Last month, a couple of connected research studies were released dealing with the apparent increase of young narcissists in modern society. The researchers’ conclusion? Well, while there are several factors that combine to make a narcissist, the chief culprit appears to be the parents. Specifically, parents who “overvalue” their children and dole out too much praise may unleash a raging little narcissist on the world. Coupled with the tendency to be a “helicopter” or overprotective parent, today’s moms and dads are creating some wimpy, self-obsessed little ones. Raise your hand if this surprises you! Just watch every season of American Idol and see this principle at work–parents telling their children how amazing they sing, when they actually have little or no real talent.
But while it’s certainly true that parents should take a large amount of responsibility for this rising generation of narcissists, most are just dutifully following the orders of the professionals. For at least forty years now, parents have been told by psychologists and other experts that the worst thing a child can suffer from is low self-esteem. They were instructed to be light on criticism (if any at all), and heavy on praise. Children were thought of as fragile and insecure, needing constant ego-building by parents, teachers, and every other adult in our society. Low self-esteem was the scourge of our generation, and it needed to be eradicated.
So, it makes me chuckle (albeit cynically) a bit to see psychologists admitting that too much praise is actually harmful to children, and that we can actually “overvalue” or young ones! In the words of one of the researchers: “Telling kids how exceptional they are doesn’t produce kids with good healthy self-esteems–it just makes them more narcissistic” As happens time and time again with the expert class in our culture, they proclaim a crisis and call for a solution only to over-correct, thereby creating new problems. I’ve always rejected the notion that most of our children are suffering from low self-esteem, and the solution of praising them in order to grant higher self-esteem. We all come out of the womb self-focused enough, and full of self-love, which can lead to either self-pity or narcissism if left to ourselves.
I guess we should be thankful that some of our parenting experts have come around and have new wisdom for our parents. Unfortunately, they have still missed the point on a couple of fronts. First, they continue to misunderstand the whole notion of self-esteem. One of the co-authors of the study illustrates this problem as he states: “People with high self-esteem think they are as good as others, narcissists think they are better than others.” So, it’s a good thing to think you are as good as other people, but a bad thing to think you are better than others. What, then, do we do with this verse?
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3).
Is this the sort of instruction we are giving our children? Or, are we afraid that they would suffer from low self-esteem if they would count others more significant than themselves?
The other ongoing error summarized in the results of this study is the notion that half of the problem is genetics. The researchers claim that genetics and environment are evenly split, so that some children are biologically predisposed to narcissism. More accurately, a Biblical view of the human being demonstrates that we are ALL predisposed to be narcissists because of our indwelling sin, not some of our genetics. We all have self on the throne, both ruling us and enslaving us at the same time. What is passed down to each baby born in this world is original sin and selfish pride.
So here’s the final word from one of the co-authors of the study: “It has changed my parenting style…. When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I’m careful not to do that now.” I’m glad he’s come to that conclusion. But it still misses the point. As parents, we can and should love our children in a way that shows them that they are extra-special to us. We must couple that love with the gospel of grace that trains them to love the LORD God with all their hearts as well as other people as themselves. The true solution to narcissism, then, is for our children to become totally preoccupied with the freeing love of God for sinners instead of the enslaving love for self!