Are you too nice to your kids?

A new study found that when trying to foster high self esteem in children, parents may inadvertently be creating little narcissists.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A study conducted by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that warmth and love are better than compliments and special treatment in fostering high self esteem in children.

A new study on the origins of narcissism in children conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that children whose parents tell them they are special are more likely to become narcissists.

Parents who praise their children too much may be trying to foster high self-esteem, but the study showed that loving and emotionally warm parents are more likely to have confident kids. On the other hand, too much special treatment can also lead to narcissistic behavior.

The connection between parental overvaluation and narcissism was still present even when the taking the narcissism levels of the parents into account, meaning that the trait is more than just genetic, it is environmental as well.

“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,” Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, said in a press release.

Bushman aided Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, in conducting the study, which appears in an early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers studied 565 children from 7 to 11 years old and their parents. In four surveys, each completed six months apart, parents and children were asked to report how much emotional warmth parents showed by indicating how much they agreed with statements such as "I let my child know I love him/her" or "My father/mother lets me know he/she loves me."

Parents were also asked to rank statements like "My child is a great example for other children to follow." The children were measured for levels of narcissism and self-esteem through statements suggesting that they were better than their peers and statements indicating that they were happy with who they were.

“People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others,” Bushman said.

This study, as well as previous studies about parent-child relationships Bushman has worked on, caused him to alter his own parenting style. When he began his research he thought that children should be treated like they are special by their parents, but now he is careful not to follow that model. He said that interventions can help parents learn how to better support their children.

"Parent training interventions can, for example, teach parents to express affection and appreciation toward children without telling children that they are superior to others or entitled to privileges," Bushman said. "Future studies should test whether this can work."

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