Check out this chapter in Steve's report about the falsity and dangers of teaching your child to be narcissistic, and how our assumptions about "self-esteem" are wrong and hurt us and hurt others, and why reality tends to be the opposite of what we teach about it, as studies show! It's so eye-opening and makes so much sense!
Causes of the Narcissism Epidemic in American Culture
The increase in narcissism in individuals is, we believe, just an outcome of a massive shift in culture toward a greater focus on self-admiration. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 37) The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970â€™s. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. Parenting has become more indulgent, celebrity worship has grown, and reality TV has become a showcase of narcissistic people. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 4)
â€œAmericans abandoned the vision of themselves as part of a interconnected social system â€“ a connection of parents to children and grandchildren and of community to community - and instead turned to the narcissistic pursuit of the self as a source of value, almost like a religious experience.â€� (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 64)
At one time, strong social pressures kept peopleâ€™s egos in check. (i.e. Mothers asked children â€œWho do you think you are?â€�) Now we are likely to say â€œWhat do you want for dinner princess?â€�
Since we were small children, we were taught to put ourselves first. We simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves. The focus on the needs of the individual self begins when children are young. One of the most popular nursery decorations right now is 12 inch tall letters spelling out the childâ€™s name, an obvious bow to individualismâ€¦ a hyper-individualized emphasis on how truly, exquisitely unique and precious our child is, like a hope diamond, more special than the others. Our parents have treated us as royalty since we were born (Generation Me, pg 75)
One program sponsored by the Canadian Mental Health Association teaches children, â€œI am me! Thereâ€™s not another person in the whole world like me. I have my very own thumbprint. I am special.â€� Telling people how similar they are reduces aggression and egotism, yet this program emphasizes to teach kids how different they are from one another. The program claims it aims to â€œincrease skills that promote personal development and successful relationships,â€� but it potentially encourages attitudes that could undermine relationships through narcissism and aggression. This is far from the only school program (or media message) that emphasizes how different we are from one another. A guide for child care providers on self-esteem emphasizes telling children, â€�You are a very special person. There is only one you in the world.â€� A website called â€œManifest Your Potentialâ€� asks, â€œDo you wonder what makes you different from everyone else? Are you looking for answers to â€˜what makes me special and unique?â€™â€�
Not only does this go against the research on reducing aggression, but it defies centuries of history. Almost every war and every atrocity in the history of the world has been based on differences among people. Hitler singled out the Jews as different, and less than human and the common enemy to be killed. The Tutsi killed the Hutu, Shiites kill Sunnis, and Serbs killed Croatians. White people enslaved black people. Men prevented woman from voting. Recognizing the common humanity in your enemy is often the first step to stopping a war or other conflict.
Itâ€™s not low self-esteem that causes kids to become bullies. Itâ€™s narcissism. Narcissistic kids fight when insulted, not the low self-esteem kids. Teaching kids how special they are makes things worse not better. Many people are incredulous when we suggest that all people are not special. The emotions involved in this are so strong that arguing against the importance of self-admiration is often a nonstarter. People argue that children have to like themselves or they will suffer dire consequences. These views are so ingrained in American culture they are hard to fight. Itâ€™s kind of like telling people they donâ€™t really need to wear pants. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 286-288)
