It seems these days the more people try to turn conventional wisdom on its head, the more conventional wisdom seems to prevail. Back when the U.S. was outpacing the rest of the world in nearly everything, parenting was generally done a certain way. Today, impressively ambitious attempts are continually made to prove old wisdom in parenting wrong, but the results seem to suggest a different story. Now researchers have finally conducted a large, prospective cohort study to look into one developing problem in the U.S. and other Western nations, and it is narcissism.
According to a report published recently by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, narcissism—excessive selfishness and grandiose view of oneself—can be conclusively linked to overvaluation of young children by their parents. The findings of the study fly in the face of contemporary, conjecture-based recommendations that positive reinforcement is the only kind of parenting worth considering.
“Narcissistic individuals feel superior to others, fantasize about personal successes, and believe they deserve special treatment,” wrote the team of Ohio University researchers. “We demonstrate that narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others.”
The scientists set out to test two popular, competing theories of narcissism development. One of these is the social learning theory that says kids develop an inflated view of themselves from chronic overpraising by their parents. Proponents of this theory believe that children internalize the praise of their parents and develop expectations of special treatment and privilege.
The competing theory, the psychoanalytic theory, holds that kids become narcissists in the absence of parental warmth. The foundational mechanism for this theory is that kids who do not receive enough warmth from their parents place themselves upon a pedestal in order to compensate for the unfulfilled need for reassurance.
The researchers studied 565 children ages 7 – 12, along with their parents, residing in The Netherlands. The subjects filled out questionnaires every 6 months for 18 months. Some questions were designed to assess narcissism. For example, the children were asked to rate their degree of agreement with statements like, “Kids like me deserve something extra.” Other questions sought to assess self-esteem, such as identification with statements like, “Kids like me are happy with themselves as a person.” Parents were asked to rate their identification with statements like, “My child is a great example for other children to follow,” with the intention to assess overvaluation.
The study reveals that parental valuation correlates much more strongly with the development of narcissism in young children than it does with self-esteem in the same children.
“People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others,” said study co-author Brad Bushman in a statement. “Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society.”