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Too much praise too young is not good

Researchers claim telling children they are special too often is creating a "self-centred" generation, more likely to grow up into narcissistic people.

world Updated: Apr 27, 2007 09:16 IST

You tell them they are beautiful, talented, special and they believe it. But in the long term, compliments and encouragements could be damaging your children.

Researchers in the US claim telling children they are special too often is creating a "self-centred" generation, who are more likely to grow up into narcissistic people who suffer failed relationships, lack of emotional warmth, react violently to criticism, lack empathy and commit infidelities.

The findings are by a group of American psychologists, led by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, who examined the responses of 16,000-college students over the last 24 years using a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

The inventory, used to assess narcissistic tendencies, asks them to respond to statements such as: "I think I am a special person" and "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place."

Students today emerged higher on the narcissistic scale with 30 per cent more scoring above average than those in 1982, they found.

Children nowadays are more self-centred than previous generations and blamed it on the rise of the "self-esteem movement" in the 1980s when its importance was championed by parents and child-carers, the researchers said.

They pointed to MySpace and YouTube saying such websites, which encouraged "attention-seeking", showed the trend for narcissisms and in fact fuelled it.

Professor Twenge, author of the book "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - And More Miserable Than Ever Before", said it was time to stop telling kids "they're special" or that they can do or be anything and instead help them set more realistic goals in life.

But the consequences of the other extreme not enough praise, appreciation and encouragement - can be equally, if not more, damaging. Research says people with low self-esteem are more at risk of destructive behaviour including alcohol and drug abuse, violence and crime.

According to Hong Kong mother and author Shirley Yuen, children with low self-esteem will lack the self-confidence they need to succeed in life.

"They will either turn out to be timid and fearful because they think that they are not good enough to survive in this world, or they will be self-centred and arrogant because they want to cover their fear by barking around," she said.

Shirley, the author of "The Three Virtues of Effective Parenting", believes that a narcissistic generation as outlined by the US researchers is not something Asians particularly Hong Kong Chinese have to worry about. Instead, she says in general the opposite is true with many parents suppressing a child's self-esteem development.

"They do this for three reasons," she said. "First, they are afraid that if they allow themselves to build the self-esteem of their children, their children will have 'a mind of their own', which will intimidate their authority as parents.

"Second, they are afraid that once a child has high self-esteem, he or she will not be 'humble' which according to Chinese culture is an important virtue. Thirdly, Chinese parents tend to focus much more on the 'negative' side of their children than their 'positive' side."

Leung Li Chi-mei, principal coordinator of Hong Kong Christian Service Family Networks, agrees, pointing to a recent study by the network which found that 30 per cent of 845 pupils aged eight to 11 interviewed had felt hurt and upset by "negative" comments by parents.

Where does this leave parents? Praise too much and they risk raising self-centred narcissistic children. Praise too little and their children could develop low self-esteem and become more at risk of drug addiction, abuse and other social ills.

"If we over-appreciate, over compliment children, we risk making them becoming self-centred. Instead, we should be helping them see and accept their limitation and find some ways to improve themselves and set realistic goals. Self-esteem is okay, but push it the wrong way and it can be harmful."

Shirley Yuen says the key is teaching children benevolence and to see the world from other perspectives. Professor Twenge agrees, saying building "empty self-esteem and narcissism" lacking in empathy is the problem.

"Although it's great for kids to aim high, parents and teachers should make sure that kids set realistic goals," said Twenge on the San Diego State University website.

"Help them develop the talents they do have, while gently helping them realise that most people do not become famous or rich. It's possible to encourage kids without telling them that they can do or be anything."