Living Vicariously Produces No Real Winners

Growing up in typical suburbia, I played three sports: soccer, basketball, and (unfortunately) softball. While many amazing bonds were built and numerous championships were won, there were some negatives that came with my township sports teams. The biggest nuisance: overbearing sports parents.


Image found here

Everyone knows what I’m talking about, the dad standing 5 feet from his son in goal, coaching completely differently from the ACTUAL coaches. The mom scowling and muttering in her fold up chair at the softball field because her daughter was benched after three consecutive strike outs at bat. The parents at the pizzeria after the basketball game, bragging about their children’s personal stats as opposed to celebrating a TEAM win. It’s insane. When did youth sports stop focusing on the growth and development of children and start honing in on the competitive nature of parents?

This, SC200, is a psychological term known as narcissistic parenting, and I was a victim of it. Luckily, I was never remotely good enough at any of the three sports I played to be extremely affected by narcissistic parenting, but plenty of young children grow up to be insecure adults as a result of their parents’ self-absorption, and many childhood athletes give up their sport because they’re tired of performing for their parents instead of for themselves. In fact, according to Jay Atkinson of the Boston Globe, of the 45 million kids that play youth sports in America, about 80 percent have given up on their “passion” by age 15.

This fact stunned me. 36 million kids quit sports before they even hit high school, and a huge factor in their decision is their own parents’ narcissism? What could the mechanism be? Kelly Wallace of CNN has made an interesting, reasonable case. She has inferred something that I have often thought about myself, that narcissistic parents live vicariously through their children because they have felt unsuccessful in their own lives. Wallace cites Joseph Burgo, author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age, as confirmation for her theory. Burgo believes that narcissistic parents spend their child’s formative years grooming her into the person they wish they had been. He also hypothesizes that a distressing, chaotic childhood could lead a parent to narcissism in order to mask lingering insecurities.


Burgo’s book cover found here

Since I couldn’t find any concrete studies that delved into the extensive science behind narcissistic parenting, I’ve decided to talk about how I think a study could be conducted. A possible explanation could be the way narcissistic parents were treated when they were children. If I was in charge of the study, I would treat the supposedly “unsuccessful” lives as the independent variable and narcissism in parents as the dependent variable. This would give us the following options.

Direct causation: “unsuccessful” lives causes narcissism in parents.

Reverse causation: narcissism in parents causes ”unsuccessful” lives.

Confounding variables that could have an effect could be competition between parents, social norms, or depression affecting self-image. As always, chance is an option. An experimental study wouldn’t necessarily be possible, because the causal variable could not be easily manipulated. Instead, the study would have to be observational. One way this study could be conducted could be through the use of two random surveys. The first could be advertised through different platforms, and preliminary questions could be used to weed out non-narcissistic parents. These questions could focus on how parents treat their children in competitive situations, how they feel when their child “fails,” and their thoughts on their own needs versus their children’s. The second could be used to calculate baseline statistics on the cause of narcissistic parents, by focusing questions more on the history of the parents rather than their relationships with their children.

This study seems as if it could be difficult to conduct, especially considering parents may feel inclined to answer questions in an anti-narcissistic way. However, I do think it would be extremely interesting to have a little more science backing up this topic of parental narcissism. While we wait on that, we can avoid becoming narcissistic people ourselves by taking the advice of Burgo, who believes that a parent’s paying more attention to the well-being of his or her child instead of catering to his or her ego is the first and greatest step to eliminating narcissism.

8 thoughts on “Living Vicariously Produces No Real Winners

  1. Theodore Andrew Ochieng

    This was a really good article. I think, just like you illustrated in your article (and people have mentioned in their comments), that narcissistic parenting seems to shine through mostly in relation to sports. But I have also seen this behaviour when it comes to musical instruments and scholarly opportunities. I think the relationship all these activies have in common, and the actual mechanism, is whether a parent was interested and had access to the same opportunities. I think if a parent is interested in sports and had the opportunity to pursue their interest when they were younger then they will not try to live that same opportunity vicariously through their child.

    To add onto your proposed study, and possibly counter the effect of parents answering questions to appear anti-narcissistic, we could add questions about common activities where parental narcissism usually shines through. For example:

    1. Did you enjoy playing sports when you were younger? Answer: Y or N
    [If you answered Y to the above question please answer the next]
    1a) Would you say you had a good opportunity to engage in the sport you most liked? Answer: Y or N
    [If you answered N to the above question please answer the next]
    1b) On a scale of 1-5, how good would you say the opportunity to pursue the sport you most liked?

    We could then link a parent’s survey with their child’s survey and see where the child feels their parent is the most narcissistic and see if a parent’s opportunity (or lack thereof) is associated with their parental narcissism for that activity.

