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I once had a German Sociology professor in college who told us that, where he came from, American college students were often viewed as “happy idiots” because of a persistent stereotype in which US kids are continually lavished with praise for doing….not much.

That was quite a number of years back, so in defense of European college professors today, the perception has probably shifted since then.

But that incident did cross my mind this week when I came across some research that made me question my parenting. Researchers, attempting to understand how a person develops into a narcissist, surveyed parents and their children four times over a period of one-and-a-half years to see if they could identify which factors would eventually result in the kids having an over-inflated view of themselves.

The results showed that parents who “overvalued” their children early on, were more likely to have children who would score high on narcissism tests later on. “Overvalued children were described by their parents in surveys as ‘more special than other children’ and as kids who ‘deserve something extra in life,”’ for example. They were also likely to agree with statements like, “My child is a great example for other children to follow.”

I love my kids a whole lot. When they are not fighting with each other, I often find myself in awe of these fascinating people who are a miraculous product of my husband and myself. When our first child was born, my heart exploded with love and I danced on happy rainbows for quite some time before I could admit any—and I mean any—shortcoming in that lovely child.

When I was pregnant with our second child and telling our (older) midwife that I was a little concerned about how our daughter would handle having a new baby in the house, she quickly responded, “The sooner she learns that the world doesn’t revolve solely around her, the better. And it’s better to learn that at 2 than at 30.” Uh, ok.

As each of our subsequent children were born, I like to think I’ve become more clear-eyed and grounded in my parenting. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still view each of my kids through heavily-tinted rose-colored glasses. Love will do that to you, I guess.

But am I taking that love too far and making them think that they should always be #1?

My husband and I do try to encourage our kids a lot. We want them to know not just that they are loved, but to also feel encouraged, and confident. But – gulp – I do see attitudes of entitlement surface in them at times. And that’s frustrating, because I want to raise kids who love others and are willing to serve, not kids who expect to be served continually.

With all the talk about “nurturing self-esteem” in recent years, our intentions are good. Nobody wants to raise a kid who feels they are worthless. We want our kids to know 100% that they are deeply loved. But maybe we’ve taken it a little too far with telling our kids how great they are. Other research now tells us that it is parental warmth, not lavish praise, that helps build healthy self-esteem in kids. Being present, showing affection, appreciation and an interest in their activities and their day, counts. On the other hand, ironically, over-praising can actually have the opposite effect and lead to lower self-esteem.

Apparently, kids believe what their parents tell them, and kids who are told in one way or another that they are more special than others and “deserve” so many things actually do come to believe those things. And that is not necessarily a good thing for our kids, or for a society that has to put up with them.

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Zrinka Peters

Zrinka lives on 35 acres in MN with her husband, six kids and an ever-changing number of furry and feathered creatures. She loves book clubs, flowerbeds, and successful gluten-free baking. One of her greatest hopes is to lead her children to love deeply. She sometimes catches a few minutes to write in between snacks, laundry, and kid catastrophes. She hopes to make her little corner of the world a better place one word at a time.

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