You think your kid is special? Of course she is. She is a unique combination of two unique individuals with her own unique personality, unique fingerprints, and unique theories about the world. Just don't go telling her that unless you want to raise a big ol' jerk.

Or so says a new study that compared parental styles of praise with children's resulting sense of self-esteem: layering on the compliments can indeed lead to narcissism. AKA, the sort of grandiose self-perception and low empathy that leads a person to think she is God's gift. NPR looked at the results - published originally in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - Poncie Rutsch writes:

When a kid does something amazing, you want to tell her so. You might tell her that she's very smart. You might tell her that she's a very special kid. Or you might say that she must have worked really hard.

On the surface, they all sound like the same compliments. But according to Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University, the first two increase the child's chances of becoming a narcissist. Only the last one raises the child's self-esteem and keeps her ego in check.

Researchers have been emphasizing our need to praise a child's effort rather than intelligence for a while now (back in 1998 it was being framed as something that would immunize them to self-defeating behavior, not ward off narcissism, per se). And psychologists have long warned against telling a gifted child what their IQ score is or how brilliant they are, because it can lead to a host of failure-related anxieties like extreme pressure to perform (and then failing), or complacency because they assume their intelligence means they don't have to try (and then failing).

But back to narcissism, the worry du jour. You know how all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon? Similarly, Rutsch notes that all narcissism involves high self-esteem, but not all high self-esteem equates to narcissism. To distinguish between the two, Bushman asked kids aged 7 to 12 to respond to statements like "Some kids like the kind of person they are," or "Kids like me deserve something extra." (Can you tell which one is supposed to be healthy versus narcissism? If not, I think you are in trouble.) Apparently, Bushman could not even study children under 8 years old because:

"You can't measure narcissism in children before age 8, because every child is a narcissist," he says. If you ask younger kids in a classroom if they are good at math or good at baseball, Bushman says all the kids will raise their hands.

Holla. I would hazard a guess that this phenomenon is due, at least in part, to the nature of early existence, which is very monster-like, and to the nature of early parenting, which is heavy on encouragement. Out of necessity, most parents spend the first many years of a kid's life clapping their heads off to get their kid to eat, sleep, crawl, walk, smile, turn over, lift their head up, wipe their ass, and act like a person.

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Then all the sudden kid turns 4 and parents gotta dial it the fuck back. It can become so routine to say "good job" to nudge a kid along that parents realize they've just mindlessly said it for peeing in the toilet, easily two years after potty training has been mastered. It's autopilot.

NPR:

Then he surveyed the children's parents, asking them to respond to statements to determine whether they overvalued their children. For example, "I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities," or "Without my child, his/her class would be much less fun." And he asked how they expressed warmth toward their child by measuring how strongly they agreed with statements like "I let my child know I love him/her."

Not shocking: the more overvaluing of accomplishments being done by parents, the more narcissistic the child. (Worth noting: Other theories about narcissism credit parental coldness or neglect as the culprit, but a recent study looking at Bushman's data drew the conclusion that it's more likely to be the overpraise.)

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The goal here is to make a clear distinction with kids is that they are great, but not greater than anyone else. But it's more difficult than you'd think. I don't constantly tell my kid that she is special. But I do make sure I notice when she did something well or was very kind at a playdate, or let her know the kind things her teacher said about her in the classroom at the annual review. And I want her to feel appreciated, and valued, and good at things, so I try to make sure I am giving far more positive feedback than negative. I balance it out by also talking about others in appreciative, complimentary ways. Only time will tell if I am achieving acceptable ego inflation ratios.

I see other kids who seem like they are drinking a daily diet of special juice, and yet, I will add here that this is one arena in which I am pretty sympathetic to fellow parents. Loving a kid means telling that kid often how much you love them, that they are a good person, pointing out the things they are good at, and trying to nurture the best in them. Who else is gonna blow smoke up your kid's ass if not you? Seriously. It's a complicated thing to suss out the right and wrong kind of praise. Most of us are working against the fear that we will not praise enough and end up with a kid who is inordinately insecure or afraid to take risks, which is frankly something I encounter far more in adults than narcissism (though the narcissists are a lot less forgettable).

