Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Raising Little Narcissists

Most experts agree that American children are at a major risk today of developing greater and greater senses of their own importance, not their value but their importance.  Narcissism is growing at an incredibly high rate, and a sense of entitlement is seen in kids across the socioeconomic spectrum, and everyone has their opinions as to why.  There are those who immediately blame the parents for sweeping in and rescuing their kids from consequences, puffing their children up with nothing but positive reinforcement.  There are those who say it is because we took pray out of schools and are becoming a godless nation.  There are those who say it is our cultural media through television, the internet, and music that is warping the minds of our children.  I think I could easily argue than none of these three in themselves are powerful enough to ruin a child, but it's possible that the combination of the three is becoming a pretty potent recipe for creating little narcissists.

As far as parenting goes I think most parents struggle with falling into one error or the other - a child-focused house or an adult-focused house, and that they both have consequences.  In an adult-focused home children are to be seen and not heard, and they are to cater and pander to the parents who should be able to dish out orders and commands like a Roman emperor without so much as an eye-roll.  These kids learn well how to avoid upsetting their parents - some decide to do those things as often as possible to stick it to the man, some smile to your face and do whatever they like behind your back, and some make it their life mission to please everyone in their life - a task they never figure out is impossible.  Creating a child-focused house, the side I am more prone to err on, says that adults are flexible and adaptable and should sacrifice for their children and so we should cater to their desires and set things up around them.  This expresses love, but often also convinces children that they are the most important people in the world, with everyone else here to cater to them.  These are the children that yell and berate their parents like insolent employees who just can't seem to follow instructions sufficiently as the parents shuck and jive trying to avoid stirring up negative emotions in their kids.  If the rules of hide-and-seek don't suit their child well, then throw the rules out the window and let them do it however makes them happy.  If their teacher has some misguided notion that they aren't perfect then you need to march down to the school and berate them for harboring a negative thought, much less correcting your child.  The kids end up being treated like little tiki gods, extremely powerful but temperamental - to be catered to for fear of being thrown into a volcano of a temper-tantrum.  You can see how this approach could encourage kids towards a narcissistic mindset, consumed with their own importance.

People who are convinced we once were a godly nation who has slipped into ungodliness are pretty misguided from my viewpoint but everyone is entitled to their opinions.  Somehow Thomas Jefferson coming home after a rough day of writing up the Constitution to rape the woman he purchased as a slave, creating children who were roughly one-half human and one-half property doesn't strike me as terribly Christ-like.  Comparing America to ancient Rome where gory public death was seen as entertainment, any respectable grown man had a young boy to use as a sexual object, and many dining rooms had an adjoining room where you could go vomit up your food so you could go eat more seems like a bit of an overstatement to me.  Those who say prayer has been taken out of public schools ultimately are only correct when it comes to organized public prayers aimed at promoting a particular religious persuasion which for me is a better option than forcing my kids to pray to Allah, Krishna, or even touting a non-essential debatable theological stance.  All of this aside, however, we exist in a secular society that touts the importance of man far more than God - whether it has always been that way, is getting better, or is getting worse isn't the point.  Most kids today are either considered extremely important themselves because of meaningless achievements on tests, in sports, or on stages or are encouraged to consistently compare themselves to celebrities and icons who are at the apex of these achievements.  It is rarely taught that having character, having a heart after God is anywhere close to as valuable as being compared to others and considered important.

Research seems to also show that our media seems to regularly promote narcissism as well, but whether it is media warping young people's minds or simply catering to what they already value is hard to tell.  An interesting article summarizing a longitudinal study across the past decades comparing the most popular television programs for 9-11 year olds and the corresponding values those shows promote recently came out - http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/popular-tv-shows-teach-children-210119.aspx  The chart below summarizes across each decade which of the 16 measured values were most reflected in that decades most popular shows.
The most interesting thing about the study is the sudden shift in the last decade from focus on community feeling or even image and self acceptance to the high priority of fame.  General trend is a movement from societal focus to self focus, and then recently slingshotting past being self focused to needing everyone else to understand just how important we are.  Fame jumped from 13th or 15th place to number one most important and once again this has to have an impact on future levels of Narcissism.  Combine this with Facebook and other social media and we provide not only a drive for fame and the attention of others but an actual platform to act it out.  If a teenager has even as low as just a hundred friends on Facebook, they have a stage where they can feel others are looking at them from afar, acknowledging their attractiveness, laughing at their considerable wit, and praising their every accomplishment from Grandma posting "Congratulations on your graduation" to their friend "like"ing their newest hairstyle.  Nothing wrong with social media or television, but there is a growing trend of inflating young people's views of their own importance.

So if all three are valid problems then I think as parents we have to take all three seriously in raising our children to be confident but humble, have high self-esteem but a compassion for others, and ultimately to see the fame of God as a much greater goal that their own fame.  Maybe we need to start saying "no" to our kids a little more for their own good, not just our selfishness or laziness.  Maybe it's OK to pop our kids bubble and let them know that some things they are great at and some things they really just aren't.  Maybe we need to teach them that kids aren't the most important and adults aren't the most important, but that God is most important and he has tasked us as parents under his authority to help our children understand what it is like to submit to authority.  Probably the number one resistance I get in counseling to seeing people accept Christ is that they have never heard anyone tell them "no" and they are afraid that if they become a Christian then God will say "no" to a lot of things in their life they are unwilling to give up.  Maybe we can use TV or social media to create relevant discussions with our kids about their values and greatest aspirations compared to what they are seeing.  At the core I believe a big part is helping our children to understand their VALUE, far more than their importance.  Your daughter's friend may have 50 more Twitter followers than her, but your daughter is valued and treasured by you for who she is, not how important others see her.  Your son may not have been voted class president, but Jesus Christ came and died for him to show him just how valuable his soul really is.  When our kids see that we take our role as parent's seriously because of how much we value them as a person we can say "no" to them, and stop pandering to them because later on they'll never overhear us comparing them to others, judging their importance academically, socially, or athletically.  A child who grows up feeling important desperately wants to hold on to that importance and narcissism is a convenient lie that helps them feel important even while they doubt their own value.  A child who grows up feeling valued for who they are, not what people say about them or what they are able to do are able to see and appreciate that same value in other people and act in humility and compassion.  See the core problem is the same with fearful people-pleasers as with tactless narcissists - they both are scared to death of having no value and so work hard to promote their own worth in other people's eyes.  Either way what is needed is to see that the creator of the universe loves you so much that he gave that which he most valued, his own son, to reclaim you as infinitely valuable in his eyes.  If this is true then fame doesn't matter, pleasing and narcissism are unnecessary, and we can extend the same value we feel to others around us without a fear that if we increase their value then it threatens our own.