It’s not much of a surprise, but it turns out that we love ourselves more than in previous generations. And not in a good way – this is not so much self-esteem, as it is narcissism.
As reported by the ABC, recent research (published in a book titled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Professor Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) has found that narcissism scores in the 2000s were significantly higher than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Narcissism, derived from the Greek myth about handsome Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, encompasses everything from thinking unrealistically well of oneself to utter vanity and self-absorption. It’s the ugly extreme of good self-esteem, and unfortunately we are living in a culture that feeds it.
You might argue that it’s better to be narcissistic than not, but Twenge and Campbell point out that there are many pitfalls. For one, your relationships are likely to be more troubled, considering that the narcissistic person is focused only inward. Also, with excessive self-love comes more materialism – a greater focus on money, fame and image, which in themselves can’t lead to a fulfilling life. Not to mention that wider society will be affected, considering that more narcissistic teens would be too preoccupied with personal issues to do any good in the world.
According to Twenge, there are many drivers which make us more narcissistic, including easy bank loans, celebrity culture and the internet. But the most interesting, or at least the one we can more easily do something about, is the emphasis that is put on children’s self-esteem in parenting and education – which often leads kids to an inflated sense of self.
I am not yet a parent, but there seems to be a very fine line between fostering self-esteem as opposed to narcissism in your child. How does one achieve the correct balance? Twenge has one concrete suggestion and I think it hits the nail on the head: reiterate to your child that they are loved, rather than that they are special. After all, being loved will help them to be secure and confident in themselves while still being able to focus on others; while being “special” has the potential to turn the focus always to the self while fostering a superiority complex.
As for how to implement this, there would be many ways. Off the top of my head, it would make sense to correct them when they’re wrong (not letting them off the hook), but always affectionately. When they are pulled up by others, for example by teachers at school, help them to learn from it rather than trying to get them out of it. Teach them to work hard and help out, so that they don’t grow up expecting that everyone will do everything for them. And lastly, teach them to look for the good in others, so that they will never grow accustomed to looking down at others.