Parents need to abandon the notion that their child is the center of the universe. This is a tough pill for parents to swallow sometimes, because they have been told that being special is necessary for being loved. But thatâ€™s not really true. People who truly think they are special have trouble with connecting to â€œnormalâ€� people; likewise, â€œnormalâ€� people have problems connecting to â€œspecialâ€� people. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 293)
In schools, the emphasis on self-esteem has to go. No more â€œI am specialâ€� songs. No more â€œeveryone is a winnerâ€�. We are not saying that children need to be told they are not special or are losers â€“just drop the whole issue. It is relatively easy to succeed in life with low self-esteem, but very difficult to succeed without self-control, self-discipline, or emotional resilience in the face of setbacks. The ability to learn from failure is crucial in life, and is much, much easier in a culture that does not push â€œspecialnessâ€�. Childrenâ€™s sports programs should stop giving trophies to everyone who participates. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 296)
Public service announcements vividly illustrate what Americans are now concerned with (ourselves) and what no longer gets much attention (Knowledge and the larger world). In fact, most Americans know very little about the rest of the world compared to foreigners. But we sure think we do. If public service announcements are going to positively influence Americans, they need to start by focusing on things outside ourselves (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 291)
Generation me (those of us born after 1965) is straightforward and unapologetic about our self-focus. A careful study of news stories published or aired between 1980 and 1999 found a large increase in self-reference words (I, me, mine and myself) and a marked decrease in collective words (humanity, country, or crowd). So, why did childrenâ€™s self-esteem increase so dramatically during the 1980â€™s and 1990â€™s? The short answer is that they we were taught it. (Generation Me, pg 53)
Many school districts across the country have specific programs designed to increase childrenâ€™s self-esteem, most of which actually build self-importance and narcissism. These programs make self-importance mandatory, demanding of children that they love themselves and encourage children to feel good about themselves for no particular reason. (Generation Me, pg 55) In such programs, kids color posters that read â€œYOU ARE SPECIALâ€�, or wear badges saying â€œI AM GREATâ€�, and recite phrases and wear T shirts saying â€œIâ€™m lovable and capableâ€�. Parenting books and magazines stress the importance of self-esteem. The mission statements of many schools is to raise childrenâ€™s self-esteem. Schools create exercises making self-importance mandatory, demanding of children that they love themselves for no particular reason. Teacher training courses often emphasize that a childâ€™s self-esteem must be preserved above all else. Self-esteem should not be raised based on who they are but rather than how they perform or behave. TV and mainstream media have taught us that loving yourself is more important than anything else. (Generation Me, pg 57)
Shows for younger children actively encourage narcissism in a different but equally effective way. One PBS show proclaims, â€œYouâ€™re special just for being you!â€� Very young girls now watch TV shows like Hannah Montana and High school Musical. Although these shows are free of inappropriate sexuality and crass language, they are unfortunately not free of narcissistic attitudes. Shows like Hannah Montannah promote the seductive narcissistic dream of fame, riches, and vanity. Hanna Girls dress up like Hannah Montana in makeover parties like those at Club Libby Lu, a mall based chain that hosts makeovers for girls age six to eleven. The company website suggests â€œVisit our VIP area for super spa party ideas.â€� (VIP stands for â€œVery Important Princess.â€� Sweet & Sassy, a Texas based salon for girls, offers a package in which the girl is picked up at her door by a pink limo. â€œWe live in a culture of insta-celebrity,â€� said marketing executive Samantha Skey. â€œOur little girls now grow up thinking they need to be ready for their close-up, lest the paparazzi arrive.â€� (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 102)
And we wonder why so many American woman grow up as they doâ€¦ materialistic with a golden princess attitude to boot. Apparently, in America, we start teaching them young.
