Jean M Twenge Ph.D.

The Narcissism Epidemic

The Easiest Way to Mess up Your Child

What's the easiest way to mess up your kid?

Posted Dec 14, 2011

Debates over how to parent are as old as parenting itself. "If you bungle raising your children," Jackie Kennedy said, "I don't think whatever else you do matters very much." And just about every parent is afraid of bungling. Or, at the very least, the kid not getting into college.

Just in the last year, we've seen the Tiger Mom, who threatened to burn her daughter's stuffed animals if she didn't play a piano piece correctly. American parents' overindulgence, she said, was why Chinese mothers are superior. Not to be outdone, the Wolf Dad explains exactly how he beat his children, and how this helped them get into China's most prestigious university (his book was originally called Beat Them Into Peking University—catchy, no?) Here in the U.S., advocates of attachment parenting recommend co-sleeping and baby-wearing, while sleep researcher Ferber recommends that babies to learn how to self-soothe (that is, cry alone) once they are 4 months old.

So who's right? Some psychologists say none of them, pointing out that IQ and personality traits are only marginally shaped by parents (for example, Judith Rich Harris' explosive book The Nurture Assumption). But attitudes, values, and work ethic - arguably just as important—are more closely tied to parenting. At the very least, parents (especially mothers) know they will be blamed if their kids don't turn out right. And so we worry.

So what is the easiest way to mess up your kid? One theory, featured in a PT blog post that provoked over 150 comments, is that letting babies "cry it out" is deeply harmful. Many of the commenters took the opposite position: Letting kids have what they want all the time is the worst thing a parent can do.

Much of the blog post concentrated on research on abused and neglected children. If you care enough about parenting to be reading a PT blog post about it, this is probably not your main worry - unless you're the Wolf Dad and are beating your kids. So that leaves overindulgence. That's my candidate for the easiest way to mess up your kid.

Why? Because, especially at first, overindulgence is easy. It's easier to let your kid sleep in the same bed as you. It's easier to feed them or rock them at night instead of listening to them cry, even when they're a year or two old. It's easier not to say "no," and much easier to let your kindergartener stay up late, not take a bath, and leave her homework undone instead of fighting with her (my own kindergarten-age daughter proclaims that all of these things are "boring.") It's also easier to tell your kid that he's special and fantastic and wonderful—partially because that makes you feel like you are all of those things too.

It's in the long run that this type of parenting backfires. That's for two reasons. First, it fails to teach self-control, one of the most essential skills for success (see, for example, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney's book Willpower). A child who gets what she wants and follows whims doesn't learn to delay gratification, to consider the needs of others, or to keep going when a task is difficult. Second, indulgent parenting has the potential to create narcissism. The research on parenting and narcissism is somewhat confusing, but one clear theme is that narcissists often had parents who were overly permissive and put their child on a pedestal. Even if it doesn't lead to narcissism, indulgent parenting causes problems almost the minute the child leaves the house and enters a world where—horrors—she is not the center of the universe anymore.

As with most things, the best parenting is somewhere in the middle. Beating the kid, or neglecting him—not a good idea. Indulging him by letting him do whatever he wants—also not good. In middle-class American neighborhoods, the latter is much more common than the former—and so, at least among this group, is the larger problem. Yes, you can love your child with abandon, but you are still a parent. That means—and I don't think this should be controversial—that (in general) you should tell your kids what to do, instead of having the kids tell you what to do.