We’re about to embark on a generation of narcissists, eh?

Narcissism and Children

“Research shows that narcissism is higher in Western than non-Western countries, and suggests that narcissism levels have been steadily increasing among Western youth over the past few decades,” the authors write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You may have seen these narcissism studies in the last 24 or so hours — it’s based on research from professors at Ohio State University, but I’ve seen it in various summative forms on the Internet, including Forbes and The Washington Post.

There’s a lot of fraught stuff in this study, notably because everyone believes the millennial generation (the one coming up right now) was “The Trophy Generation” who consistently got told they were exceptional, even when they were mediocre. In reality, that might not be true. If anyone is “The Trophy Generation,” it’s probably Generation X (** raises hand **), not the millennials. The millennials might be “The Feedback Generation.” (All this said, it’s really hard to generalize about generations, because people grow up and their priorities change; if you don’t believe that, consider “The Happiness U-Curve” as one example.)

Out of all the potential implications for “Whoa, maybe narcissism is going to be on the rise!,” there’s one section of the study that’s perhaps the most interesting. 

Check this out:

Parental overvaluation was the largest predictor of a child’s narcissism over time, but interestingly, it did not predict self-esteem. In other words, telling kids how exceptional they are doesn’t produce kids with good healthy self-esteem – it just makes them more narcissistic.

Alright, so … unpack that for a second.

I’m not a parent (would someday like to be), but I’ve observed many parents from “friends of mine” to “random people in the supermarket.” Oftentimes, parents will tell kids how special they are, even for the smallest thing. That seems pretty logical in terms of how you would parent, because you know, a kid does something cool … and your desire, as their caregiver and fruit-of-loins and all that, is to make them feel good. Makes sense.

But if you constantly tell someone they’re exceptional, that isn’t actually creating healthy self-esteem; it’s actually trending towards narcissism.

That’s where it gets dangerous.

I do think there are implicit societal controls in place here that the study doesn’t necessarily discuss. For example, if you grow up very rich, it can be easier to take on some narcissistic personality traits — especially in a first-world country like America, where the attitude is often “The rich are in some way inherently better or work harder than others.” I’ve actually seen interesting things happen around this; if you look at a family with three kids and the parents became affluent sometime after Kid 2, usually the third kid (the youngest) will take on traits of narcissism moreso than the first two, who grew up maybe a bit closer to societal norm. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and keeps you in nice clothes.

I think if you’re standard middle-class/upper-middle-class, it’s maybe a little bit harder to emerge as a narcissist. I went to school with a number of upper-middle-class kids and some ridiculously-wealthy kids from about K to 12. Again, the super-rich can become narcissistic because there’s so much of a tendency for people to serve towards them; the upper-middle-class you see that less. (Also, there’s something about being upper-middle-class where the breadwinners feel they have to work hard to stay where they’re at; that work ethic can often trickle down to a kid. It’s hard to think you’re above it all if you see your dad grinding at his job constantly. Just my two cents.)

Also, I kind of believe true narcissism — as in, the really bad form society should be avoiding — also involves a lack of empathy, meaning a true narcissist can border on sociopathy. (Clinically, I’m probably wrong about that.) I think it’s possible that we’re seeing more and more narcissists emerge in the Western world, yes, but I don’t think that signals a total downfall of societal fabric because we’ve always had people walking around thinking they were better than everyone. If we start seeing an uptick in sociopaths because of these same parental trends, well, that’s a fucking nightmare.

Of course, all behavior is a mix of genetics and behavior. So there is a certain genetic predisposition to narcissistic behavior, and the study acknowledges that. And if your parents totally think they’re better than everyone and pass that on to you, you’ll probably think it too. It’s the same if your parents fight all the time; the bad behaviors do move on down the line.



Ted Bauer


  1. I think respecting kids is what builds self-esteem more than anything. If you respect kids you let them learn things, let them feel their own skills. Praise by itself, especially unwarranted praise does non of that. Of course, if you fail to praise where praise is due, you’re also not respecting the kid so…

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