by Jacob Fass, Kenyon ’15
All parents believe that their children are special. But some parents take this conviction too seriously. You know the type, the parents who believe that their child is a gift to humanity and is literally incapable of doing wrong. Psychological luminaries from Freud onwards have known that these kinds of parents exist. Many psychologists have speculated about the source of this kind of overvaluation, how it manifests itself through parenting, and how these overvalued children ultimately turn out in the end.
Unfortunately there has been no empirical study tracking parental overvaluation and for somewhat good reason. Creating an entirely new scale to measure any sort of behavior is hard. Studying this idea would require researchers to come up with a way to define overvaluation, a way to test it among parents, to ensure that it was actually a single concept, and that it meant the same thing among different groups of parents and children. Only then could researchers begin to look into the interesting questions of what type of parents tend to overvalue and how they treat their children as a result.
Fortunately researchers Brummelman, Thomaes, Nelemans, Orobio de Castro, and Bushman were up to the task. In their recent paper “My Child is God’s Gift to Humanity: Development and Validation of the Parental Overvaluation Scale,” the researchers actually go through the difficult task of creating a parental overvaluation scale or POS and testing it against a wide range of situations and concepts.
The researchers define parental overvaluation as the belief that one’s own child is more special and entitled then other children. Then they created a self-report test to actually measure if parents fall into this overvaluing category. They included items on their test that psychologists throughout history considered tell-tale signs of overvaluation, such as my child deserves special treatment, and they excluded items that could actually be proven like my child is better at math then other children. They then performed six tests to test the validity of their scale and eventually to measure its implications. Like nesting dolls layered on top of one another, each test served to advance a new idea and confirm the ideas of the previous tests. By the end of the testing process the researchers had gained a great deal of insight about the nature of overvaluation.
The first test was conducted to determine which items should be in the POS and whether or not overvaluation could count as a single concept. They tested their items on a few hundred Dutch parents and determined which items correlated with each other to create an idea of overvaluation that was consistent. The second test made sure that parents actually differed in their level of overvaluation and that such differences persisted over many surveys. The third test was to determine if the concept of overvaluation was measurement invariant or more simply if it worked the same way among male and female parents and among children who were boys and girls. Brummelman and colleagues found that the test did work the same way. They also discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that narcissistic parents were more likely to overvalue their children. Because one’s children are a large part of one’s conception of the self, narcissists might overvalue their children so they their own value is somewhat increased as well. As the paper cleverly argues, “When parents consider their children to be princes and princesses, they imply that they themselves are kings and queens.”
The fourth study sought to extend the POS from the Dutch context to an American one. Perhaps the results were simply reflective of a unique cultural quirk of the Netherlands with no bearing on the rest of the world. This was not the case. Results in the United States matched quite nicely with results from Holland. Then the researchers tested parental overestimation and sought to compare it to parental overvaluation. They tested overestimation by asking parents if they thought their children were familiar with basic concepts like the Wizard of Oz. But they included items that weren’t real like the Princess of Grapes. Those parents who said their children were familiar with these items, and yes they were parents who actually did, were said to overestimate their children’s knowledge. The researchers also tested the parents’ warmth towards their children, their personality traits, and their control over their children. Overvaluation increased with extraversion, while warmth and control towards children along with other personality traits were unrelated. Overvaluing parents were also more likely to “overclaim” or say their child understood concepts that don’t exist. The fifth study used an IQ test to measure if these overvaluing parents were actually right and had smarter children then everyone else. They did not. Although perceived giftedness was correlated with higher IQ, intelligence had no effect on overvaluation. Finally the sixth study sought to examine parenting strategies by using home visits where an observer watched a parent help a child with their homework. The observer then measured the number of times the parent praised the child, which was strongly related to that parent’s overvaluation of the child. Interestingly overvalued children also have less common names as their parents yearn for them to stand out from their peers.
Brummelman et al. (2015) have performed a valuable service by creating the POS, which measures a crucial behavioral concept. That said the cross sectional nature of the data, which focused only on late childhood, is limiting. The overvalued should be tracked over the course of their lives. Do the overvalued become narcissists or can they shake off their parent’s flaws and develop normally? At a time where many have blamed bad parenting for increases in narcissism, going as far as to call millennials the ‘me generation’, further study of the POS can shed imporant light on the source of this perceived narcissism and provide insight about the age in which we live.
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S, Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). My child is God’s gift to humanity: Development and validation of the Parental Overvaluation Scale (POS). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 665-679.