Down To Earth Dad

It's All About 'Me'

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It's better to give kids deserved praise than empty praise. But, according to some experts, keeping all praise to a minimum might prevent them from becoming narcissists as they get older.

So says Keith Campbell PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. He co-authored The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement with Jean Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. The book explores a troubling trend toward increasing self-centeredness among adults. For instance, people getting Botox treatments (five times as many Americans undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures now, as compared to a decade ago) and hiring fake paparazzi to follow them around taking pictures to make them appear famous. The authors also mention a reality TV show featuring a girl planning her Sweet Sixteen birthday party; she wanted a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet.

I realize that I've been guilty of giving my children excessive praise. Recently, my 6-year-old daughter was at a kindergarten league soccer game, and I shouted "Good job out there, keep up the good work!" But she had not really been doing a good job. My wife and I had laughed about the fact that our daughter wasn't even watching the game, and that as goalie, she should not have been looking at the grass behind the goal at the time of the shot.

Research suggests that this kind of empty praise isn't helpful in teaching children to put forth good effort. I knew that deep down, but I figured those 5- and 6-year-olds fumbling around out on the soccer field deserved a bunch of praise from me, regardless of whether the praise was really deserved. But too much of anything--even something that seems good, or at least harmless--can be bad. Giving empty praise artificially puffs children up, and can contribute to them becoming self-centered, self-serving adults who learn to care little for the well-being of others, says Campbell. Children who fall in love with all that praise might become narcissists; that is, people with an "inflated, grandiose view of themselves" who "have difficulty maintaining relationships with others," according to Campbell. "There's a lack of warm connection with others. Parents who go overboard telling their children they are attractive, special, and unique can cause narcissism to take root," he says. "You have 30- and 40-year-olds walking around acting like adolescents."

How can parents prevent their kids from becoming narcissistic adults? "First, providing a sense of warmth and empathy really counters narcissism--warmth and love in a family. Secondly, rewarding kids not so much for what they do, but for effort is a good thing," Campbell says. "Teach children that if they put good effort into something, over time they will be successful. I would advise par-ents to tell their children, 'Treat your classmates with respect, develop friendships, and develop good interpersonal relationships.'

"Make your child just one part of a family system; they're not the focus of the family system. Our tendency is to put a huge amount of effort into children and buffer them against failures and to tell them how 'special' they are. As a parent, you're always going to be there to back them up, but you're not there to puff them up."

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, and facilitates the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for child- and family-serving organizations. He provides keynote addresses and trainings, and conducts Family Storytelling Night(TM) events for programs and schools. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877-282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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