March 14 2015
“I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I’m careful not to do that now.”
That’s Brad Bushman, one of the co-authors of a new study from Ohio University, explaining how he’s taken his own research to heart. His paper, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that parents who “overvalue” their children tend to produce children who are narcissists.
You won’t have to spend too much time at a preschool in Park Slope or Larchmont to know what it means for parents to “overvalue” a child—they tend to praise their offspring’s smallest accomplishments, believe that their children are entitled to extra-special treatment and overstate their children’s achievements.
Still not sure what we’re talking about? Ever hear something like this? “Ezra, what a wonderful job you did hanging up your coat! Isn’t he amazing? He’s very intelligent. He probably belongs in a more advanced class.”
Julie Gunlock, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the mother of three boys, has seen this trend up close. “Parents are far too promiscuous with their praise these days, leaving kids with the impression that they should be thanked or rewarded for doing things parents used to expect of kids — like being polite and keeping their rooms clean.”
Indeed, too much talk like that growing up and — surprise, surprise — Ezra becomes an annoying child and then an unbearable adult. It’s not just that he will have difficulty making friends.
It’s also that Ezra’s own sense of self-worth will not be very high either. Interestingly, while overpraising children tends to make them believe that the world revolves around them, they actually don’t report being very happy with themselves.
For years, of course, research has shown that praise is not the way to make children into well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. That comes from actual accomplishments. When compared with their peers in other nations, American children (and those in Western Europe) don’t necessarily score very highly on tests of knowledge. But they are hitting it out of the park when it comes to self-confidence. On one international math exam, for instance, more than two-thirds of American fourth-graders believed they were high performers. In fact, on average, they were scoring, well, average.
So, why do we continue to parent like it’s the 1980s? Why do we continue to give every child a trophy for participation? Why do we complain to our children’s teachers when the work is too challenging instead of making our children work harder? Why do we continue to tell our children that they are the center of the universe?
For one thing, it’s easier. Making sure that our children actually accomplish things — the things that will bring them self-worth and independence — is exhausting. (Believe me, I just finished my third round of potty training.)
Whether it’s telling them to do their homework or practice the piano or do some chores, we don’t look forward to these interactions. First it’s the whining and the tantrums, then it’s the eye-rolling and the sarcasm. And that’s assuming you don’t have an all-out rebellion on your hands.
Working parents feel guilty enough for being away from their children. Do they really want to make the couple of hours a day with them feel like a series of Civil War battles?
Sure, it’s easy to make fun of Tiger Mom — Amy Chua was roundly criticized because for making her children’s lives hell by forcing them to do hours of homework and music practice — but how much fun was it for her? You don’t need to be a Tiger Mom to find that the hours between the end of the school day and bedtime have turned you into a drill sergeant.
Praising kids and doing as much as we can for them is actually easier — in the short term. When I asked Caitlin Flanagan, author of “Girl Land,” why parents continue to go this route, though, she suggested it might be a little more self-serving. Parents continue to offer praise rather than make kids do things for themselves because “because it binds their kids to them.”
Flanagan says that kids today “don’t separate from their parents in adolescence!” She observes, “There’s no more ‘my parents don’t understand me.’ Now it’s ‘My parents are THE ONLY PEOPLE who understand me. They’re the only people who consistently tell me what a very special snowflake I am.’ ”
And that kind of dependence on mom and dad — while it is annoying for college administrators, not to mention employers — keeps parents in the picture. Says Flanagan: “It’s a way for the parents to stay as vital through their kids’ adolescences as they were through their early years. There’s a whole generation of college kids who are emotionally dependent on their parents for their ‘self esteem.’ ”
Want kids who are a little tougher than that? You need to be tougher now.