Why overpraising may be responsible for a generation of narcissistic children
My six year-old asked me recently - after a particularly long and repetitive rendition of 'Let it Go' - if she had a "beautiful voice". Suffice to say that the correct adjective to describe the sounds that came out of her mouth would not be 'beautiful'.
I was about to say "Yes, absolutely", but then I paused. I had a flashback to those teenagers who go on 'The X Factor' and 'The Voice' thinking they're the next Mariah Carey and then get laughed out of the studio.
They always look completely bewildered when they are rejected and say: "But my Mum told me I had an amazing voice".
So… I decided to opt for the truth (well, OK a version of the truth). I told my daughter that she had a nice voice, but I thought she was better at other things.
This did not go down well at all. Glaring at me she shouted: "Well, that's not a very nice thing to say."
I realised that my default mode is to over-praise my children and - as a new study has shown - we are not doing our children any favours by over-praising them. In fact, we are turning them into narcissists.
A new study - carried out by Eddie Brummelman and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam - suggests that the constant praising of our children's smallest accomplishments may have the unintended side effect of creating over-inflated egos.
The study evaluated more than 560 children between the ages of seven and 11 over 18 months. It found that parental overvaluation was the largest cause of narcissism in a child, but did not necessarily provide them with good self-esteem.
So, while we think that telling our children they're fantastic all the time is building up their confidence, it doesn't necessarily have that effect.
"People with high self-esteem think they're as good as others, whereas narcissists think they're better than others," said Brad Bushman, the co-author of the study.
"Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society."
Parents need to be careful. Raising a child who thinks they are superior to others and believes they deserve special treatment can have serious consequences, both in childhood and later on in life.
Narcissism is a trait that comes with a number of psychological and social problems, both in childhood and in adulthood, some of which can be serious.
"Narcissistic children feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and crave constant admiration from others," Brummelman says. "When they fail to obtain the admiration they want, they may lash out aggressively."
The study showed a small but significant link between how much parents praised their children and how narcissistic the children were when they were tested six months later.
The research suggests that a much better way to treat children is to be warm and loving. This builds self-esteem, but not an inflated sense of self.
Children with good self-esteem think they are as good as others, not necessarily better than them.
We've all seen parents congratulating a child who came last in a race as if they had won it. While it seems supportive and well- meant, it certainly won't prepare the child for the real world as children internalize their parents' inflated view of them.
This over-praising is not helpful in grooming children for the working world. An employee who gets the lowest sales figures will not be hugged and applauded by their boss.
Children do need to be prepared for life outside the home and overvaluation will just make them delusional - like the tuneless singers on 'The X Factor' - and open to ridicule.
When narcissists feel humiliated they can often lash out aggressively or even violently. Narcissism levels have been increasing among Western youth and contributing to societal problems.
So while we think we're being supportive and encouraging, we may need to re-think the standing ovation we give our children every time they get up in the morning.
Mr Bushman, who is also a father of three, said his research into narcissism had "changed my parenting style… When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I'm careful not to do that now."
I feel less guilty after discovering this research. At least my daughter, although temporarily grumpy with me, won't go out into the big bad world thinking she can make it as a singer.
With so many of our young people now going about with over-inflated egos and obsessively taking selfies to post online, it probably is time parents tried to tone down the praise.
As Voltaire so eloquently said: "It is not love that should be depicted as blind, but self-love."