Dr. Mary Ann Little is author of the book Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children available now from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
We all want our children to feel good about themselves. Confident, well-adjusted children turn into confident, satisfied and successful adults. But in the quest for the perfect way to raise a child, some parents end up creating little princes and princesses, rather than resilient kids who can weather the storms of life and be kind in the bargain.
You’ve all seen them. The parent who asks her precious middle school child what he wants for breakfast, prepared to be a short-order cook set to provide bacon and eggs to waffles, omelets to Nutella on toast, and delivers it to him in front of his video game. Then there’s the trophy room dad, the one who has repurposed his study to be a childhood accomplishment shrine. These parents endlessly boast to their friends and acquaintances, and they can make you feel like you’re doing everything wrong as a parent.
It might just seem like an annoying cliché. However, not everyone realizes the damage the “you’re so special” messages create for a child over time. Contrary to what parents intended, treating a child as special comes at a high cost.
Much of this probably seems like common sense to you, but there has also been research showing that treating your child as “special” can create life-long problems.
So what do we know about the risks of raising a “special” child?
Over years of investigation into the subject, evidence has come to light that children seem to acquire narcissism, in part, by internalizing parents’ grandiose views of them. In short, when little Bobby is treated by his adoring mother like a young King Charles, he’ll start to think of himself as the king of the world and come to expect royal treatment. This rarely ends well.
Such special treatment interferes with the development of a healthy self-concept. It creates an inflated sense of self — one that is built on a belief that the child is “better than” others. This then spills over into a sense of entitlement — a firm belief that they deserve special treatment. The consequences of an inflated sense of self are numerous. Friendships, office relationships and marriages are all damaged by this superior and selfish approach.
For many decades, a now known-to-be misguided parenting philosophy has led many to think treating the child as “special” will raise their self-esteem like a thermometer on a hot day. Tragically, the “specialness” paradigm actually builds negative qualities — selfishness, entitlement, and inconsideration. And ironically, children don’t actually feel “good” about themselves as they are showered with generalized messages of specialness. Regrettably, they end up with the notion that they are better than everyone else.
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I remember a parent at one of my lectures who asked, “Aren't you anti-exceptionality, Dr. Little?” I replied: “I'm not against exceptionality. I'm opposed to superiority.” Appreciating your child and having pride in your child’s accomplishments and skills — these reactions of the caregiver do not result in narcissism. In fact, showing this kind of parental warmth is an important part of creating positive self-esteem and a stable self-concept. It actually protects against selfishness and self-centeredness.
But what if your child has a special talent? How can you deal with that?
Many children do, in fact, possess exceptional abilities. Recognizing, valuing and celebrating their actual skills and talents, whatever the level of proficiency, is an important role for parents. Helping children learn their math facts or improve their ball handling skills is valuable. Such parenting encourages mastery and persistence, and fairly recognizes achievement — both ordinary and extraordinary alike. Treating your child as “special” is different. Emphasizing their exceptionality, over-investing in their accomplishments, or making plans for their future fame is the problem.
So where’s the line between treating a child warmly and treating a child as “special”?
When you treat a child as loved but not “better than,” the child builds a healthy, realistic sense of self. The foundation of a healthy self relies on real competencies and grows out of mastery and accomplishment. This healthier attitude is best seen in praise that focuses on the child’s effort, rather than competition with others. The parental comment “You’re the smartest girl in seventh grade” can become “I’m seeing all that hard work you’ve put into your math homework every week pay off. Way to go!” Focusing on the child’s specific competencies and effort, rather than the ever-shifting playing field of “how do I stack up,” is key. Treat a child as valued and loved, not special.
Parental warmth, as opposed to parental overvaluation, helps a parent guide their child in several important ways.
It teaches kindness and caring, which contribute to a healthy model of love and relationships.
It allows the child to build a healthy self-concept based on actual strengths and weaknesses.
It encourages the development of empathy and the ability to put the needs of others first.
It contributes to a sense of security and contentment, feelings which translate into confidence and resilience.
It takes away the justification for mistreating others, which lessens the temptation to bully or belittle.
It allows the child to explore the consequences of their actions versus insulating them from their impacts.
It lessens the risk of perceptual distortion. Children learn to see the world accurately, not simply in the context of their own needs or biases.
It helps the child feel a part of a group and be a more valuable team member. This can decrease the loneliness often seen in children raised to be “special.”
It reduces demands for special treatment and encourages the development of the equal and fair power-sharing seen in healthy relationships.
When viewed this way, it seems obvious that you should raise your child with warmth and acceptance, rather than with a view and treatment that encourages specialness. However, it seems to be harder and harder in today’s society to resist the currents pushing parents into the not-so-healthy paradigm. Why is that?
It’s complicated. Part of the problem is parental insecurity fueled by “better than” parents with “better than” children. Parents can feel pretty anxious when they hear about all the accolades a “special” child receives at their daughter’s school. They might think their recent success getting their child to finally clean her closet or learn how to scramble an egg now seems pretty insignificant in comparison to those parents who have just posted on social media about their child’s invitation to play at Carnegie Hall.
It's also hard to ignore the pervasive cultural influences that steer your child and your family in the wrong direction. More so than ever, modern western societies support cultural systems that value competition, beauty, wealth, power, and perfection. Being “at the top” of any field, snagging the spot as “the best” player, and being splashed on a magazine cover as one of the “most beautiful” or “most talented” people in the world is de rigueur. To make everything just that much harder, children given unfettered access to smartphones are at the mercy of a social media machine that pumps these narcissistic messages into children on an hourly basis. Raising resilient children with a healthy self-concept has never been more challenging.
Since you can’t just snap your fingers and make social media and other cultural messaging disappear, how in the world do you resist this?
First, embrace warmth, rather than “better than” messages. Don’t focus on molding your kid into a super-child who will be the next gold medalist at the Olympics or the toast of Broadway. Value your child as they are. Recognize that you are a “good enough” parent, and they are a “good enough” kid. Exercise moderation in parenting and in establishing family values in daily life. Then, talk to them about the malignant messaging they encounter in movies, TV, billboards, and on social media. Engage their critical thinking skills and encourage self-reflection as they navigate their childhood and develop their own values. One of the most important lessons you will teach them in childhood is to assure them they are loved as they are.