Researchers at the University of Amsterdam studied 565 kids and 705 parents over two years to understand what makes kids narcissists. They went beyond the presumption that smartphones and trophy giving for participation makes it easier today than ever to create a self-absorbed generation. Instead, they focused on the parenting style that produces narcissist kids, those who “feel superior to others, fantasize about personal success, and believe that they deserve special treatment.”

They found that parents who worship their children and teach their sons and daughters that they are ‘extraordinary’, ‘special’ and ‘unique’ encourage overblown views of themselves. At the same time these kids have been found to look less kindly at others. As they grow, so does their arrogance and self-love. The problem is that the world does not think of them the way that their parents do. Take 22 ‘amazing’ kids and put them into a classroom, you will find 22 children who can’t understand why their teacher does not find them ‘amazing’. Their inflated perception leads to a road of disappointment, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

You’re So Gifted!

Parents who overvalue their children praise the smallest accomplishments, believe their children are entitled to extra special treatment, and overstate their kid’s accomplishments.

How often do we look at our children’s drawings and say “Wow! Unbelievable!” At little league games we call out “You were amazing!” I have heard parents tell their Lego building kids that “No one can do what you do!” And after a ballet recital “You were the best! A superstar!”

Self-esteem is not developed through grandiose compliments.

Children lavished with overblown praise possess an inflated sense of self and easily grow into arrogant kids. They have learned to expect compliments, require constant affirmation and find it difficult to accept criticism. The late Jeffrey Zaslow wrote an article titled “The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work” for TheWall Street Journal.  He recounts the difficulties that bosses and spouses face as they live with those who have been ‘uber-stroked’ since childhood. We hear of companies that give praise through ‘Celebration Voice Mailboxes’, accolades for simply showing up to work, and large corporations that hire consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees. Zaslow adds that as this generation that has been thought of as ‘gifted’ by their parents grows up, “bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults or else see them wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit.”

Some researchers suggest that we are turning our children into “narcissistic praise-junkies.” Inappropriate or constant accolades cause young adults to feel insecure if they are not receiving the constant compliments that made them feel ‘special’ throughout their childhood. A psychotherapist and divorce attorney quoted in the article adds that “young married people who’ve been very praised in their childhoods, particularly, need praise to both their child side and their adult side.” When we live with people who require more ego stroking, relationships can be taxing.

And that leaves us to ponder: what is the right way to help our children achieve self-esteem?

The Best Parenting Strategy

The researchers direct us to the path they feel is the best plan for raising well-adjusted kids. Combining parental warmth along with being realistic about children’s abilities can produce non-narcissistic kids. They add that the greatest prevention to this egocentric living lies in giving our children self-esteem. When they feel accepted by others in a positive light and do not feel forced to thrust their imposing images on others, there will be less feelings of anxiety and depression over time.

What is true self-esteem? We can derive an answer from the Talmud that asks why God created Adam, the first man, alone. Why didn’t He create the world fully populated? Our sages teach us that we are to learn from this that every one of us should look at the world and say, “The world was created for me.” Every individual is vital and has a unique mission that only ‘I’ can fulfill.

Knowing that I count, that I make a difference, that I have a significant spiritual fingerprint that can impact this world makes me feel pride and secure in who I am. I do not require others to constantly tell me that I am ‘special’ or ‘amazing’. My self-respect should never be dependent on other people’s words, or their lavish praise. Instead, each child should grow with the understanding that there is a singular spirit that lies within. If I am able to help my child discover that uniqueness I will give my child the gift of self-esteem.

To help our children harness this singular spirit, parents can work towards generating a positive identity. The ability to recognize that we each have the ability to impact the world and those in it will allow our kids to feel good about themselves. This becomes the spiritual dimension of self-esteem; guiding our children to reveal their true self-worth.

How to Create a Positive Self-Image

Teach Children the Value of their Actions

We can teach our children that they are unique because they have the ability to impact others through their kindness and good deeds, giving them a legacy to live by. Our children will feel pride that the world is a better place because they exist; this is true self-esteem. The talents they have been given are not an end to themselves. Instead they are a means through which they can touch people, even the youngest children. This becomes empowering.

Here are some examples of ways that children can use their actions to impact others and feel good about themselves: A smile can brighten up a room. Music lifts a dark mood. A phone call to grandma elicits joy. A picture makes someone feel remembered. A shared snack invites friendship. An invitation to join a ball game dispels loneliness. The possibilities to create blessing in this world is endless.

Focus on Efforts and Accomplishments

Instead of lavish praise, we should focus on their efforts and real accomplishments. Too many parents thank or reward their kids for tasks they are expected to do. Children are left with the impression that they deserve praise for putting their plate in the dishwasher, picking up their laundry or doing their homework. Ultimately, these children grow to believe that the world revolves around them and it takes no effort on their part; they must just show up and they receive accolades.

Giving children love, being realistic about their abilities, and helping them discover their self-worth is the path we forge as parents who strive to raise successful children. Not through over praising our kids but through harnessing the unique spirit that lies within their souls.