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Fostering Self-Worth or Narcissism? What Should Parents Know…

Every parent should know that their child is God’s gift to them.  For some parents, the intuition that the precious life will somehow become a part of God’s bigger plan for their family arises from the moment the little stick turns blue.  For others, this insight becomes clearer at the time of birth, when the ‘bundle of joy’ (often crying or screaming) is first held in their arms.  Parents naturally and rightly see the beauty of God’s creation, and harbour positive hopes and dreams for their child.  This is all part of the Design; human children are born vulnerable into this world, and need the love, affirmation and even the admiration of their parents to develop in a healthy manner and to begin to understand themselves and the world.  But can all of this attention go too far?

A recent study [1] by Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, and his colleagues suggests just that—when parents shift from treating their child as God’s gift to them and their family, to the proverbial “God’s gift to the world” in a misguided effort to raise self-esteem, negative outcomes can result.  The researchers studied children ages 7-11 over the course of 18 months. “Results showed that parents who “overvalued” their children when the study began” (i.e., the parents who thought their child was “more special than other children” or “deserve something extra in life”), had the children who later scored higher on tests of narcissism.  Narcissism is a clinical condition where persons show an inflated sense of self-worth or superiority, lack of empathy for others, and oftentimes are experienced as arrogant and condescencing by others.

In contrast, the authors note that the children whose parents were rated by their children as showing more emotional warmth (i.e., involvement, interest, expressing love and affection) actually have higher self-esteem over time.  Parental warmth was uncorrelated with narcissism.

So Where’s The Line?

All of this discussion of self-esteem and narcissism can cause confusion.  How can parents find the proper balance between having a realistic appraisal of their child and simultaneously being that encouraging, affirming “mirror” every child needs to discover his or her unique place in the world?

Fortunately, the largest key to navigating these potentially-complicated waters is rather simple: common sense.  Parents are the primary educators of their children, and for good reason.  They know them best.  Because parents (hopefully) spend countless hours living, playing and working with them, and in this process implicitly absorb some of the important nuances of their children’s temperament and genetic endowment, they are best equipped to identify their true strengths.  So for many famlies, parents can trust their intuition and simply love the children as they do.  At the same time, parents need to avoid the kind of blanket adulation that fails to reflect the reality that all of us have flaws and must come to terms with failures that occur from time to time.

For those parents whose children are more challenging, or for parents who have not had the benefit of their own positive formation, focus should be on recognizing that gifts come in all shapes and sizes.  The important element of providing warmth without overdoing the compliments is accomplished by being realistic in the praise given, not overreacting to failures (help these to be seen as learning experiences), and encouraging persistence in the face of challenges.  In this way, parents avoid setting up their children to be unable to cope with the inevitable failures that all people encounter in their journey through life.

Providing consistent attention and affection, while at the same time having clear and realistic expectations, are the most important aspects in this balance.  In so doing, parents combine the nurturing aspects of what are termed Permissive Parenting styles [2] (which can be problematic in terms of fostering responsibility) with the balance and structure found in the best of Authoritative Parenting (considered by some to be the ideal style for fostering capable, content children).  Without the balance of both, parents risk discouraging their children from achieving, and negatively impacting their self-worth, or, falsely bolstering their self-esteem, leading to narcissistic tendencies.

Children don’t need to be told how great they are, they need to be shown that they are worth all the time, attention, and affection parents can give.