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Are we raising a generation of Narcissists? Is there a ‘Narcissistic Gene?’

Beware the Warning Signs of Narcissism in your Kids

Is it true that constantly telling your kids they're special can make them especially susceptible to narcissism? Are we raising a generation of narcissistic kids who think only about themselves all of the time and feel a sense of entitlement? Well, a new study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that narcissists aren’t born. There is no gene for narcissism. What’s worse, self-centered children are likely to grow up into self-centered adults.

This means that narcissism -- a self-centeredness which the study defines as feeling superior to others, fantasizing about personal success and believing one deserves special treatment -- isn't something that just happens organically.  Researchers followed and surveyed 565 children ages 7 through 11 and their parents -- 415 mothers and 290 fathers. They found that parents who "overvalue" and overpraise their children during these formative years, often instilling a sense of entitlement, are more likely to raise narcissists.

"When children are seen by their parents as being more special and more entitled than other children, they may internalize the view that they are superior individuals, a view that is at the core of narcissism," according to the researchers.

In their book titled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell list some of the things that contribute to narcissism: public schools that tolerate mediocrity; a nurturing culture where everyone gets a trophy; social media, where everyone with an opinion can share it; a celebrity and reality show culture that tells Americans anyone can be famous. At the top of the list though: parenting.

So what is the antidote to this epidemic of narcissism? According to the book, it is balance. You can praise your kids, but always make sure what you're praising is an actual achievement or accomplishment. Don't just cheer them on for participating. They'll get enough of that, along with a handful of ribbons, from playing school sports.

On the other side of that coin, don't be afraid to set high expectations, demand that they be met, offer constructive criticism when necessary, and remind your children that — contrary to what they may be hearing from marketers and the rest of society — the world does not revolve around them.

Encourage them to think of the collective good, and not just focus on themselves as an individual. Remind them that, just as important as how they feel about themselves, is how other people feel about them. And, as often as possible, stress to them that while they shouldn't let anyone look down on them they also have a duty not to look down on anyone else.

Dr. Patricia Greenfield has argued that there’s been a cultural shift, one which she and Yalda Uhls have explored in several studies.  One study examined the cultural context of fame, by looking at television shows from 1967 to 2007, and seeing what values these shows promoted by example and message to tween viewers, ages 10-to-12.

In 1977, shows such as “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days” promoted a sense of community first. In contrast, by 2007, “Hannah Montana” and “American Idol” promoted fame first and foremost.  Indeed, by 2007, the value of belonging or community had dropped to number thirteen—meaning that the values had literally switched places over the course of thirty years.  And, of course, they also note that achieving “fame” seems possible by both YouTube and the social networking sites.

It’s not hard to understand how tempting narcissism driven by the desire for fame drives tweens and adolescents—witness the success of Justin Bieber and model Kate Upton, among others—to think “this could be me” and how that thought alone might be enough to outweigh any sense of caution or concern about the risks. But the risks are very real, leaving a child vulnerable to cruelty and bullying, at a time in life when egos can be fragile and self-esteem, a precious commodity.

So, are we raising a nation of narcissists?  The question seems especially pertinent given the statistics released by Common Sense Media’s survey last fall which looked at media use by children from birth to age 8.  A stunning 10% of babies under the age of one have used a smartphone, iPod, iPad or other tablet.  39% of 2-to-4 four year olds have and 52% of 5-to-8 year olds. 

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of “no screens” under the age of two, 47% of babies age 0- to- 1 watch TV or videos for nearly two hours a day.  In contrast, they’re read to for an average 23 minutes.  66% of children under the age of 2 have watched television, and television overall remains the most watched medium.  Is it inevitable that fame will continue to impress even the youngest of children as being terribly important, particularly if their parents are posting pictures and videos themselves? 

Parents prize independence in their kids today. Parents consistently rank "thinking for himself or herself" as a top priority for their children. Some scholars suggest this focus on thinking for oneself shows that parents value autonomy in their children, rather than obedience and conformity. If parents value autonomy, they will let the kids push them around, encourage their kids to focus only on themselves and ultimately raise a spoiled, entitled generation.

The scary thing is today’s kids become tomorrow’s parents and the cycle begins again. What can be done to combat narcissism? Schools need to work with parents to develop a curriculum dedicated to how selfless behavior works for the common good. For example, in the days following the devastating earthquake in Japan, word quickly spread about heroism displayed across the region—from the 50 brave nuclear workers, "The Fukushima 50" who stayed behind after evacuation in a valiant attempt to prevent further disaster, to a man who donned scuba gear and went into the tsunami to rescue his wife and mother.

Closer to home are the first-responders during 9/11 who put their lives on the line to save others. Were they thinking only about themselves or was their behavior other-centered? I think the answer is quite clear. These are actions worth emulating by our kids, not self-serving and a “what’s in it for me" pattern of behavior.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 17, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: