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The Informed Parent

Self-Esteem or Narcissism?

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on May. 07, 2007

Parents want their children to feel fulfilled and satisfied with themselves and with life. Guiding them toward this end has, historically, taken different paths. In past generations it was believed that children should be kept humble and not place undue focus on themselves. The developmentally appropriate self-centeredness of toddlers and young children was often punished.

In the 1980s a shift occurred. What has been labeled the "self-esteem movement" resulted in an emphasis on developing self-esteem in children. Although generally described as positive feelings toward oneself, feelings of self-regard, and of confidence, self-esteem has taken on another meaning--that of being special. If someone or something is special, that automatically indicates another someone or something is not.

Specialness can turn into traits associated with narcissism. Simply stated, narcissism means "all about me." From infancy through two or three years of age, narcissism is a natural part of development. The child believes the world revolves around him. Healthy children move beyond that stage to recognizing they are a part of a family, a group, a society. They learn that fulfillment comes from regarding both self and other, and that consideration and cooperation lead toward successful outcomes.

In a recent comprehensive study titled "College Students Get an A in Narcissism," five psychologists determined that today's college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors. They believe the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and to American society. Lead author Jean Twenge of San Diego State University stated, "We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You are special and having children repeat that back. Kids are self-centered enough already.'"

Parents, teachers, and, to some extent, the larger society can all take responsibility for this dilemma. Our children are dear to us. Most parents can't imagine life without their offspring. Teachers are trained to assist youngsters in feeling good about themselves. A balance needs to be maintained, however, between being both self and other directed.

In kindergarten and primary classrooms children often create booklets with titles like ALL ABOUT ME. Primary students complete sentences such as, "I am good at..." and "If I could do anything I wanted it would be...". Parents croon to their children, "You are so special to me. What a special little person you are." These kinds of messages teach children to focus on themselves in a self-absorbing way.

The development of positive self-esteem must focus on lasting and enduring qualities. It must consider uniqueness as opposed to specailness. The following suggestions will assist in raising children who honor themselves and others; children who will contribute to society because of the fulfillment it brings as opposed to the recognition received; children who know how to form quality relationships with others.

Begin early

Positive feelings about self may start in the womb and definitely begin at birth. Parents who love their infants unconditionally, who provide the necessities of life, and who keep their babies safe are laying the groundwork for strong self-regard.

Have expectations

When parents set limits for toddlers and young children they are saying, "You live in a family. Each of us has rights, and they must be respected." Expecting children and teens to help with household chores, to use respectful language, and to communicate their plans teaches them how to live in a group and in society.

Choose your words

Our children are precious; there's no getting around it. That is what they need to know. Tell them that you love them. Let them know that you appreciate them. Instead of using the word "special", talk about their "uniqueness". It is a fact that no two people are exactly alike. Let your children know how they are unique. Is it their musical or artistic ability? Is it their athletic skills? Are they socially engaging? How can they share their abilities with others? Say things such as, "I like the way you seem to enjoy your art. I enjoy looking at your projects."

Reinforce enduring qualities

Ask children questions that require thoughtful consideration. Following a school field trip, instead of asking questions such as "What did you like at the zoo?" or "What did you want to do?" ask "What were you curious about on the field trip?" or "What did you learn about some of the animals?" Curiosity and learning are qualities to develop. When encouraged they continue to develop over one's lifetime. Asking questions with words like LEARN, CURIOUS, WONDER or EXPLORE require looking inward for answers that are very personal. They do not put self at the center as do questions using the words LIKE or WANT.

Create balance between self and community

Provide opportunities for children to participate in group activities that require listening to others, cooperation, and the combining of ideas for successful end results. Unless children grow up with the skills to be a part of work and social groups, they become isolated and perhaps angry. They may act inappropriately or, in the extreme, dangerously.

Experience counts

Although children and adolescents may enjoy hearing that they are wonderful, beautiful, talented, or smart, it is not likely that such praise raises self-esteem. A person's sense of self comes from how he or she walks through life. When children develop social and academic skills they begin to feel confident and successful. Give them the opportunity to engage in decision-making and in negotiating outcomes. Help them discover ways to contribute to the family and community. Give them opportunities to investigate the physical and intellectual world.


Respect for who he is goes a long way toward contributing to how a child feels about himself. All children, regardless of age, know when they are spoken down to or being patronized. Speak respectfully. Treat with respect. Honor the humanity of your children and others. You are their primary role model. How you interact with others teaches them how to behave. 

From toddler hood through adulthood expectations are placed on people. If infants have been loved unconditionally, and toddlers and small children given love and boundaries, treated with respect, and given the opportunities to develop skills, they will rally when receiving the negative feedback that occasionally happens to everyone.

If children are raised to feel more special than others, they may have difficulty coping when life does not go their way. They learn to use inappropriate behavior to get what they want. They can be insensitive to others and have no qualms about placing their needs above those of others.

In her book DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN SELF-ESTEEM AND NARCISSISM: IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE, Lilian G. Katz says, "...healthy self-esteem refers to realistic and accurate positive appraisals of the self on significant criteria across a variety of interpersonal situations." Ultimately this is what parents want for their children.

For more information on self-esteem, look for the article "Building Self-Esteem" in The Informed Parent archives.

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