Are there more narcissists in America these days? We see entitled children with iPads whose parents hire Uber to take them to their friend’s house, and to training with their private coach. Are we afraid to disappoint, or hold back on our children when we agree to pay for and drive them to another art class, sports practice or music lesson? Do they feel inadequate if they are not considered “gifted”? When did excellent become the average?
It’s not surprising that a recent study has shown that parental behavior can have an effect on whether offspring grow up to be narcissists. In this study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brad Bushman found that parents who consistently overvalue their children’s accomplishments tend to raise little narcissists, who unfortunately become grown up narcissists.
In the 60’s, there was Dr. Spock. In 2015, there are as many parenting books as business books. Back then, we were taught to show humility and deference, to be seen and not heard. It wasn’t ideal to have so little say in one’s childhood, but now, kids tend to have more than equal say and most often get their way. They are the priority in the family, not the adults. Activities are centered on them and their performances, sports and academics. Conversations between adults are mostly about their kids. They know how important they are! The current generation of parents has far more information on how to raise children, but in our earnest attempt to do it right, we are misguiding them.
We misunderstand how to foster self-esteem. We somehow have the mistaken notion that our job is to make our children happy and to smooth the road for them, so they can “blossom”. We tell them how wonderful they are. We can’t bear to see them get hurt, struggle, or suffer embarrassment. We take pride in their accomplishments as if they were our own. If they fail, we feel that we have failed. I have seen parents turn their lives upside down in order to rescue their children from the consequences of their mistakes, somehow thinking that their child doesn’t deserve what naturally follows from a failure. When we do this, it leads our children to believe that they can’t handle failure. As a result, they avoid challenges. They haven’t learned that they are capable of overcoming setbacks. They don’t feel the satisfaction that comes from persistence, effort and personal accomplishments.
This starts when they are very young and continues through young adulthood and beyond. The older the person, the higher the stakes can become. When my daughter started pre-school, she was 2 ½. She cried her eyes out every time I dropped her off. After 5 days, I asked my pediatrician if I might be damaging her, and maybe she was too young. He said, “you can take her out, but not for long, or you will be teaching her that you are going to rescue her whenever she puts up a fuss. There is nothing wrong with her. She would just rather be with you.” I relaxed then, knowing I was doing the best thing for her growth. Within a couple of days, she was fine. I realized it had been more about me, than about her.
My son was by far the smallest in his class. He was in the negative 15th percentile most of his life. He was teased and bullied at school, and had trouble on sports teams. I was tempted to move him to a kinder, gentler school. Instead, we talked about why a person would want to bully someone else. We talked about how we all have something that sets us apart and makes us different. He started to gravitate to kids who had more unusual characteristics because he could identify with them. Things didn’t always come easily for them either. He later discovered his physical strengths: speed and agility, and put them to use. He learned empathy and resilience. Adversity can strengthen us, and even open doors to our sense of purpose. Contrary to what the self-esteem movement proposes, I believe there is value in being average. Ordinary people cannot escape difficulty. And difficulty is necessary for growth. By not rescuing, and allowing our children to grapple with difficult situations, they learn that they are just the same as everyone else, and they won’t grow up to be narcissists. Patience, passion and effort can lead to success.
Next month I’ll talk about how parents can help children learn the important life skills of empathy, responsibility, persistence and courage.
Tory Joseph is a psychotherapist who specializes in parenting and relationship issues. She runs a group in Chevy Chase for Moms struggling to find a balance in their lives. Tory is married and has three 20-something children. She is a Relationship Therapist with the Imago Center of DC, and a Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program.