Origins of narcissism in children: a critique, Part III

Origins of narcissism in children: a critique, Part III

How (really) not to raise a narcissist
In case you missed it, a few weeks ago, a new study out of Amsterdam, “Origins of Narcissism in Children,” purported to show that parental overvaluing of children turns them into narcissists. I was disturbed by what I judge to be a fatal flaw in the study: an exclusive focus on the external façade of narcissism, rather than including its internal experience. The media took this flawed study and went nuts with it, unfortunately with more fervor than accuracy. In Post I of my critique of the study, we focused on the media’s rather puritanical misunderstandings of the study. In Part II, we turned to the study itself as well as what psychologists know about narcissism and its causes.

In response to Part I, a mom wrote me, “There are so many “yes’s” and “no’s” for parenting today based on all these studies it can make a mom’s head spin.” This is why it’s important to make sure that real information, separated from the apparent Puritanical knee-jerk reaction of the media and even some research, is available.

In this, the final post of the series, we will conclude with a practical, hands-on list of Do’s and Don’ts for raising self-confident children with high self-esteem but low narcissism.

The Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t be a narcissist. Duh, right?  Remember that narcissists beget narcissists.  Of course, if you are one, you most likely won’t think you are, and if you are worried you may be, you probably aren’t.

Do love your children unconditionally. Let them know you do. As often as you can. In reality, I could stop there. The rest is icing. It is inevitable that you (as a human) will do things that hurt your children. If they know you love them unconditionally, they will bounce back. Even the Origins of Narcissism study agrees: parental warmth correlates with child self-esteem.

Do meet the emotional needs of your children. Some people worry that meeting the emotional needs of their children will somehow make the children weak or unable to eventually meet their own needs. In fact, the opposite is true. People develop inner strength and inner resources by having their early needs taken care of. The truth is, needs are developmental, meaning that if you meet children’s early needs, their needs will shift and mature as they do. They only get stuck with those early needs when they are not met. Let’s look at an obvious example: no one worries that breast-feeding infants runs the risk that they will never move on to solid food. In fact, it is the infants who stop breast-feeding too early who are doomed to a lifetime of ruining all their pens by chewing on the tips. (Guilty!) The same is true with all emotional needs in children. Cared for children become caring adults. Loved children become loving adults.

Don’t use your children to meet your needs. It isn’t their job. It was your parent’s job to meet yours, and if they didn’t or couldn’t, you have my deepest sympathy. I know how much it sucks. But it is now your job to take care of yourself and to take care of your children.

Do get grown-up friends. You need a friend, someone to listen to you and your problems and to support you in times of stress and trouble. These people need to be grown-ups, not your children.

Don’t make your child your BFF. Grown-up problems need to be shared with grown-ups. Grown-up topics need to be discussed with grown-ups. Let your child be your child.

Do remember that your spouse = your peer. Your child ≠ your peer

Do be authentic with praise. Tell the truth to your kids. If you are proud of them, be proud of them. If you think they are funny, tell them so. If something they did is only so-so, you don’t need to tell them it’s fantastic. If they messed up, talk supportively with them about it rather than covering it up. If your praise rings false to you, it’ll ring false to them too and do more damage than good.

Don’t use praise to manipulate your child. Look, we’ve all been there. I certainly know that as a classroom teacher I fell back upon, “Wow! Look at how X is sitting quietly and ready to learn” to shape up the behavior of the class more than I should have. The point is not to feel terrible if you’ve done this now and again. But really look at why you are praising your child. As Alfie Kohn writes, “We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior)…”  A reader wrote to me her experience of using praise for manipulation in heart-wrenching detail: “My dad used to always tell me how great I was at math and what a fantastic engineer I would make. He was an engineer, though, not me. I eventually flunked out of most of my high school math classes and got a degree in fine arts. I always felt like I couldn’t live up to the child that they praised.”

Do use concrete and specific praise for children’s products and actions. “You chose such bright colors for your painting,” means a lot more than yet another, “Great.”  And remember that the most encouraging and supportive purpose of praise is to tell your child you see them for who they are and what they are doing. Your attention to the details of their work actually demonstrates this more effectively than a slew of generic goods and greats.

Don’t worry about too much authentic praise.  There is no such thing.  Remember that the Origins of narcissism in children point to overvaluing children and their products and qualities, which is to say, ascribing a false value to them.  It is the falseness of this type of praise that is the problem, not its frequency.

Don’t use your children to reflect on you. Sure, be proud as punch at their accomplishments. Be proud of what you have done well to help get them there. But needing your children to reflect well on you means you can’t accept their limitations or yours. If you need your children to be perfect to make you feel good about yourself, both you and your child probably need support.

Do let your children overshadow you. It’s not a competition. In fact, it’s supposed to be that way. If your children outshine you in some way, bask in their joy and accomplishment.

Quotation-Fred-Rogers-opportunity-best-people-Meetville-Quotes-58569Do recognize and appreciate your children for who they are. One of the most basic, core needs of children is to be accurately seen. Your child is surely not perfect (being human), but I bet they are pretty awesome in a million ways anyway. Channel Mr. Rogers when he says, “I love you just the way you are.”

Do own your own feelings. Yes, feelings are a response to something outside of us, but they come from inside of us. If you find yourself having a really strong emotional reaction to something your children did or said, ask yourself, “What does this remind me of? What happened to me when I did or said the same type of thing when I was a child?”

Don’t project your bad feelings onto your child. If something your child does makes you feel bad, it doesn’t make them bad. It doesn’t even mean they meant to make you feel bad. Watch out especially for gut-level, wrenching emotions that are hard to articulate. These are always feelings left over from childhood and are not about the present.

Do cut yourself a break. After all, according to the wonderful and oft-quoted words of D. W. Winnicott, a child does not need a perfect parent (thank goodness!) but a “good enough” one. And if you love your children unconditionally, and they know it, chances are, you are more than good enough.

My Narcissistic Personality Disorder bookshelf