In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Transfixed by his own beauty, he sat at the water’s edge staring at his own face until he died. The story of Narcissus is where we get the term “narcissism” — a personality trait hallmarked by arrogance, selfishness, and vanity.
We’ve all known a narcissist or two — the ones who think they are God’s gift to the Earth, who need all of the attention all the time, who believe they’re entitled to special treatment and favors. Narcissists can be arrogant and boastful, and they feed off of the admiration of others. People with narcissistic personality disorder have a mental health condition that takes all of this to an extreme. But it’s common to find narcissistic traits among otherwise healthy people.
Unfortunately for humanity, research shows that narcissism is on the rise, especially among young people. The proliferation of social media sharing, selfies, and reality television has certainly contributed to this phenomenon, but parents play a role as well. We can teach kids to be narcissists without even realizing we’re doing it.
In order to raise more empathetic people, we want to avoid habits that contribute to narcissism. Here are some ways to minimize narcissistic qualities in our kids:
1. Make kids work for things.
One of the quickest ways to raise a narcissist is to shower them with praise they didn’t earn. Showing love and warmth are important for building healthy self-esteem, but praise is not the same as love. Praise and reward should only come after real effort has been exerted. The “everyone gets a trophy” mentality needs to go.
2. Ease off on the idea of “special.”
Everyone is special in their own way, no doubt. So make sure your kids know that. Don’t send the message that they are exceptional or better or more deserving than anyone else. If they really are some kind of prodigy, no one will need to tell them. If they aren’t — and let’s face it, most kids aren’t — then telling them that they are only gives them an unrealistic view of themselves.
3. Encourage real friendships.
Narcissistic people tend to have a lot of admirers, but few real friends. Relationships require empathy, which requires looking outside of yourself. Giving kids opportunities to form deep friendships and helping them build those empathetic muscles can help keep narcissism at bay.
4. Make altruism a priority.
Altruism is giving or being of service without expecting anything in return, including praise or recognition. Practice random acts of service both within your family and without, and actively discuss the importance of contributing humbly to the collective good. Focusing on the needs of others keeps the focus off the self.
5. Tell your kids you love them.
Research shows that kids who know they are loved and feel warmth and affection from their parents tend to have healthy self-esteem. Again, we’re not talking about praise or telling kids they’re special. Just a simple and sincere “I love you” will do more to build a kid’s confidence in a healthy way than telling them they’re special or unique ever will.
6. Tell them they are not exceptions to the rules.
Narcissists feel entitled and believe that rules that apply to other people don’t apply to them. I’ve seen parents let their kids do things that are clearly forbidden or that common sense would tell you is discourteous. No, your special snowflake is not allowed to touch the priceless art in a museum just because you think their curiosity is prodigious. Allowing kids to misbehave or ruin things for others teaches them that they are exceptions to the rule. They are not.
7. Say no.
Setting limits and giving kids boundaries teaches them that the world doesn’t revolve around what they want. While I’m a firm believer in saying yes often in life, kids need to hear the word no sometimes. And when they whine and push back, that no needs to stick. They need to know that no means no and that they are not entitled to something just because they really want it.
8. Read fiction together.
Research shows that reading fiction helps increase empathy. Stories show us realities outside of ourselves, help us understand others’ feelings more clearly, and enable us to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes for a while — all things that narcissists struggle with.
9. Emphasize equality.
Narcissists have a sense of superiority over others, so make sure your kids know that they are not better than others because of their gender, race, wealth, neighborhood, family, or any other reason. Teach them to appreciate diversity and to recognize that no human being is inherently better than another.
10. Be aware of other influences.
Parents aren’t the only influencers in our kids’ lives. Are your children hanging around with kids who spend inordinate amounts of time on their appearance and take loads of selfies? Are they intrigued by celebrities who are only famous for being famous (ahem, Kim Kardashian)? Are they exposed to large amounts of advertising? A good deal of pop culture encourages and feeds narcissism. As parents, we need to keep our finger on that pulse and understand how it can influence our kids.
The world doesn’t need more self-centered people. As parents, let’s all do what we can to discourage narcissistic tendencies and encourage qualities in our kids that benefit the world.