That's So Special

Oops. Our (collective) bad. According to the results of a recent study conducted by five psychologists, this generation of college students is more self-centered and narcissistic than previous ones.

Wow. Now that’s a surprise (not). As a parent of two (of course fabulous, giving, altruistic, etc., etc., etc.) kids who were raised and educated at the height of the “self-esteem” movement, I can’t say I am shocked. Everything (and I mean everything) from pre-K on was about instilling in one’s offspring the fact that he or she was special. "Experts," educators, and the media encouraged parents to wax poetic about everything their little progenies did, made, or said. A scribble became the work of a future Picasso. A rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was the performance of a Broadway star-to-be. A basket meant a for-sure spot in the NBA. Great job, that’s fabulous, unbelievable! Superlatives were the order of the day. Because, said the educators, our kids were special, special, special!

And now…guess what? The study examined the responses of 16,475 college students to something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), a test that measures just what it sounds like. Two-thirds of the students tested in 2006 had above average scores, 30% more than those evaluated when the NPI was first introduced in 1982. Says the study’s lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University: “We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back. Kids are self-centered enough already.”

Well, now you tell us. It just goes to show that the latest parenting and educational fads may not stand the test of time (the whole “throw out phonics and just use the whole language” approach to reading comes to mind, but that’s the topic of another blog…). I have to admit that even though I found it downright nauseating at times, I did try to nurture my little darlings’ self-esteem (that’s what the experts said to do, right?) while attempting to throw in some realistic feedback. But another parent’s esteem-building effort sticks in my mind to this day. When her child lost a swimming meet, she praised him with this positive feedback: “Great breathing!” (Though for all I know, the kid might be enjoying a successful career as a trombonist as I type this.)

So, yes, of course we want our kids to feel good about themselves. But clearly there has to be a happy medium between unfettered praise (think Paula Abdul) and cringe-inducing feedback (Simon). Want to experience the fallout from all that esteem-boosting? Just rewind the American Idol “bad” audition shows (ouch). Yes, these contestants really do think they can sing. ‘Cause after all, they are special, special, special.

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