We hope that writers and producers will get the message that excessive selfâ€“admiration is not praiseworthy but dangerous. You do not need to encourage children to feel special and proclaim that they are hot. You donâ€™t need to convince teenage boys that they should be confident enough to hit on their friendâ€™s mom. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 105)
On a recent trip to Babies R Us, Jean was distracted by the display of bibs at the checkout counter. In large white letters on pink and blue, they announced : â€œChick Magnetâ€�,â€� Super Modelâ€�, â€œPrincessâ€�, and â€œIâ€™m the Bossâ€�. This is just a glimpse into the new parenting culture that has fueled the narcissism epidemic. It says a lot about a culture that people think a six month old wearing a â€œSuper Modelâ€� bib is cute. It is increasingly common to see parents relinquishing authority to young children, showering them with unearned praise, protecting them from their teachersâ€™ criticisms, giving them expensive automobiles, and allowing them to have freedom but not the responsibility that goes with it. Not that long ago, kids knew who the boss was and it wasnâ€™t them. It was mom and dad. And mom and dad werenâ€™t your â€œfriendsâ€�. They were your parents. Parents want their kidsâ€™ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parentsâ€™ approval. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 73)
Many of todayâ€™s parents seek to raise children high in self-admiration and self-esteem, partially because books and articles have touted its importance. Unfortunately, much of what parents think raises self-esteem â€“ such as telling a kid heâ€™s special and giving him what he wants â€“ actually leads to narcissism. Modern behavioral theories argue that narcissism arises from inflated feedback - if you are told over and over that you are great, youâ€™ll probably think you are great. Good intentions and parental pride have opened the door to cultural narcissism in parenting. A remarkable percentage of clothes for baby girls has â€œPrincessâ€� or â€œLittle princessâ€� written on it. If your daughter is a princess, does this, mean that you are the queen or king? No â€“ it means you are the loyal subject, and you must do what the princess says. Unless youâ€™re Prince William or Harry, donâ€™t dress your daughter in an outfit claiming she is a â€œPrincessâ€�. Sheâ€™s not. Get over it.
This really is the era of the weak parent. Giving this much power to children teaches an entitled view of life, with all of the fun and choices but none of the responsibility. More than any time in history, the childâ€™s needs come first. In studies on parenting and narcissism, this kind of lax parental monitoring was one of the strongest correlates of narcissism in teens. Itâ€™s also a good predictor of teen drug and alcohol abuse and crime. Parents who want to stick with the older model of child rearing that downplays materialism and emphasizes politeness and discipline are swimming against the cultural tide. If you donâ€™t let your children do something, but every other message that your children hear â€“ from the media, friends, the school, and other parents â€“ tells them itâ€™s OK, then your resistance will only last so long.
Many parentsâ€™ resolve crumbles in the face of permissive norms. Throughout the 1980â€™s and 90â€™s, the importance of obedience steadily declined until it reached an all time low in 2004, the last year for which data was available. The surveys shore up the feeling many Americans have about modern parenting: that we have become too indulgent, that we praise children too much, that we treat our children almost like royalty. When children are overindulged, it leads to outcomes resembling the seven deadly sins: pride, wrath, envy, sloth, gluttony, lust, and greed. The seven deadly sins are, of course, a succinct summary of the symptoms of narcissism. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 74-82)
What kind of young people does all this unconditional self-esteem building produce? Many teachers and social observers say it results in kids who canâ€™t take criticism. In other words, employers, get ready for a group of easily hurt young workers. Research shows that when people with high self-esteem are criticized, they became unfriendly, rude, and uncooperative, even toward people who had nothing to do with the criticism. They feel they deserve recognition and attention from others, and their unique individual needs should be considered first and foremost. Gen Me takes for granted that the self comes first and we often believe exactly what we were sp carefully taught - that weâ€™re special. (Generation Me, pg 65)
Surely kids who have high self-esteem go on to make better grades and achieve more in school. However, research shows that self-esteem does not cause high grades - instead, high grades cause higher self-esteem. Nor does high self-esteem protect against teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, drug abuse, or chronic welfare dependency. In fact, all the literature seems to conclude that high self-esteem doesnâ€™t cause much of anything. Self-esteem based on nothing does not serve children well in the long run. In fact, people with high self-esteem are often more violent and more likely to cheat. Itâ€™s clearly better for children to value learning rather than simply feeling good about themselves for no reason. Self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work. True self-confidence comes from honing your talents and learning things, not from being told youâ€™re great just because you exist. (Generation Me, pg 67)
Young people who have high self-esteem built on shaky foundations might run into trouble when they encounter the harsh realities of the real world. Kids who are given meaningless Aâ€™s and promoted when they havenâ€™t learned the material will later find out in college or the working world that they donâ€™t know much at all. And what will that do to their self-esteem, or more importantly, their careers? Unlike your teachers, your boss isnâ€™t going to care much about preserving your high self-esteem. The self-esteem emphasis leaves kids ill prepared for the inevitable criticism and occasional failure that is real life. Setting kids up like this is doing them a tremendous disservice.
