Hans Pama/Flickr
Hans Pama/Flickr

By Poncie Rutsch, NPR

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.

Bushman and a group of collaborators surveyed parents to see how they show warmth and value their child’s accomplishments. They then compared those findings to the children’s levels of self-esteem and narcissism. The results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Of course, self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. The difference has to do with how you value yourself compared to other people. “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people,” Bushman tells Shots. “Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”

And not in a good way.

“Narcissism is a somewhat toxic personality trait,” Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic and psychology professor at San Diego State University, tells Shots. Narcissists tend to overestimate their abilities, take too many risks and mess up their relationships, she says. Some people see narcissists hurting the people and society around them, but they hurt themselves, too. “In the long term it tends to lead to failure,” Twenge says.

While narcissists tend to have high self-esteem, not all people with high self-esteem are narcissists. Bushman needed to separate the two. So he asked children ages 7 to 12 years old how they felt about statements like “Some kids like the kind of person they are,” or “Kids like me deserve something extra.” The first statement measures self-esteem; the second, narcissism.

Bushman made sure to focus on children between 7 and 12 years old, so that by the time the study finished all of them would be older than 8. “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.

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.”

When he analyzed the results from the surveys, Bushman found that the more narcissistic children had parents who consistently overvalued their accomplishments. He ran additional tests to make sure that the parents weren’t narcissists, too — after all, it’s possible that the children could be mirroring narcissistic behavior. But statistically, the children of narcissists aren’t more likely to be narcissists themselves.

The research team continued to survey the same group of 565 children and their parents for a year and a half. They watched the children develop, and they could link each child’s tendency toward self-esteem or narcissism back to what the parents had told them six months earlier.

“We’re not just measuring their narcissism at time one; we’re using these measures to predict the behavior a year and a half later,” says Bushman. “Parental warmth doesn’t predict it. Parental narcissism alone doesn’t predict it. But parental overvaluation alone does predict it.”

Bushman is particularly worried about narcissism because both he and other researchers have linked it to aggressive and violent behavior. He thinks it’s partly because narcissists are less likely to feel empathy toward others.

“Empathy involves putting yourselves in other people’s shoes, but narcissists have a very difficult time putting themselves in other people’s shoes,” Bushman says. Plus, he says that narcissists respond poorly when they don’t get special treatment. “Whenever people have this sense of superiority, then they lash out at others in an aggressive way.”

Of course, someone who appears more narcissistic at age 10 isn’t necessarily going to grow up to be a narcissistic adult, let alone aggressive. And the results of this study hinge on a handful of short surveys — no extensive personality testing here.

“There are definitely going to be things that influence the personality after that stage,” says Twenge. “Those [narcissistic] tendencies may start to show up around then, but will continue to be influenced by parenting and environment throughout adolescence.”

But this study has Bushman thinking about the way he praises his own children. “It’s a lot better to say ‘You worked really hard’ than ‘You must be really smart,’ ” he says, “because if you tell the kid that they’re smart and then if they fail they think ‘Oh I’m stupid.’ ” If the praise relates to effort, a child who fails will work harder next time.

Bushman is also trying to cultivate self-esteem in his children, because people with high self-esteem tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression over time. Based on Bushman’s research, parents can raise their children’s self-esteem just by expressing more warmth.

Both researchers agree that voicing the connection you feel to your children really helps. “If you want to look for a substitute for ‘You’re special,’ just say ‘I love you,’ ” says Twenge. “It’s what you mean, and it’s a much better message.”

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
The Difference Between Praise That Promotes Narcissism vs. Healthy Self-Esteem 25 March,2015MindShift

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  • Preston

    Poncie,

    Thank you for posting this interesting article. I have to say that I found this topic incredibly intriguing. The part that I enjoyed the most was how compliments should be worded. I definitely see the difference and I find it fascinating that such a small detail can make differences in a child’s personality and choices.

    Another aspect that I found interesting was how parents’ narcissism affected that of their children. Now that this has been brought to my attention, I realize how true it is. Sure, there are exceptions but there always will be. The majority of narcissistic parents have children of a similar nature.

    So, here’s my question to you: do you think narcissism affects success? If so, in what way?

    • Meghan

      As a child psychologist, I see the direct impact of “narcissistic” tendencies in children. Truthfully, kids who have those tendencies can be quite successful, because they always want to be better than their peers. These kids often end up in high paying jobs because it makes them feel better about themselves and validates their worth. However, the emotional success of someone with narcissistic tendencies is far less positive. Often these people spend all their time trying to be impressive, and they struggle to form meaningful relationships. So I guess it depends on your definition of success! emergehealthwellness.com

    • datadriven

      It is parental overvaluation of their children’s behavior that predicts narcissism, not parental narcissism.

  • Megan

    Poncie,

    This was interesting article! I particularly liked your point about praising a child’s accomplishments/work rather than equating success with a child simply being superior. I think it’s important to reward children for their work, rather than telling them they’re better than everyone else. That way, the child will develop good habits and put in effort, rather than assume they can skate by on talent alone.

    I also thought your point about children mirroring their parent’s narcissistic tendencies was interesting. Kids certainly pick up on a lot more than we realize! It’s important to demonstrate good habits in front of one’s children.

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  • Austin Igel

    Hi Poncie, this article made me think a little bit. I do not consider myself to be narcissistic, but maybe I am. My parents would tell me when I was doing something well when I was younger, but I am not sure if they were “over praising” me. Thanks for posting this article I found it very interesting!

  • Jenn Drake, UCDS teacher

    While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. It seems like both researchers are studying the effects of praise and whether or not we are praising kids for their effort or for their innate abilities. Dweck’s work had a powerful impact on my life, and my work as both a parent and an educator. Changing our mindset is important in all of these areas if our goals are about growth and continual learning. I’m not sure I understand the significance of Bushman’s work. Labeling people are narcissistic or not is just another way of perpetuating the fixed mindset. And there’s no research out there about whether or not people with a growth mindset are or are not narcissists. Would it even matter? If we’re interested in changing our language for the benefit of our kids, let’s do it to create the potential for growth and celebrate the way we are all changeable.

  • Au Naturel Mel

    I get that the whole “special snowflake” thing can be bad for children, but I am struggling to understand that telling a person s/he is special will encourage narcissism. Everyone IS special. As long as you’re not saying “You’re so special, and no other child is,” well…? JMO. Mel at mothersheeporganics

    • datadriven

      I think the logic is along the lines of, if everyone is “special”, then no one is special. I don’t really see anything wrong with all of us having value, but not being “special”. The term “special” and the manner in which it is generally used suggest difference/better/superiority/etc. even though it is not explicitly stated.

      • Au Naturel Mel

        Okay, that makes quite a bit of sense…especially considering it having value v. being “special”.

  • TJ von Oehsen

    One thing that I believe many children struggle with throughout adolescence and that ends up persisting into adulthood is the concept of self-advocacy. With this in mind, I am worried that the definition of self-esteem here fails to address the need to move a child’s confidence far enough so that they may begin to develop the ability to advocate for themselves. Many problems will arise if a child does not feel comfortable telling a teacher or parent what they need or isn’t comfortable inserting themselves into social situations. The worry is that a certain level of confidence may be needed in order to feel comfortable with oneself and further one’s development and I believe that there is a distinction between self esteem and the ability of self-advocacy.

  • There are so many articles about praising effort, promoting a growth mind set, and the dangers of not telling kids they’re smart, but meanwhile, what do we call the program for the highest achievers? Gifted & Talented!

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  • Mahée Ferlini

    Thank you for posting! Really interesting point of view!

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