First, I want to correct a misconception that many parents have about self-esteem. There’s a widespread worry that if you foster healthy self-esteem in your kids, you could inadvertently turn them into self-loving narcissists. I have good news on this front: Narcissism is a very different beast from healthy self-esteem, and it develops differently, too. You can’t just fill a child’s self-esteem bucket “too high” and turn him into a narcissist. (Also, you may have heard of well-publicized research suggesting that we are experiencing a new “epidemic of narcissism” in the US, in that teens today are much more narcissistic than teens from decades past, but recent studies have challenged these claims.)
As it turns out, there’s a big difference between self-content kids and narcissists. Kids with healthy self-esteem accept and love themselves for who they are and don’t base their sense of self- worth on others. Narcissists, on the other hand, are constantly in comparison mode, believing that they’re better than everyone else—but also consumed by the need to prove their superiority.
How do kids become narcissistic? Eddie Brummelman has been studying this question for years, and he’s found that narcissists usually have parents who put their kids on pedestals—who believe their children are smarter and better than everyone else and treat them that way. (Interestingly, these parents also tend to give their kids unusual first names.) We have all met parents like this, who would probably look adoringly at their children even as those children were throwing dog poop at them. He just has so much spunk, doesn’t he, the parent might say, just before getting smacked in the face with poodle feces.
Unfortunately, though, kids with narcissistic traits often are quite troubled. They can bully (because bullying makes them feel superior to their peers), and they can respond to criticism or rejection with anger and aggression. Their lives are also often pretty sad: Narcissists boast and brag and criticize others to get others to like and admire them, but their strategies ultimately backfire, alienating the very people they want to win over. To make matters worse, they rarely seek help for their problems, perhaps because they cannot recognize they need it. (Note, though, that narcissism doesn’t develop until the age of seven or eight. Before that, kids can certainly act like narcissists, but their declarations that they are the Most Exceptional Humans Ever is, in fact, developmentally appropriate and not a sign that a kid is growing up to be Donald Trump.)
Again, if you’re not the kind of parent who smiles lovingly at your child while he does obnoxious things, you probably don’t have much to worry about with regard to narcissism. But as I’ll explain next, parents often do make mistakes—albeit well-intentioned ones, ones I’ve made myself—that can have lasting effects on kids’ self-esteem.
What today's parents get wrong
Raising a kid is not easy these days. In addition to all the age-old child-rearing challenges, we also have to contend with the fact that our children’s success feels more elusive to us than it did to our parents and grandparents (not to mention that we’ve recently weathered a pandemic that has kept our kids out of school). Every year, elite colleges receive more and more applicants for the same number of spots. At the ten most competitive US universities, the admissions rate dropped by nearly 60 percent between 2006 and 2018, from an average of 16 percent in 2006 to 6.4 percent in 2018; at the top fifty universities, the rate dropped by nearly 40 percent. No wonder admissions scandals have been rampant.
The issues parents face today encompass a lot more than just college admissions. When the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) asked parents in 2019 to rank their top three long-term economic and social fears, 60 percent said that they worried that their children would not achieve the level of status and comfort that they have. That’s in part because kids will have to earn a lot more money than their parents did in order to maintain the same standard of living. We’re all terrified on behalf of our kids, and for good reason.
So it probably comes as no surprise to most of you that American parents—especially those from the middle- and upper- middle classes—now put a ton of pressure on their kids to be exceptional. It starts young: Kids who haven’t yet turned two are being professionally coached for preschool interviews; three-year-olds are taking Mandarin and coding classes to “get ahead”; kindergarteners are being required to learn chess; fourth graders are taking SAT prep classes and working with private sports coaches. There’s even a national chain of preschools called Crème de la Crème that teaches toddlers Mandarin, theater, and robotics in facilities that feature on-site STEM labs, baseball diamonds, art studios, basketball courts, and computer labs. (Important note: Research suggests that kids who attend play-based schools learn just as much as, if not more than, kids who attend more academically focused schools.) It’s no longer good enough for our kids to be nurtured and well-rounded, and to enjoy learning; they now have to win competitions, make All-American sports teams, and get leads in the musicals while also, of course, getting straight As and acing the SATs.
In his 2015 book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Harvard emeritus political scientist Robert D. Putnam explained that in the 1980s, middle- and upper-class American parents— especially highly educated ones—began to shift their ideas about what it meant to be a good parent. They began moving away from Benjamin Spock’s “permissive parenting” approach and toward a new kind of “intensive parenting,” fueled in part by the idea that children will be more successful if we push them harder at a young age. So now, forty years later, toddler STEM labs. Don’t get me wrong; I’m one of these parents, too. I haven’t enrolled my kids in Mandarin classes, but I worry perhaps too much about whether they will succeed and what I need to do to ensure they will. When my son brings home his report card, it’s all I can do not to analyze every grade and ponder what his poor marks for handwriting mean for his future. If competition is much fiercer than it used to be, how can we not feel the pressure and, intentionally or not, shift some of that pressure onto our kids? Who can blame us for feeling scared and wanting to do everything we can to give our kids a leg up?
Here’s the thing, though: This pressure is not good for our kids’ self-esteem. Research suggests that when parents overemphasize achievement, kids start to infer that achievement defines who they are and how much value they have. And sometimes, our disappointment and anger over their failures is so palpable that they feel like our love for them is contingent upon their success —reinforcing the idea that their value, and lovability, is defined by what they do, not who they are.
I’m not saying any of us outright say that we won’t love our kids if they get Cs, but kids make these inferences based on how we act. In a survey published in 2014, Harvard University Graduate School of Education researchers interviewed more than ten thousand middle and high school students from thirty-three schools across the country about what they thought their parents wanted most for them. Two-thirds of the students said they believed their parents would rank achievement over caring for others. The students were also three times more likely to agree than to disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.” In her book "Kid Confidence," psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore argued that healthy self-esteem is essentially the ability to let go of the question “Am I good enough?”— and when parents pressure their kids to achieve, they never give kids the chance to stop asking that question.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national magazines and newspapers. She is a faculty member in the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her first book, "How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t A**holes," was published in July 2021 by J.P. Putnam’s Sons. You can follow her on Twitter at @lindy2350
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