The risk in these self-esteem programs is in inflating the self-concept of children who already think the world revolves around them. Building up the self-esteem and importance of kids who are already egocentric can bring trouble, as it can lead to NARCISSISM â€“ and maybe it already has.
This focus on self-esteem often crosses over into entitlement: The idea that we deserve more. And why shouldnâ€™t we? Weâ€™ve been told all our lives that we are special.
Parenting magazines should stop insisting that a parentâ€™s most important duty is to raise a child who likes â€œherselfâ€�. Most kids like themselves just fine - and make the demands to prove it. If children are always praised and always get what they want, they may find it difficult to overcome challenges as adults. The risk of overindulgence is self-centeredness and self-absorption. Much of the self-esteem movement actually encourages narcissism, or the belief that one is better and more important than anyone else. Narcissism is a very negative personality trait linked to aggression and poor relationships with others. We also need to stop talking in unrealistic platitudes, and this goes for teachers, parents, and Hollywood screenwriters. We must stop telling children â€œYou can be anything you want to beâ€�, or â€œYou should never give up on your dreams.â€� Why? Because both of these statements are patently untrue. Talk of dreams and being anything you want creates unrealistic expectations that are bound to disappoint. Adults cannot follow their dreams all the time, but must deal with the practical matters of getting a job that pays the bills. (Generation Me, pg 225 -226)
Another aphorism and mindless psycho babble that should be chucked is â€œYou must love yourself before you love othersâ€�. Narcissists - people who really love themselves - are horrible relationship partners. Self-centered people are rarely fun to be around. So why do we keep telling people to love themselves first before others? Beats me. An Aphorism that makes more sense is â€œNo one is an islandâ€�. (Generation Me, pg 227)
Treating your child as if heâ€™s Christ, singing â€œI am specialâ€�, and wearing a shirt that says â€œToo cool 4 youâ€� instills narcissism, not basic self-worth. America has overdosed on self-admiration, and our â€œWonder drugâ€� comes with serious side effects such as arrogance and self-centeredness. In the rush to create self-worth, our culture may have opened up the door to something darker and more sinister. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 17)
Most Americans assume that self-esteem is strongly linked to doing well in life. Our culture tells us it pays to believe in yourself as long as you are not arrogant or narcissistic. However, this isnâ€™t really true. A major review of research on self-esteem and achievement found that high self-esteem does not cause better grades, test scores, or job performance. (In fact, controlled experiments have proven that in certain academic situations, self-esteem boosting actually leads to failure, not success). Self-esteem comes â€œAFTER successâ€�, not before, because self-esteem is based on success (academic or social). (The Narcissism Epidemic pg 46-47)
When parents and teachers protect children from failure to cushion their self-esteem, kids may end up doing worse because they arenâ€™t learning from their mistakes. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 49)
In the United States, the ethnic group with the lowest self-esteem, Asian Americans, achieves the highest academic performance. So, the group with â€œalarmingly low self-esteemâ€� is actually doing the best in school. US high school kids have not improved in academic performance over the last 30 years, a time when self-esteem has been actively encouraged and boosted among American children (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 47)
In the United States, we have had a 1% improvement in actual learning over 30 years, but an 83% increase in â€œAâ€� grades. Apparently, our culture has decided to go with the strategy of boosting the fantasy of success rather than success itself. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 47)
In previous generations, children were expected to work hard. They werenâ€™t told they were special and didnâ€™t get the idea that they were better than others. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 170)
Parents can also play a big role in raising less materialistic children. Of course, parents want to make their children happy, and children want stuff. Thus parents buy them stuff. And children are happy, but only for a short period of time. Then they want even more stuff. If, in your mind, every time you thought about buying your child stuff, you substituted the word â€œcrackâ€�, it would make the reasoning much easier - I want my daughter to be happy. Crack makes my daughter happy. Therefore, I will buy her crack. This will make her happy for a short period of time and then she will only want more crack. Weâ€™re not saying that stuff is as bad as crack, but its clear that kids in America have way too much stuff. Itâ€™s got to end somewhere.
