Why Is My Kid More Special Than Yours?

How parents who overvalue affect their children.

Posted Sep 18, 2019

There’s an old joke about how bubbes in Boca or Brooklyn begin their conversations: “In all your life, you never…” The rest is a paean to perfection that only a grandmother can utter; it’s her prerogative.

Not so, though, if it’s an overvaluing parent. Parents whose effusive praise of their children, based only on their unwavering belief in their offspring’s innate superiority rather than more objective criteria, may do them more harm than good, according to a recent study in the Journal of Social Psychology, titled “My Child Is God’s Gift to Humanity.” The more sobering subtitle explains the development and validation of a scale that measures parental overvaluation, which they describe as a view unsupported by evidence like test scores, and especially prevalent in narcissistic parents, who by definition view their offspring as extensions of themselves.

They overclaim their children’s knowledge and intelligence and perceive them as more gifted than actual IQ rankings justify. They want their children to stand out from others and frequently overpraise them in real-life settings, which has mixed effects, including affecting the socialization of their self-views and their relations with peers.

The parental sense of entitlement and superiority may contribute to their own narcissism, although often it just embarrasses them, particularly if they have a different or less lofty assessment of their own attributes and abilities: As my own son told me when he was a teenager (and I am embarrassingly though mostly privately an overvaluating parent), “It’s a real bummer to be told over and over again how much potential you have. After a while, you stop trying because you know you can’t possibly live up to the hype.”

In this study of a diverse sample of American parents and a representative sample of Dutch parents, overvaluation wasn’t consistently related to parents’ basic parenting dimensions or their personality traits.  

Informing them that their kids are no more intelligent or better performing than other children and suggesting that a more realistic appraisal of their skills, talents, and knowledge might serve them better than overvaluing them is a tricky business, as any school counselor can attest: “They just don’t want to hear that while their kids are special to them, they’re not smarter or better or more entitled, for whatever reason, than their classmates,” one says.

The strong validation across scientific criteria of the scale the researchers developed and the study that supports it have implications not just for parents’ beliefs and practices but also for the entire issue of what “gifted” means in the educational arena. The recent move by the mayor of New York to do away with the entire concept—that the gifted deserve particular attention and special considerations in public schools—speaks to the importance of recognizing how the word itself is defined, and by whom. “Want to know the definition of a gifted child?” asks an educational consultant. “It’s my child.”

References

Brummelman, Thomas, Nelemans, de Castro, Bushman, 2015. "My Child is God's Gift to Humanity," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4)