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You're So Vain ...
The release of Narcissism Epidemic, by psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, has caused quite a collective stir nationwide.
Traits defining narcissism -- otherwise known as excessive self-love -- include vanity, materialism, overconfidence and a lack of consideration for others. According to the authors, those traits have become pervasive in American society today, contributing to the current economic crisis and creating a generation of young people in whom narcissism is so prevalent that it's entirely normalized.
You don't have to look much further than an "American Idol" episode to grasp their thesis. Every second contestant believes strongly in his or her own idol-potential.
"We didn't have to look very hard to find" narcissism, write the authors. "It was everywhere. On a reality TV show, a girl planning her 16th birthday party wants a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet.
"A book called My Beautiful Mommy explains plastic surgery to young children whose mothers are going under the knife for the trendy 'Mommy Makeover.' It is now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around snapping your photograph when you go out at night -- you can even take home a faux celebrity magazine cover featuring the pictures.
"Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out MySpace pages and plastic surgery."
The remedy, according to Twenge and Campbell, is for parents to stop praising their kids for no due reason, to place more emphasis on empathy and to give kids limited choices so they don't feel like children run the household.
Remember that princess party your 3-year-old wanted, or later, that mega-Bat Mitzvah bash? That's a sign of narcissism, and to pretend that she is a princess early on only feeds the problem.
Don't Judge a Book ...
However, don't be too quick to judge it all, says Brian Daly, a pediatric psychologist in Temple University's College of Health Professions.
"I think there's been some increases in narcissism, but it's not an epidemic," he insists. "When I teach, I notice that kids today have been encouraged to be more creative, and with that sometimes comes more self-promotion. But I don't think they're significantly more narcissistic today than they were in years past.
"Each generation has a tendency to look around," he adds, "and say the generation below them is way more narcissistic than they were."
Kali Trzesniewski, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, agrees. Her independent studies on narcissism do not support the results of Twenge/Campbell.
"Adolescents and young adults are higher in narcissism than older adults, but it's an age trend," she explains. "It's not happening today more than it ever did. It's just that kids are working on figuring out their identities, and it requires more self-focus.
"Sure, narcissism changes with age -- but not any differently than it did 30 years ago."
Trzesniewski says that there is no evidence as to what contributes to narcissism: "We don't have any evidence saying that praising your child leads to narcissism, and most parents don't praise their kids for nothing.
"Pointing out when your kid is successful is not going to make them narcissistic. You have to remember that for kids, the world is about them. It's not fair to judge them by adult standards on things that they will outgrow."
If kids are narcissistic, to some extent it's been a function of how they have been shaped by the adults around them, says Daly: "As a parent, put in a system that's balanced between positive and negative reinforcement. Have rules and regulations, but don't get excessive by praising your kids for things that aren't real accomplishments."