Recently, some research on parental overvaluation created a stir by suggesting that treating our kids as “special” can lead them to develop narcissistic traits. You can take parental overvaluation quiz here.
I imagine most of us know of a parent who consistently expects special treatment for their offspring. I knew of one mom who insisted that other kids play the game her child wanted to play because her child was “especially sensitive.”
On the other hand, I am sure that most of us can relate to feeling that, at least at times, our children do deserve special treatment. Where we may have been passed over, ignored, shamed, or otherwise injured, we desire to protect our children from similar wounds. We see their precious uniqueness and want the world to honor and protect this.
Needing Our Kids to Reflect Us
Overvaluing our kids can leave them poorly prepared for their future, as the research implies. The fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” provides us with an illustration of how we can hamper our children’s development by overvaluing them, leaving them cut off from their creative energies.
The tale begins with a miller and his beautiful daughter.
Now it happened one day that he had an audience with the King, and in order to appear a person of some importance he told him that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold.
Impressed, the king has the miller’s daughter brought to the palace. She is placed in a roomful of straw and told to spin it into gold. If she succeeds, she will become queen. If she fails, she will be killed. She sobs in despair, and is rescued by an odd little man who spins for her in exchange for her jewelry – and the promise of her first-born child. The miller’s daughter indeed becomes queen. When the little man comes to take her child as promised, she begs him not to. He gives her three chances to guess his name – and she finally does so successfully, at which point he disappears forever.
Overaluing Kids Creates Unrealistic Expectations
Wanting to make himself appear more important, the miller boasts about his daughter. This sets her up for a situation in which she is bound to fail. Her life – and the life of her future child – are endangered by the outsized expectations the father burdens her with.
The miller’s daughter is like many children who have served as a narcissistic extension for a parent. Valued above all for their accomplishments, they have a weak sense of themselves as individuals – the miller’s daughter is never even given a name in this tale. (This is especially noteworthy given that this is a tale in which one’s unique name is shown to have such power.)
For the miller’s daughter, failure becomes a life or death matter. For many young people, parental expectations to spin academic straw into college admissions gold can feel like a life or death matter.
Parents who overvalue their children feel that they are validating their child’s exceptionality. In fact, they are likely failing to see their child’s full personhood because they are focused instead on an inflated projection of their own making. When we overvalue our children, we unwittingly foster unrealistic expectations in them about how the world ought to treat them, setting them up for a life of disappointment, shallow relationships, and emotional fragility.
It is normal for parents to see in their children the sacred, precious kernel of potential. Our children contain within them futurity, the implied continuation of ourselves, our ancestors, and even humanity. It is not an accident that the archetype of the Divine Child is a central image in many religions, implying the core sacred principle that must be safeguarded to ensure the future.
Inevitably, this archetypal quality will be projected onto our individual children at times. But that is a big projection to carry! Parenting requires that we appreciate what is exceptional and unique in our child, while at the same time accepting them as utterly ordinary.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.