It's also incredibly difficult to keep check some of the most fundamental, competing impulses any human parent will have when raising their child, which include:

  • The desire to produce a "successful" person. Whatever that means.
  • The desire to raise a kid with healthy, non-overbearing self-esteem, while also cultivating any potential for leadership and excellence that might exist.
  • Fear of dropping the ball on nurturing whatever "unique" skill this child might possess, whether it's drawing, building robots, being super fucking nice or being the next Che Guevara.
  • Sure, your kid probably isn't the next Che Guevara, but also no one became Che Guevara thinking like that, now did they?

Here is another thing: No one even tells you how much to praise or not to praise your kid: not your pediatrician, not parenting classes. At best you're working with your own upbringing which you've either embraced or rejected. It's the books you've read, the general wisdom you've accumulated, and some kind of internal parenting philosophy as a result of all of your experiences. It's all very very personal, highly individual, and kind of a dark art.

A person without children might say: well isn't it your job to read about parenting and find out about the studies and figure out a system that's the healthiest and most beneficial to your child but also society at large? Absolutely. I'd say it's about as easy as reading every book about diet and exercise and drawing a bulletproof conclusion about the healthiest way to eat. You've got some idea, but shit, you're not omniscient. Teaching children that we are all equally worthy is incredibly important. Even if the real world will quickly obliterate that sentiment. But it takes some doing.

Also, I gotta say: I think you can totally tell your kid they are special if you do it right. And that's pointing out that everyone has something they are good at. Seriously: Some kids are super great and special at certain things. If you have ever met that kid who is already reading the New Yorker at age 4, you will know immediately what the fuck I am talking about. I guess we can pretend that kid is not special (but I prefer not to lie to myself too often if I can help it). I would rather explain to my daughter that she is special at drawing, at reading, at being very empathic, and that kid over there is special at climbing trees blindfolded. We are all good at different things and that is ok. I have never agreed with the idea that if everyone is special, no one is, because it ignores the fact that specialness is really about existing in a random combination of people and forces. And that is something.

But there's an angle to this I don't think has been mentioned enough: Certain people are more likely to be told they are special than others in the first place. In a similar study conducted by the same authors determining how exactly parents overinflated their kid's worth, we learn this, via Vox:

...parents were asked how familiar they thought their kids were with subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the Vietnam War. But the scientists played a trick on parents: they also asked how familiar the children were with made-up subjects like the Green Sea or The Princess and the Grapes.

Parents sometimes responded with made-up answers, inflating how much their children could possibly know. Some would tell the researchers that of course their kids were familiar with these made-up subjects — even though it was impossible.

This really makes me wish I knew the income and class level of the parents and kids studied, because this sounds so much like classic competitive middle class parenting to me. It's the desperate desire to have your kid fit in with other climbers who want only the best for their children and will do whatever it takes to make sure they align, ethics be damned.

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The more money you have, the more resources you have, and the more likely you are going to route your kid into programs that foster the precociousness you so desperately want to believe your kid has. And such thinking pays off! Kids who go through gifted programs are more likely to achieve success. And the kids who are more likely to go through those programs come from more affluent families, and typically speaking, are white. Poor and minority kids are rarely seen as gifted, so they are rarely put through these programs. Also, boys and men are statistically more likely to meet the criteria for narcissism, and they are also more likely to meet the criteria for giftedness. We already foster more empathy in girls than boys.

If this is really just about empathy, sure, we could all stand to heighten our empathy levels. But we also need to scrutinize the ways in which we hand out labels like special and brilliant, who is doing the labeling, and who benefits from it. But more importantly, who suffers. That way, we don't unknowingly exacerbate the very problems that lead not just to more narcissism, but also to greater inequality.

Image via Shutterstock

Contact the author at tracy.moore@jezebel.com.