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The Brood: How to praise kids without turning them into narcissists

"Fire truck," by Take Two host Alex Cohen's daughter Eliza.
Alex Cohen

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Praising a child for doing something great seems pretty uncontroversial. A little self-esteem boost never hurt anyone, right? But what if how you phrase that praise could increase a child's chances of becoming a narcissist?

According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, parents who overvalue their kids could be raising their children's levels of narcissism. And there's reason to believe that's a bad thing for society.

Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, explains, "We know that narcissism is related to aggressive and violent behavior. And there's some troubling trends. Over the past several decades, narcissism levels have been going up and empathy levels have been going down."

So how to respond when your three-year-old draws a really great fire truck (like the example above)?

Bushman says, "It's better to say something like 'You must have tried really hard' than to say 'You must be really smart.' Because if you say 'You must be really smart,' and they try another task and fail on it, then they may assume 'Well maybe I'm not so smart after all.'" 

Psychologist Enrico Gnaulati agrees that it's better to praise the behavior than it is to praise the child.

"You really want to praise effort as much as possible," Gnaulati says, "because that's something within a child's control."

Where you can run into problems, Gnaulati says, is with praise like, "You're great!" Or with complimenting a child on "something as ineffable as intelligence or attractiveness... that somehow is this permanent part of a child that is there regardless of how they prove themselves."

It's an idea that writer Livia Gershon touched on in a recent essay for Pacific Standard called "Don't Give My Kid an Award in School."

When Gershon's second-grader was recently awarded a "Leader of the Month" award at school, he thought it was "stupid." And she kind of agreed.

"What bothered me is that my son gets a lot of praise at school for being a good student, for being smart," Gershon says. 

"He's a kid who's middle class, his parents are middle income, pretty highly educated people and he's in a school where a lot of kids aren't," Gershon says. "And I think that setting him up as 'You're doing particularly well,' a lot of that comes from things that he has absolutely no control over."

It's not that her son isn't a great, hard-working kid, Gershon says. It's that other kids in his class, like "Sonia," who has different skills (like knowing how to navigate the neighborhood and being quick to help out with chores), don't get the same kind of recognition.

"The fact that my son gets a lot of praise for the things that he is good at in class, and she doesn't get so much praise for the things that she's good at," Gershon says, "That seems to me unfair and kind of setting them up for having really different experiences of school."