THE BLOG
02/19/2013 02:00 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Are You Raising a Narcissist?

Are you raising a narcissistic child? According to psychologists, there has been a sharp increase in narcissism in the United States. College students' scores on the Narcissitic Personality Inventory (which measures narcissistic traits) rose twice as fast from 2002-2007 than the prior two decades. Research from the NIH suggests young people in their twenties are three times as likely than older people to report having experienced symptoms in their lifetime that qualify as diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder. At these rates, it looks like too many of our young people are on track to become Snooki-style narcissists.

Of course, there are many explanations for these increases -- technological advances, social media, reality TV, celebrity culture, etc. The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic suggest all these things and add another potential cause: permissive parenting.

We know that parents prize independence in their kids today. Parents consistently rank "thinking for himself or herself" as a top priority for their children. Some scholars suggest this focus on thinking for oneself shows that parents value autonomy in their children, rather than obedience and conformity. The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic cite this focus on independence and autonomy as evidence of their claim: If parents value autonomy, the argument goes, they will let the kids push them around, encourage their kids to focus only on themselves and ultimately raise a spoiled, entitled generation.

A new research study on the culture of American families conducted by me and colleagues
from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, suggests this narrative may be too simple. Parents do indeed highly value independence and thinking for oneself, but what they mean by that is not what one might expect. It is most often not a vision of unbridled self-fulfillment.

We interviewed 100 parents from around the country, and we gave them a list of desired traits to prioritize for their children (such as working hard, helping others, or obedience). However, unlike many other studies, after parents selected the order of their desired qualities, we were able to ask them "Why?" Our research confirmed that parents' top desired quality for their children was "thinking for himself/herself." But as parents went on to explain, we discovered this phrase meant something different than the simple narcissism story would lead us to believe.

A minority of parents explained thinking for yourself as autonomy and self-fulfillment/self-
realization: They wanted their children to pursue their own dreams and to do what made
them happy. This group might fit with the narcissism epidemic argument. But they were a
minority.

A majority of parents, however, explained thinking for yourself as making "good decisions,"
"not following the crowd," and especially "doing the right thing." For these parents, thinking for yourself meant utilizing an internal moral compass that helps their children navigate through life on the right path.

But perhaps this just another way of saying the same thing. The key question is where did
parents expect their children to get that moral compass? The answer was unambiguous
and strikingly not narcissitic -- from the parents. In the parents' minds, if their children were
appropriately "thinking for themselves," they will have thoroughly internalized the parents'
moral framework. This kind of conformity may be a long way from the stated goals of
independent thinking. Although we say we want our kids to think for themselves, most of
us really want them to think like we do.

For those interested and concerned about the character of the rising generation, perhaps this is good news: Although nearly all parents value independence, fulfillment and autonomy, most also have some other standards of good/bad and right/wrong in mind.

However, it's worth examining what gets lost when parents frame the characterological goals they have for their children in terms of independence and autonomy. This language lacks reference to sources of authority (God, law, reason, or communal order), sources that may be required to effectively motivate their children to embrace their vision of the good life. Cultivation of a strong moral compass may be dependent upon lingering traditional forms that are increasingly difficult to articulate.

It may be that it is our language that is becoming more narcissistic, contrary to (and perhaps even undermining) the wishes of parents.