Over praising your kids could very well teach them to be narcissistic; our friends at Fatherly explain how.
The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life.
I'm just going to go ahead and say it. My 4-and-a-half-year-old is a master builder.
In the history of modern children, multicolored blocks have never, undoubtedly and without question, reached their architectural apotheosis until they began receiving the touch of Apollo Mariani. A humanoid robot, an airport runway, the Petronas Towers – my son has erected all of these and more since he really started digging blocks a couple of years ago.
My wife *sigh* disagrees.
I never really understood how far off Dana and I were until last Saturday. I had just emerged from the library (aka the toilet) and had entered into the family room, where I was shocked and awed by another one of Little Man's superstructures: a skyscraper with a "retractable" roof that opens to reveal a cavernous interior "for people," he quickly informed me, referring to his Fisher-Price® Little People (Farmer, Sheep, Worker, and – streams-crossing alert! – Gumby).
"Apollo!" I gushed. "That is so amazing!"
I began digging into the bottom left pocket of my cargo shorts (there are six pockets, because a dude can never have too many pockets, apparently) for my phone.
"Oh, my. I've got to . . ." now fumbling with the device, nervously tapping the screen, eyes darting back and forth from the skyscraper to the viewfinder, fumbling some more, "We gotta get a picture of this. Come here," waving my free hand toward him, phone now poised in front of my face. "Stand right here. Right next to it."
From the kitchen nearby came my wife: "Anthony!"
"What?" me snapping, focusing, snapping some more, Apollo smiling, looking embarrassed, getting antsy.
"What do you think?" Dana snarled, wiping her hands over the sink. "You're really overdoing the praise."
Though only to myself, I replied, "But I always take pictures of his amazing buildings. It's, like, a thing that I do."
Which is true. It's my thing. Dana never takes pictures of our son's Pritzker Prize-caliber commentaries on postmodernism, urbanism, and the human condition, all writ in knobbed, hollow plastic cubes of red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and, for some reason, light-blue. Only me. (But I never post the pics anywhere. I just text them to my wife, my mom, and my mother-in-law. They're the only people I can brag to and not feel like a jerk. Unlike how I'm feeling right now as I set all of this down on paper.)
"Come here," Dana commanded me, her trajectory quickly progressing from the kitchen to the hall that leads to our bedroom. I snapped one last pic and raced after her.
"But," I whined at her back, trying to catch up, "I always take pictures of his amazing buildings. It's, like, a thing that I do."
She snapped around to face me, stopping me cold. "Anthony," she said evenly, "Kids are quitting violin lessons because their teachers don't praise them as much as their parents. You need to stop overdoing it!"
I'm not sure where my wife obtained that data, but I trust her: she works for a child/family-focused nonprofit. Purely because I was intrigued, and not because I was oozing with mistrust (I swear), I later googled "too much praise kids quit." Or something like that. The one top response that jumped out at me was a Huffington Post piece in which a psych prof says the challenge is in knowing "where appropriate praise ends and inflated praise begins."
Parents, Dr. Steven Meyers goes on, have to ask themselves how hard their child was "actually trying" when he or she completed a task. "If [the child wasn't] trying hard or developing a new skill," Meyers says, "the praise should be shorter."
Too much undeserved praise, the doctor continues, could stunt your child's desire to explore, to learn, to challenge himself or herself. Parents, Meyers says, "may observe that compliments result in their child's 'pulling back,' because the praise creates stress. Instead, parents should learn to narrate what their child is doing to demonstrate they are paying close attention, without defaulting to unnecessary and excessive praise."
Don't be mistaken. Meyers isn't talking about the kind of praise earmarked for a child's good behaviors, especially if they're scant in number compared to his or her attempts to lay waste to your patience via relentless buffets of screams, kicks, and tears. Good behaviors in a repertoire of mostly bad ones must always be praised and "very effusively," says Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. "And you have to say what you're praising exactly."
Of course Kazdin's advice does not pertain to emergencies. If and when little Connor/Tanner/Wyatt/Luke/Dustin starts channeling Nic Cage losing his shit in the middle of Target, remove that brat from the premises before he throws into complete doubt all of the good that you've done as a loving, caring, non-homicidal mother or father.
Kazdin also says to "raise the good behavior you want, not the good behavior you expect."
Praising the good behavior you expect – or praising your child for sticking only with what he or she excels at – can lead to that most dreaded of conditions.
Narcissism totally sucks. Or so I've heard. And our dear self-lovers' sad state is only getting worse. Now that they can't not factor into their perception of themselves the influence of Facebook, Instagram, and whatever other social media portals are out there, these poor souls are being programmed, ever so subtly, ever so powerfully, to become narcissistic or, as in some cases, more narcissistic. Like Caligulan children tilting back a full chalice of "that's awesome!"s and "you're so handsome/pretty!"s, adult narcissists can't stop consuming upward-raised thumbs and little red heart symbols. And even a billion "likes" will never be enough, especially if these "likes" aren't the right kind, if they're not "likes" from people we admire or if they do not quickly lead to (in order of importance) intercourse, wealth, or fame.
OK, confession: I am one of these filthy narcissists. I admit I have never been more concerned about my station in life than I have been since I got sucked into Insta-f—ing-gram. Last month, I actually started a new workout routine, for fuck's sake, to show off what little musculature remains in my old sack of blood, bones, and bile. I was a raging narcissist to begin with. Now I'm kind of a Frankenstein. Only in a tight tank-top.
Don't want your kids to turn out like me? Then stop praising them needlessly or ceaselessly. In a 2015 study, researchers from Ohio State University claim to "demonstrate that narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others."
"Research shows," the coauthors continue, "that narcissism levels have been steadily increasing among Western youth over the past few decades."
No wonder able-bodied teens don't have summer jobs anymore. "Well," I can hear you belch from atop your soap-less box, "dem construction, retail, and service-industry jobs all get taken by dem Messicans!" Yeah, because able-bodied teens, drunk on their rays' praise – and on their own mainstream media-fueled glory, and on their sense of entitlement to become the next LeBron James, Taylor Swift, or Charlie Sheen, and probably on one too many stealth vanilla-vodka-sodas – created the void that "dem Messicans" happily filled. (Sorry. Teenagers today seem to be pretty horrible.)
As responsible parents, we should do whatever we can to ensure that our children don't turn out like me. Evidently, all we need is love.
"High self-esteem in children," the OSU coauthors write, "is cultivated by parental warmth: parents expressing affection and appreciation toward their child."
And while genetics play a huge role in narcissism, parents should be able to tell whether or not their child is suffering from low self-esteem and requires additional praise. If he or she isn't, meaning that he or she is predisposed toward Tom Cruise-ian levels of self-admiration, "it's all the more important not to falsely inflate his or her sense of worth," one of the OSU coauthors tells Forbes. "But instead to be more down-to-earth about congratulations and more reserved about praise."
But, y'know, we're not all child psychiatrists. Just this morning, right before I finished this story, Apollo had built his most face-melting edifice yet: a series of five arches ascending from no taller than a Magic Marker to step-ladder-size.
Yes, I took a picture of it. No, my wife wasn't happy.