A few months ago, I called up Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has written extensively about narcissism and self-esteem. She told me she wasn’t surprised that some of my patients reported having very happy childhoods but felt dissatisfied and lost as adults. When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as “good tries.”) According to Twenge, indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. In fact, rates of narcissism among college students have increased right along with self-esteem.
Meanwhile, rates of anxiety and depression have also risen in tandem with self-esteem. Why is this? “Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”
In early adulthood, this becomes a big problem. “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” Twenge says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. They grew up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, which is ludicrous and makes no sense when you apply it to actual sports games or work performance. Who would watch an NBA game with no winners or losers? Should everyone get paid the same amount, or get promoted, when some people have superior performance? They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right—they don’t.”
Last month, I spoke to a youth soccer coach in Washington, D.C. A former competitive college athlete and now a successful financier, he told me that when he first learned of the youth league’s rules—including no score-keeping—he found them “ridiculous.”
How are the kids going to learn? he thought. He valued his experience as an athlete, through which he had been forced to deal with defeat. “I used to think, If we don’t keep score, we’re going to have a bunch of wusses out there. D.C. can be very PC, and I thought this was going too far.”
Eventually, though, he came around to the new system, because he realized that some kids would be “devastated” if they got creamed by a large margin. “We don’t want them to feel bad,” he said. “We don’t want kids to feel any pressure.” (When I told Wendy Mogel about this, she literally screamed through the phone line, “Please let them be devastated at age 6 and not have their first devastation be in college! Please, please, please let them be devastated many times on the soccer field!”) I told the coach this sounded goofy, given that these kids attend elite, competitive schools like Georgetown Day School or Sidwell Friends, where President Obama’s daughters go. They’re being raised by parents who are serious about getting their kids into Harvard and Yale. Aren’t these kids exposed to a lot of pressure? And besides, how is not keeping score protecting anyone, since, as he conceded, the kids keep score on their own anyway? When the score is close, the coach explained, it’s less of an issue. But blowouts are a problem.
He told me about a game against a very talented team. “We lost 10–5, and the other team dominated it. Our kids were very upset. They said, ‘We got killed!’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about? You guys beat the spread! The team we beat last week lost 14–1!’ The kids thought about this for a second and then were like, ‘You’re right, we were great! We rule!’ They felt so much better, because I turned it around for them into something positive. When you get killed and there’s no positive spin, the kids think they’re failures. It damages their self-esteem.”
At the end of the season, the league finds a way to “honor each child” with a trophy. “They’re kind of euphemistic,” the coach said of the awards, “but they’re effective.” The Spirit Award went to “the troublemaker who always talks and doesn’t pay attention, so we spun it into his being very ‘spirited,’” he said. The Most Improved Player Award went to “the kid who has not an ounce of athleticism in his body, but he tries hard.” The Coaches’ Award went to “the kids who were picking daisies, and the only thing we could think to say about them is that they showed up on time. What would that be, the Most Prompt Award? That seemed lame. So we called it the Coaches’ Award.” There’s also a Most Valuable Player Award, but the kid who deserved it three seasons in a row got it only after the first season, “because we wanted other kids to have a chance to get it.” The coach acknowledged that everyone knew who the real MVP was. But, he said, “this is a more collaborative approach versus the way I grew up as a competitive athlete, which was a selfish, Me Generation orientation.”
I asked Wendy Mogel if this gentler approach really creates kids who are less self-involved, less “Me Generation.” No, she said. Just the opposite: parents who protect their kids from accurate feedback teach them that they deserve special treatment. “A principal at an elementary school told me that a parent asked a teacher not to use red pens for corrections,” she said, “because the parent felt it was upsetting to kids when they see so much red on the page. This is the kind of self-absorption we’re seeing, in the name of our children’s self-esteem.”
Paradoxically, all of this worry about creating low self-esteem might actually perpetuate it. No wonder my patient Lizzie told me she felt “less amazing” than her parents had always said she was. Given how “amazing” her parents made her out to be, how could she possibly live up to that? Instead of acknowledging their daughter’s flaws, her parents, hoping to make her feel secure, denied them. “I’m bad at math,” Lizzie said she once told them, when she noticed that the math homework was consistently more challenging for her than for many of her classmates. “You’re not bad at math,” her parents responded. “You just have a different learning style. We’ll get you a tutor to help translate the information into a format you naturally understand.”
With much struggle, the tutor helped Lizzie get her grade up, but she still knew that other classmates were good at math and she wasn’t. “I didn’t have a different learning style,” she told me. “I just suck at math! But in my family, you’re never bad at anything. You’re just better at some things than at others. If I ever say I’m bad at something, my parents say, ‘Oh, honey, no you’re not!’”
Today, Wendy Mogel says, “every child is either learning-disabled, gifted, or both—there’s no curve left, no average.” When she first started doing psychological testing, in the 1980s, she would dread having to tell parents that their child had a learning disability. But now, she says, parents would prefer to believe that their child has a learning disability that explains any less-than-stellar performance, rather than have their child be perceived as simply average. “They believe that ‘average’ is bad for self-esteem.”