In praise of the totally average kid

New research suggests that parents are at the root of narcissism in children. Jennifer Pinarski defends her "average" kids.

Isaac runs the bases. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski
Isaac runs the bases. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

I sometimes joke about how perfectly average I am. As a kid, my report card was a mixed bag of As, Bs and Cs. In sports, I finished in the middle. Heck, I even have the statistical average number of kids! If ever there was an award for mediocrity (like a 5th place ribbon), then I’d win it. Maybe.

When I have this conversation with my husband, he says the same thing about his grades and sports stats. While there was never any doubt we were loved, my husband and I both realized we were never pushed by our parents to succeed.

“I want us to be different,” my husband said. “I want our kids to know they’re amazing!”

So when Isaac showed both an interest and skill in baseball last summer, my husband was excited, pouring on the praise. On the other hand, I wanted to take a wait-and-see approach. After all, Isaac had already picked up and dropped several different sports and I was hesitant to invest time and money into something he might quickly lose interest in.

“Remember the ‘what if’,” my husband reminded me. “What if he could be amazing?” And with that, he went outside to play catch with Isaac.

I’d long been careful with my words when praising my kids, but my husband’s enthusiasm made me wonder if I was being too careful. However, a new study out of the University of Amsterdam, and published in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, suggests that my subdued praise might be one of the best ways to avoid raising a narcissistic child.

Curious about the rise of narcissistic children, a team of researchers led by Eddie Brummelman examined 565 kids between ages seven and 12 to help gauge the levels of child narcissism, child self-esteem, parental overvaluation and parental warmth. Researchers checked in with the kids and their parents every six months for 18 months, making this study the first of its kind to look at these particular types of behaviours over a specific amount of time. The results revealed two things:

  • Child narcissism was acquired and could be predicted by parental overvaluation.
  • Child self-esteem could be predicted by parental warmth. Children with high self-esteem were not necessarily narcissistic.

Researchers also concluded that “parent training” would be useful in helping curtail narcissistic behaviour in their children.

In my experience with kids (and not just my own), all kids under twelve tend to be narcissistic from time to time. I almost think it’s a survival trait, and a way to test parental boundaries and new friendships—especially in the school-age years when everything is a competition, from sports to grades to sibling rivalry. At home, we’ll continue to nurture our kids’ interests and expose them to new activities that they might enjoy. But most of all, we’ll tell them that we love them—average grades and all.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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