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Just because you think your children are extraordinary, doesn’t mean they are

Although a large majority of parents might believe that praise is invariably beneficial to children, research suggests otherwise.

Everyone is brilliant, right? Photo: Jacobsen /Three Lions/Getty Images

It is natural for parents to value their child – and feeling valued is key to children’s well-being; but some parents “overvalue” their child, believing their child is more special and more entitled than others.

The idea of parental overvaluation was first introduced in psychology by Sigmund Freud, who saw it as “a revival and reproduction” of parents' own narcissism. Parents who overvalue their child, Freud argued: “are under a compulsion to ascribe every perfection to the child, which sober observation would find no occasion to do”.

Empirical research on parental overvaluation has been scarce, but in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we put it to the test.

We conducted six studies involving more than 1,700 Dutch and American parents. We first developed a concise self-reporting instrument to assess individual differences in parental overvaluation – something called the Parental Overvaluation Scale (POS). In the scale, parents rate their agreement with statements such as: “my child deserves special treatment” and: “my child is a great example for other children to follow.”

The scale yields an average score in the range from: “not at all overvaluing” to: “extremely overvaluing”. We found that there are important differences between parents in how strongly they overvalue their child and that these differences shape parents’ thoughts and behaviours.

The Tale of Benson Bunny

Given that overvaluing parents see their child as an “embryonic genius” (as the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney put it), they might overestimate their child’s capacities. Our findings confirm this prediction.

In one study, we asked parents to rate their child’s smartness, and we assessed the child’s actual IQ. Parental overvaluation predicted how smart parents thought their child was, but not how smart the child actually was. In another study, we presented parents with items that children should be familiar with by the end of their first year at secondary school, such as “Neil Armstrong” and the book “Animal Farm". For each topic, we asked parents whether they thought their child would be familiar with it. Unbeknown to the parents, we also included items that did not actually exist, such as “Queen Alberta” and “The Tale of Benson Bunny.” Overvaluing parents tended to claim that their child had knowledge of many different topics – including these non-existent ones.

What’s in a name?

Overvaluation shapes not only how parents think about their child, but also how they treat and raise their child. Overvaluing parents want their child to stand out from the crowd. One way to accomplish this is by giving children a unique, uncommon first name. To test this, we used a national database to obtain the proportion of children who were the same sex and born in the same year as the children in the study, and we found that overvaluing parents were indeed more likely to give their child an uncommon first name.

When parents overvalue their child, they might want to express their inflated views of their child. One means to do so is by heaping praise on the child. We conducted in-home observations, and we counted how often parents praised their child while the child was doing mathematics exercises. We found that overvaluaing parents praised their child 62 per cent more than parents who had less inflated views of their child.

Although a large majority of parents might believe that praise is invariably beneficial to children, research suggests otherwise. Previous work by Carol Dweck and by us shows that praise, if focused on the person (for example: “you’re great”) or phrased in an overly positive way (for example: “you made an incredibly beautiful drawing”), can ironically backfire, especially in children with low self-esteem.

Reality or fiction?

Are overvalued children different from other children? Are they somehow more “extraordinary” or “special” than others? Perhaps not. We found that overvalued children are not smarter or better performing than other children, nor do they differ in their basic temperamental traits. So, the justification for overvaluing their child seems to reside more in parents’ minds than in objective reality.

Not all parents are equally inclined to overvalue. We found that narcissistic parents, who believe they are superior to others and who want to be admired by others, are especially inclined toward it. But why? One possibility is that narcissistic parents are trying to put themselves on a pedestal. Because parents often see their child as part of themselves, admiring their child may also be an indirect way of admiring themselves. Another possibility is that narcissistic parents simply believe that the child has inherited their “wonderful qualities”.

So, much like Narcissus admired his own image in the water, narcissistic parents often admire their own image of flesh and blood: their child.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

Photo: Getty
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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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