When my children were small, we were friendly with a family who had a daughter who was quite bright. The parents spent a lot of time talking about Sophie’s intelligence and talents, and the special challenges that came along with parenting such a gifted child. Because of her superior intelligence, Sophie was especially sensitive to many things, and therefore needed to have special arrangements made for her. For example, she felt easily overwhelmed by crowds and noise. Her parents would reassure her that, due to her struggles, she deserved special treatment. It wasn’t all that surprising, then, when I came upon the following scene at a neighbor’s 4th of July party: Sophie was sitting on a float in the middle of the pool while other kids waited in line to bring her food at her request. When I asked them what was going on, the other girls let me know that Sophie had explained that she needed them to get the food for her because she couldn’t manage the crowds around the food table. Needless to say, Sophie’s friends were not happy about this arrangement, but they couldn’t quite figure out how to tell her “no.”
Sophie’s belief that was entitled to special treatment – a belief that had been encouraged by her parents – was already getting in the way of Sophie having satisfying, mutual friendships. Narcissistic traits can make it difficult to get along with others. They can even foster a kind of fragility, requiring us to seek constantly praise and attention.
Recent research on parenting style and its effect on the development of narcissistic traits in children confirm what a lot of us know intuitively – communicating to our child that she is better than others can foster later narcissism. Scientists gave parents a short questionnaire meant to determine whether the parent overvalued their child. They then measured narcissistic traits in that child at a later point. Indeed, children who were overvalued by their parents were more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits in the future. (Want to find out your parental overvaluation score? Take the survey here.)
Note that there is a difference between having healthy self-esteem, and being narcissistic. Researchers differentiated between kids who boasted that they were really good at drawing, and those who, like Sophie, felt that they were entitled to special treatment. The latter group of kids are less likely to be resilient, as they will be dependent on having their specialness reinforced and praised.
Diamonds and Toads
Not surprisingly, fairy tales, with their intuitive psychological wisdom have been making this same point for thousands of years. Fairy tales are full of overvalued children – and their fates are rarely happy ones. Many stories contain a motif of the virtuous but undervalued sister, and a self-centered and much doted upon sister. For example, a Louisiana variant of “Diamonds and Toads” called “The Talking Eggs” begins like this:
There was once a widow who had two daughters, one named Rose and the other Blanche.
Blanche was good and beautiful and gentle, but the mother cared nothing for her and gave her only hard words and harder blows; but she loved Rose as she loved the apple of her eye, because Rose was exactly like herself, coarse-looking, and with a bad temper and a sharp tongue.
Blanche was obliged to work all day, but Rose sat in a chair with folded hands as though she were a fine lady, with nothing in the world to do.
As in the original French tale, things do not go well for Rose as the story unfolds. She is too self-centered to think of others, and therefore she is punished, while Blanche is richly rewarded for her kindness and ability to think of others. Because Blanche has been kind to a strange old woman, she is given a choice of talking eggs to take home with her. She dutifully accepts the advice given her and picks the plainest egg, which later opens to reveal marvelous treasures. Rose is mean-spirited and selfish, and picks the egg that is outwardly most beautiful. These, however, contain snakes and toads.
This seems prescient when I think back to Sophie. It was likely very enjoyable for her to be able to ask for special treatment from her friends at 11, but even then, her peers were tiring of her selfish demands. Behaving in a narcissistic way may look appealing at first, but in the end, such behavior may yield dark dividends.
Fairy tales contain profound psychological wisdom, but they also contain straight forward common sense too, which is often expressed in exaggerated images such as those in “The Talking Eggs.” Teaching children that kindness matters, praising effort over ability, and perhaps above all, that no matter how much we love and admire them, they are not entitled to special treatment, will help make sure that our children have the skills they need to negotiate a happy and emotionally healthy adulthood.