Since the 1970s, Western parents have become increasingly concerned with building children’s self-esteem. Parents intuitively believe that high self-esteem is key to success, health, and well-being, and they try to raise self-esteem by telling children that they are unique and extraordinary. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that since the very same decade, Western youth have become increasingly narcissistic. The conclusion would seem obvious: in raising our children’s self-esteem too much, we have necessarily turned them into narcissists.
In a recent paper, my colleagues and I challenged this interpretation. After reviewing the research literature, we concluded that narcissism and self-esteem are much more distinct than conventional wisdom has led us to believe. Statistically speaking, they are only weakly correlated. Narcissists can be low in self-esteem, and high self-esteem does not imply narcissism. Narcissists feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and crave admiration. They think the world would be a much better place if it revolved around them. And when they think it doesn’t, they lash out aggressively. High self-esteemers, by contrast, feel satisfied with themselves as a person, but don’t see themselves as any better than others. As Morris Rosenberg, a founding father of self-esteem research, said half a century ago, “When we deal with self-esteem, we are asking whether the individual considers himself adequate—a person of worth—not whether he considers himself superior to others.”
This distinction is key to rethinking our efforts to boost children’s self-esteem. Once we recognize the fine line that runs between narcissism and self-esteem—between unhealthy feelings of superiority and healthy feelings of worth—we can help children develop healthy views of themselves.
Why do some children believe they’re God’s gift to humanity, while other children like themselves but don’t see themselves as any better than their fellow humans? Narcissism and self-esteem are both partly heritable, but they’re also shaped by childhood experiences. We studied the childhood origins of narcissism and self-esteem, and discovered that they’re quite distinct.
Narcissism is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents seeing their child as unique and extraordinary individual. As Sigmund Freud put it, overvaluing parents “are under a compulsion to ascribe every perfection to the child—which sober observation would find no occasion to do—and to conceal and forget all his shortcomings.” Overvaluing parents have been found to overestimate, over-claim, and over-praise their child’s qualities. Overvaluing parents think their child is smarter than he or she actually is. They claim their child has knowledge of a wide variety of topics, even topics that cannot possibly be known by the child. And they lavish their child with praise, even when the child doesn’t perform well. Over time, these practices can teach children to see themselves as unique and extraordinary individuals.
Self-esteem, on the other hand, is cultivated by parental warmth: parents expressing fondness and affection for their child. This isn’t anything like overvaluing children. Warm parents share joy with their child, show interest in the child’s activities, and make the child feel loved and valued. Over time, these practices can teach children to see themselves as worthy individuals—not as any better or worse than other individuals.
Thus, narcissism doesn’t arise from having too much self-esteem. It arises, in part, from practices that are intended to raise self-esteem but actually raise narcissism. When parents try to raise children’s self-esteem, they intuitively tell them that they are unique and extraordinary—the very practices that raise narcissism rather than self-esteem.
The self-esteem movement was right about one thing: raising self-esteem is important. Although certainly not a panacea, self-esteem brings happiness and satisfying social relationships. But the movement was wrong about another thing: raising self-esteem isn’t easy.
How can we effectively raise children’s self-esteem? Psychologists often tell us to trust our intuition, but as we’ve seen, intuition isn’t always the best parenting guide, for what seems intuitively right can breed narcissism. Rather than telling children they’re unique snowflakes, we should make children feel loved and valued, so they grow up liking themselves without seeing themselves as superior to others.