Unconventional Wisdom | Why kids are stuck on themselves

Apparently, you can love your kids too much.

By telling them that they're special just for being themselves, you're hurting them.

That's the word from a massive 24-year study of 16,475 U.S. college students.

Kids today are more self-centered and narcissistic than their parents, who were tail-end baby boomers, says the study's lead investigator, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before.

Participating in an almost quarter-century-old standardized survey known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, today's college students - also known as Generation Y - exhibit unusually high levels of narcissism. In fact, nearly 66 percent of current students have narcissism scores above the average 1982 score, Twenge says.

For 24 years, students were asked to react to statements like "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place"; "I think I am a special person"; and "I like to be the center of attention."

Today's college kids are more likely to agree with these statements than anyone prior.

Before you harp on them for being a lost and solipsistic generation of Paris Hiltons, ask yourself how they got this way. Twenge and others blame their parents, Mom and Dad Boomer.

Evidently, boomer progeny have been told since they were tadpoles that their sweat doesn't stink - that they are the centers of the universe, and that Galileo and Einstein were wrong about what revolves around what.

"You do not want to tell a kid, 'You're special just for being you,' " Twenge says in an interview. "You don't need to boost children's self-esteem."

She says kids were told patently false statements, like you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.

"Self-lovers make horrible partners," Twenge says. Narcissistic people are also more likely to be unfaithful, to lack empathy and to be dishonest, because they've learned that life is all about themselves.

Self-aggrandizing Web sites like MySpace are proof of narcissism, Twenge asserts.

Kids need walls to bounce off, says Cate Dooley, psychologist and director of Wellesley College's Mother-Son Project, which is exploring new strategies for raising sons.

Many boomer parents failed to erect those walls, allowing a culture of permissiveness.

Both parents worked and felt guilty about the lack of time spent with kids. They shirked punishment to keep quality time peaceful. A result:

"College kids today have parents wrapped around their fingers," Dooley says.

It feels counterintuitive: Praise less, coddle less. And it seems unfair to hammer boomers for damaging kids by raising their self-esteem.

Somewhere between the children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard assertions of the Greatest Generation, and the my-kid-is-wonderful-for-just-breathing exclamations of the boomers, there should be a workable middle ground.

But that's the thing about parenting: It's never easy. And each generation believes the one before ruined everything.

Contact columnist Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.