There has been much hubbub in the past few years over how self-obsessed our society has become: Are men or women more narcissistic? (Men.) Where do the most narcissists live? (California.) Millennials, especially, are often accused of being narcissists. That may not be true. But even if it is, millennials might not be to blame: It might be their parents' fault.
One of the first studies into the origins of narcissism, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that narcissism in children may be due to how they're raised. According to the study, parents who “overvalue” their children—or parents who blanket their kids in excessive, exaggerated praise—might cause higher levels of narcissism in their kids.
“Of course every child is special, and parents are especially likely to think their child is special,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and a professor at Ohio State University. “But it’s important to realize that we are all members of the human family, and that no one person is more valuable than another on this planet.”
To learn more about the origins of narcissism, the scientists studied 565 children and their parents in the Netherlands. They looked at kids ages 7 to 11, which is when children begin to outgrow the unrealistic, self-inflated views of early childhood, and instead begin to develop global evaluations of themselves as a person. The scientists had parents and their children fill out a series of surveys over a year and a half.
The team found that kids who were lavished with indiscriminate praise exhibited higher levels of narcissism than their peers. Although many factors lead to narcissism, such as genetics, the study believes that children with overvaluing parents internalize the inflated view their parents have of them. (If you are a parent, take this survey from the study to determine if you overvalue your kids.)
The study’s findings support what is called the social learning theory of narcissism and refutes another popular narcissism theory, the psychoanalytic theory, which hypothesizes that parents that are icy and detached lead to increased narcissism in children.
To avoid having narcissistic children, Bushman says, parents should give praise contingent on behavior. Rather than praising the child ("You must be really smart") parents should praise their behavior ("You must have tried really hard"). This way, children won’t become discouraged if they fail at a task, and will be motivated to work harder next time.
Joanna Faber, a parent educator who has contributed to numerous parenting books, including How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, says that specific, descriptive praise is better for a child’s development than broad global praise. “Global praise at some point becomes discouraging.”
Faber also notes that what we prioritize in society today makes it difficult for parents not to be “helicopter parents,” obsessing over every detail of their child’s life. “It’s a burden placed on parents, and then a burden placed on kids, to feel like we can’t let them poke around and have free time,” she says.
So while it may or may not be too late for current generations to curb our narcissism, there may be hope for the next generation: “I think the most important takeaway factor [from the study] is you're not born a narcissist,” says Bushman.