  2. Tyler Mitchell Azar

    This was a very interesting blog. I was lucky enough to have parents who didn’t care how I did in sports. They were supportive and came to my games to cheer me on, but they were never the kind to make me feel bad if I didn’t do well or try to force me into anything I didn’t want to do. I do believe I’m better off for that and it’s a bummer that some adults have grown up insecure because of narcissistic parenting. I really liked your approach of thinking of your own study since you couldn’t find one that had already been done. You did a great job of incorporating everything we had learned in class and I think if you actually performed this study, it would yield some interesting results. Great job!

  3. Valerie Lauren Murphy

    This blog is scarily accurate. I’ve played basketball, volleyball, and softball for many years before coming to college. Each season, without fail, there would always be at least one screaming match between parents and coaches. The condescending and negative murmurs from parents in the stands/outfield was always constant as well. I can’t say that I’m totally surprised that kids do give up playing because I’ve had teammates quit sports for that exact reason. But the national average of youths that quit their sport because of their parents’ over-bearing demeanor in and athletic environment was shocking. I’m surprised that this concept of narcisistic parenting hasn’t been studied in a more in-depth way, considering its obviously high rate of occurrence. I think that your hypothetical experiment was interesting and seemed like it is realistic enough to happen in real life. Would you focus on a specific demographic of people when creating your experimental group? I think that wealth would be an important confounding variable to account for, considering that is the one of the main mechanisms that allow kids to play at that highly competitive level, where parents are extremely invested in their childrens’ performance. Overall I think that this is definitely something that should be looked into because it’ll give a better understanding of what parenting methods work and how to avoid ones that don’t work as effectively.

  4. Alexis Paige

    A very interesting blog! The experiment you’ve proposed sounds very cool, but like you stated, it would be really hard to do. For one, how would you define an unsuccessful parent? Would it be economically or based on the type of job they had? Or could it be about how they feel about their own parenting? I also agree with another commenter that maybe it would be better to survey the kids rather than the parents. I don’t think anyone wants to think they’re unsuccessful and narcissistic lol! I completely agree that it would have to be observational and maybe done by an unbiased third party because both the parents’ and the child’s perception could be skewed. I think it should be the coach who helps with the study because they can see both sides! This was really interesting to think about!

  5. Anna Josephine Wisniewski

    Mary, I loved your post and found it extremely relatable. My parents were never bad during my years playing basketball, but I saw the narcissistic parenting happening with other kids on my team. I not only placed a bad image on that parent, but in my opinion it only frustrated their daughter more, therefore making them play worse. I think the study you came up with is extremely interesting. Another idea could be surveying the kids of the adults as well. I feel like the kids would be more honest about their parents’ behavior than the actual parents themselves. You could also see if the “sideline coaching” affected how their child plays by having the parents got to the game as normal, and then have them not go to a game. Maybe do that a few times and see the results? Those are just a few ideas to think about. Overall great post and use of sources.

  6. Molly Samantha Arnay

    Great article because it incorporated aspects that we learned in class as well as a cool topic! I grew up playing sports and totally saw this in a lot of my friends parents, never my own (thankfully). Personally I think it’s a matter of immaturity when a parent lives vicariously through their child. Once you’re an adult, i feel you should be mature enough to let your kid enjoy activities on their own and not reflect your self doubt on them. The idea that we don’t know which causes which, unsuccessful lives or the narcissistic parents, is interesting!

  7. Olivia Mei Zhang

    I really enjoyed reading your article, Mary! Personally, I have never experienced “parental narcissim”, considering I never played sports that my parents pushed me towards. However, I think the concept of it is very prevalent in our society today. The experiment you described is very thought-provoking. However, I do agree that it would be hard to conduct an experiment like this when the independent/dependent variables are not concrete.

  8. Mallory Dixon

    Hey Mary,
    I really liked your article because I know a lot of kids who quit sports they loved because of their parents. I just never knew it had an actual name. I liked how you suggested a study since you couldn’t find much about the actual subject itself. I agree that the study will be difficult to conduct because some parents do not feel comfortable with harassing their child while they are playing their sport. I think you should also look into coaches that cause kids to hate the sport they once loved. I was a cheerleader for 11 years, but my high school cheerleading coach was more immature than any of my teammates. She wouldn’t insult us individually, but when our stunts wouldn’t hit or when our team was having a bad practice, she would force us to condition or just yell at us. It got to the point where almost my entire team had quit because the sport we all once loved, we couldn’t stand anymore. We felt like we were on the team for our coach rather than ourselves.

Leave a Reply