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Quick question: Is your child super-special?
If you answered yes, you’re far from alone.
But beware that holding this belief — and worse, expressing it to your kid and to others — may not exactly be in your progeny’s best interest, according to a collection of new parenting studies. “Although it is natural for parents to value their children, some parents ‘overvalue’ them, believing that their own children are more special and more entitled than other children are,” notes the article analyzing the results, “My Child Is God’s Gift to Humanity: Development and Validation of the Parental Overvaluation Scale,” published earlier this month in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
When moms and dads overvalue their kids, according to the research, led by University of Amsterdam post-doctoral researcher Eddie Brummelman, they tend to be acting out their narcissistic tendencies. And that can lead to a slew of interesting (and baggage-addling) parental behaviors, including, but not limited to: lying about their kid’s knowledge, perceiving them to be more gifted that actual IQ tests show, anointing them with wacky names to make sure they stand out form the pack, and heaping them with inflated praise.
“The results are perfectly understandable and predictable,” Dr. Laura Markham, a Brooklyn-based child psychologist and parenting coach, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Parents always visit their unresolved issues through their children, and those unresolved issues are not always in our child’s best interest.”
For the research, Brummelman and his team conducted six studies involving more than 1,700 Dutch and American parents using a self-reporting tool they called the Parental Overvaluation Scale. In the scale, parents rated their agreement with statements such as “My child deserves special treatment” and “My child is a great example for other children to follow,” with answers producing a collective score ranging from “not at all overvaluing” to “extremely overvaluing.”
In one study, those who scored on the extreme end of the scale actually lied about their child’s literary knowledge — saying that he or she had read every book on a list, including a fake one, “The Tale of Benson Bunny,” thrown in by researchers as part of the test.
Overvaluing parents also tended to give their kids odd first names as a way to make them stand out, and to dole out over-the-top praise — something past research, including from Brummelman, has found to cause harm.
“The consequences of parental overvaluation for children’s development are yet unknown. However, previous work shows that inflated praise (e.g., ‘You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!’) and person praise (e.g., ‘You’re so smart!’) can ironically backfire, especially in children with low self-esteem,” Brummelman tells Yahoo Parenting in an email. “By contrast, non-inflated praise (e.g., ‘You made a beautiful drawing!’) and process praise (e.g., ‘You’ve worked so hard!’) can help children, especially those with low self-esteem, take on challenges and bounce back from failure. So, the effects of praise depend on how the praise is phrased.”
Writing about his findings in a piece for “The Conversation” this week, Brummelman notes, “The idea of parental over-valuation was first introduced in psychology by Sigmund Freud, who saw it as ‘a revival and reproduction’ of parents’ own narcissism.” And, lo and behold, Brummelman adds, “Not all parents are equally inclined to overvalue. We found that narcissistic parents, who believe they are superior to others and who want to be admired by others, are especially inclined toward it.”
This is not shocking, Markham says, as narcissists are people who were damaged in childhood from not being seen for who they were. As a result, they have a desperate need for outside approval, and have a carefully constructed, fragile sense of self. “Their only way to feel good is to feel superior to others,” Marhkam says, and using children for that, by extension — unwittingly, most likely — is a way to do that.
Still, all parents are prone to these beliefs and behaviors — which is natural — but in varying degrees. “Most parents feel like their kids deserve special treatment — but they know better,” she explains. “And it is good parenting when you see things from your child’s perspective. But if we’re being mature, we are able to regulate our impulses and emotions.”
So while you may believe your kid deserves to be on the soccer field for every minute of every game, for example, you’ll probably be able to tamp it down and explain to your child why she’s not actually entitled to such a special privilege (though there’s always going to be someone who can’t help but argue with the coach out on the field). To avoid falling into the trap of overvaluation, Markham suggests, “See things from their point of view, and look at ways to empower your child, versus expressing a belief of ‘some kids are born smart, some are not.’ Children all need encouragement — they just need us to see it from his or her perspective.”