(The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 178)
The trend towards more unique names says a lot about our culture. We now wish so fervently that our children will stand out from the crowd that we equip them with unique labels from birth. Unique names arenâ€™t necessarily bad, and we donâ€™t mean to pass judgment on them, but the individualistic focus on children being unique and different fits squarely into the narcissism epidemic. Scales of narcissism reliably correlate with standard assessments of the need for uniqueness, because narcissists like the idea of standing out and being different from other people. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 183-184)
The Associated Press story on our study of the rise in narcissism mentioned the â€œI think I am a special personâ€� item from the NPI. The story ended with a quote from University of Vermont student Kari Dalane: â€�It would be more depressing if people answered, â€˜No, Iâ€™m not special.â€™â€� Kari was not alone; we got an avalanche of questions on this issue. â€œEveryone likes to hear theyâ€™re special and wouldnâ€™t it be just creepy if 7 year olds walked around saying, â€˜Iâ€™m not special?â€™â€� asked the daily Kent stater in Ohio. When Jean did radio interviews on this topic, many callers were shocked when she suggested that feeling special isnâ€™t a good thing. Newspaper columnists, such as Joe Vulopas in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era, responded to this suggestion with â€œPuuuleeeaaaseâ€¦ Are these researchers upset because their mommies and daddies didnâ€™t say they were special?â€� (Yes, thatâ€™s exactly why we went into psychology.) Vulopas noted that he regularly greets his daughter with â€œYouâ€™re the most beautiful little princess in the whole world!â€� and insisted he would continue to say she is â€œspecialâ€¦ EVERY CHANCE I GET.â€� The (Pennsylvania) Eagle argued that if parents â€œstop telling their children theyâ€™re special in an effort to keep them from becoming narcissistic, parents could run the risk of damaging their childrenâ€™s self-confidence.â€�
In our online survey, we asked, â€œIs it important to tell kids they are special?â€� Nicole, 29, gave a version of the most popular response: â€œDefinitely. It builds selfâ€“esteem and confidence, and I believe it also helps them to respect others.â€� In some ways, these responses make our argument for us. We are a nation fixated on the idea of being the exception to the rule, standing out, and being better than others-in other words, on being special and narcissistic - and weâ€™re so surrounded by this ethos that we find it shocking that anyone would question it. Fish donâ€™t realize theyâ€™re in water. But feeling special is narcissism - not self-esteem, not self-confidence, and not something we should be building in our children. Thereâ€™s a difference between narcissism and self-confidence. And it is unlikely to lead to respect for others, as Nicole theorized; people who believe they are special often want to be the exception to the rule, which is usually unfair to everyone else. Even though everyone cannot be special, everyone is unique. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 183-184)
Loving your children, and telling them so, is not the same as telling them that they are special. Love creates a secure base for a child and a connection that they can count on. In contrast, telling a child she is special sets her apart and creates disconnection â€“ a recipe for narcissism. An overemphasis on uniqueness has negative consequences for individuals as well. Studies have found that teenagers who have a â€œpersonal fableâ€� of uniqueness believe that no one understands them. Teens with these beliefs are significantly more likely to be depressed and think about suicide. (The Narcissism Epidemic, pg 192)
The enthusiastic claims of the self-esteem movement mostly range from fantasy to hogwash. The effects of self-esteem are small, limited, and not all good. Those with high self-esteem are more likely to be obnoxious, to interrupt, and to talk at people rather than with them (in contrast to the more shy, modest, self-effacing folks with low self-esteem). People with high self-esteem are also more likely to be bullies. Self-control is worth 10 times as much as self-esteem. (The American Paradox, pg 167) This explains the bullying epidemic in America.