A study came out confirming that narcissists are largely bred, not born. The study, conducted by the University of Amsterdam and Ohio State University, found that “narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others.” (That’s scientific-speak for Special Snowflake Syndrome, and the researchers are talking about the other parents at your youth league soccer practice.)
This is great news, because it means there are steps we can take to prevent unleashing more little egotists on the world.
And this is bad news, because these steps are actually pretty common-sense; the study cited parental warmth, not praise, as a counterbalance to the trend. It’s also kind of depressing that we’ve even come to a point where narcissism — the increase of which contributes to societal problems such as aggression and violence, according to the research — has become so widespread that an entire study was conducted in the first place. (Then again, selfie sticks are now sold in drugstores for $24.95, so the mystery ends there.)
Anyone who’s spent time with a toddler recently does not need to be told that narcissism is the status quo in children. Remember how Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice? In kids, it bends toward narcissism.
After all, we are talking about a segment of the population that sees nothing wrong in waking their parents up at 4 a.m. to demand pancakes and episodes of “Dinosaur Train.”
And that’s why parents exist. It’s partly to keep their kids clothed and fed and safe and loved, and partly to prevent them from becoming Caligula.
The way to raise a narcissist is pretty evident: Tell your child they are wonderful, the very best, the most special of the specials on the sports field and the classroom and in the country and possibly on the planet — and keep telling them that. Or, just be a narcissist yourself. Done. Cool, we’ve settled that.
But what if you’d like to raise someone who’s confident, kind and aware of others?
Here are nine ways to make sure your child doesn’t become a narcissist.
Say no. A recent school of thought seems to treat “no” as a kind of ultimate buzzkill, a tamping down on childish creativity and artistic self-expression. This is nuts. It’s fine to tell your children no, especially when they’re trying to set something on fire. In fact, a lot of life is being told no and then trying to come up with alternative plans. They might as well learn this young, so it doesn’t come as a shock five minutes into their first job.
Teach them basic manners. A lack of manners is the ultimate form of narcissism. Whether it’s someone who is rude to waiters, has bad table manners or can’t be bothered to dress for the occasion, lack of manners is signaling to the world that you have no need to conform to any silly “social codes” or “basic ideas of decency,” and that all that counts is your own comfort. But wait, you say. There are plenty of well-mannered narcissists! Yes, but they’re a lot more pleasant than the ones who sneeze into their dinner napkins or take food off your plate without asking.
Teach them how to manage frustration. Much has been written about good old-fashioned grit, a person’s ability to confront failure and learn from it. Studies have found it to be one of the best indicators of later happiness in adults. Teach a kid how to overcome adversity, and you’re also teaching him or her about disappointment, another invaluable life lesson that’s cut off when parents attempt to cocoon their children from anything unpleasant.
Pull a Louie. There was a fantastic episode of “Louie” a few seasons back where his daughter is enraged because her sister got something that she didn’t.
“Listen,” he says. “You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s not gonna happen ever in your life, so you must learn that now, OK? The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have .?.?. as much as them.” Pretty much everything Louis C.K. has to say about parenting is dead on, so if you’re looking for more pointers and great life lessons, just cue up your Netflix account.
Be kind. To other people, not just your child. This one might seem painfully obvious, but it’s worth remembering that your kids don’t just notice how you treat them — they notice how you interact with the world. You know how some of the most successful people are the ones who are unfailingly lovely to everyone, from shoe shiners to CEOs? People like that lead by example, creating wonderful environments to be emulated. Parents who are rude to everyone but their children are sending a message that there are people who matter (their kids!) and people who don’t (everyone else!).
Travel with them. Take trips with your kids, whether it’s to another country, another state or even a town nearby that’s completely different from the one you live in. It doesn’t have to be expensive. A change of scenery will be enough to reinforce to your kids that not everyone lives the way they do: that life goes on differently in other places, that people come from different races and nationalities and economic situations, and that it is not acceptable to simply exist in a bubble of people who reflect their own worldview.
Love and approval are different. Loving your kids unconditionally is one thing, but that love doesn’t need to translate into constant, unconditional, 24/7 approval and praise of everything they do. You can love someone while redirecting their behavior or being disappointed by their actions. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Read to them. A recent study found that reading fiction helps people improve their empathy, because it encourages them to place themselves in others’ lives and understand their actions. In that way, reading is like traveling — with your mind.
Run errands with them. Not all of life can be fascinating, interesting and wonderful, and no lesson reinforces that better than bringing your kids along on some errands. While the recent parenting emphasis on “quality time” is fine, boredom is its own powerful life lesson. So is the message that you have to spend a portion of each day doing things that are necessary, though not magical, and that not every activity revolves around kids. It’s also a great time to bond with your kids in a casual, low-pressure setting.