/he loves me") and how much parents overvalue their kids (if they agreed with statements like "My child deserves special treatment").
Researchers came back to these families in six-month intervals, and asked the children to rate how true some narcissistic statements were for them ("I like to think about how incredibly nice I am"). The results were telling: parents who overvalue their kids, even if it's a well-intentioned attempt to boost confidence, are actually creating more narcissistic kids.
Narcissism, the researchers point out, is different from high self-esteem, and they measured both. "People with high self-esteem think they're as good as others, whereas narcissists think they're better than others," said Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study. And, it turns out, when parents were warm to their kids — but not overvaluing — their children actually grew up with higher self-esteem but not higher rates of narcissism.
Researchers studied 565 kids in the Netherlands who were between 7 and 11 years old when the study began, which they say is the prime age range for narcissistic tendencies to show up. They looked at how parents thought of their kids, and at how the kids thought of themselves.
The same team published research in 2014 on how exactly parents overvalue their children. In that study, parents were asked how familiar they thought their kids were with subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the Vietnam War. But the scientists played a trick on parents: they also asked how familiar the children were with made-up subjects like the Green Sea or The Princess and the Grapes.
Parents sometimes responded with made-up answers, inflating how much their children could possibly know. Some would tell the researchers that of course their kids were familiar with these made-up subjects — even though it was impossible. That overconfidence in kids can foster narcissism, which can then cause other problems — research has shown that very narcissistic kids can sometimes be more aggressive and antisocial than their peers.