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Do Parents Nurture Narcissists: A Mom Responds

Shocked teen girl

Don’t say: You are really smart.

Do say: You worked really hard on that test.

Or else you’ll create a narcissist. (But hey, no pressure)

This is the findings of a recent study, Do Parents Nurture Narcissists, released by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University.  The results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and broadcast wide and far by NPR.

It talks about self-esteem vs. narcissism (abject selfishness) and how a teeny tiny shift in words from us to our kids can possibly condemn them to a life of exploitation, entitlement, violence and aggression. Here’s the whole list of traits -just in case you have no clue.

You are cordially invited to join the camp of freaking out: I didn’t do enough, I  screwed them up, where is the therapist’s number, oh my God this really is all my fault, aren’t the Housewives on yet?

As I read it, even though I’m very familiar with tons of parenting concepts, I started on that oh-shit path. But, as competitive/ responsible as I am, I widened the catastrophe:  What if I’ve helped other moms to screw their kids up and we really all will be visiting the jail together and hugging our 21 year olds through glass windows and phones with cords.

Dear God, no more corded phones.

So I kept reading and reading  and got to the end and it’s at this point, that





STOP fearing because of the hidden golden nuggets – of which there are two:  The Thing That Is Too Far Down, and The Thing They Leave Out.

1) Here’s The Thing That Is Too Far Down:

At the very end of the article, this: The study finds that regardless of the first few years of parenting that “There are definitely going to be things that influence the personality after that stage,” , “Those [narcissistic] tendencies may start to show up around then, but will continue to be influenced by parenting and environment throughout adolescence.”

Here is the really important thing from “Do Parents Nurture Narcissists” again:


Worst case scenario, we’ve been telling our kids how special they are and now we tell them how hard they’ve worked for something until they launch themselves into the world. Big friggin’ deal.

But we’re going to add on telling them how much we love them REGARDLESS OF HOW HARD THEY’VE WORKED FOR SOMETHING.

Because, it would seriously stink to have a world of kids who were not narcissists but feeling like to get approval, they need to EARN it by working hard.

But I digress.


Self esteem is NOT the holy grail of childhood into adulthood.

Self-compassion is.

In 2013,  I listened online, in jammies, on my birthday, in real time, to Dr. Kristin Neff speaking at Emerging Women Live.

All I heard was, “The research points to self-compassion being better than self-esteem” and I was hooked because I just shifted and so did my parenting.

HOLD the PHONE. (NOT the corded one.)

If she’s saying that practicing self-compassion on ourselves first, and then ultimately offering it to our kids is better than beefing them up with self esteem, every parenting book would need to be updated at least with one paragraph that includes this.

My therapists should have included this.

My MOM should have told me this.

I could not believe what I was hearing. so in jammies, on my birthday, I bought Dr. Neff’s book Self Compassion .

I’ve been practicing it ever since.

Here’s what I know for sure.

We cannot earn, do or believe enough to nail self-esteem every day of the week, in every interaction, in every thought at night before falling asleep. Not happening.

But what CAN happen EVERY SINGLE TIME – is self-compassion. For me, it often sounds like this: “Wait. You did your dead level best. We’re good. Next.”

THEN the crazy thing happens – you offer compassion to others because, you get it. For me, if often sounds like this: “I completely understand. What’s possible here?”

It’s not a free pass. It’s not a dead end of personal growth. Compassion is a freebie. And when we get freebies, we can relax, from a place of truth and safety sort what went wrong/not productively, and change it.

We do need to love our kids as best we can, use the words that are most helpful most of the time, but we also need to include compassion.

Because there will be codependent, narcissistic, insane moments that we never saw coming, and we lost all semblance of self esteem. And we fall back on self-compassion. And so can our kids.

So, with all due respect, Mr. Brad, and trying-to-freak-me-out-but-I-still-love-you-NPR, that “Do Parents Nurture Narcissists” study is not big enough.

Our hearts, however, are.

And we take your findings and raise you one, easily changing our wording while adding a compassion twist that changes everything.

With fearless freaking out, tempered with Compassion,

Vikki Spencer, The Mom Whisperer, Mom Coach



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