She is 32, happily married, and lives in a beautiful new house in the suburbs. After many years of putting off babies they now have a one-year-old boy, but they have decided he will be an only child. Why? Because, she openly admitted, “I am selfish.” Another child would interfere too much with her “me time” and their plans for travel and enjoyment in life, including her regular eyelash extensions.
The hygienist seemed to consider her selfishness normal, but as our conversation developed (whenever I could do more than grunt), she admitted that her attitude was likely due to her upbringing.
“We had everything growing up, whatever we wanted,” she told me. Her father ran his own business and her mother was a homemaker. They doted on their children and showered them with whatever their interests or whims desired. “Sometimes they made us save up for things, but if we really wanted something, even if it was expensive, there was always a way that we could get it.” The family travelled frequently. and she was given a new car at 16.
Interestingly, even though her parents had catered to her every desire, the hygienist was ultimately not appreciative: “Looking back, it was probably not good that we got everything.”
She realized that she was self-focused, and was aware of some of the costs of her behaviour: “I feel bad leaving my son in daycare, but I wanted the huge house with the 'wow factor,' so my husband said I have to go back to work to help pay for it.”
Despite her self-awareness, the hygienist never indicated any intention of changing her ways. Instead, she seems to be self-consciously creating a life that revolves around herself, apparently with the conviction that she needs such a life in order to be happy.
Young people are becoming more narcissist
It is disturbing that the attitudes of my dental hygienist are becoming more common among our young people. Psychologists have caught on to this fact, as study after study confirms that narcissism is on the increase in our society. There is even a book out about this problem, entitled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
I haven't read this book, but the authors, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, also maintain a blog, and some of their posts discuss the role that parents and educators play in turning out self-absorbed children.
So how can we, as parents, do it right? How can we keep our children normal and not narcissist? Here’s my mixed bag of tricks, mostly picked up from Drs. Twenge and Campbell:
(1) Teach self-control
Dr. Twenge must have met my dental hygienist, since she zones in on overindulgence as the worst possible parenting error. Research confirms that "narcissists often had parents who were overly permissive and put their child on a pedestal." Such parents fail to teach children the crucial skill of self-control: "A child who gets what she wants and follows whims doesn't learn to delay gratification, to consider the needs of others, or to keep going when a task is difficult."
For a better way to parent, don’t satisfy your children's every whim and desire, even if you can afford to. Rest assured that you will not impair their development if you deny them the object of their pleading; on the contrary, you might well impair their development if you never hear those classic teenage words, “I hate you”. If you always say yes, your kids might stay nice to you but they will be unbearable to everyone else.
(2) Let Your Kids Stay Insecure
Nothing is more countercultural than rejecting the cult of self-confidence. Parents and educators have been told for decades to focus on building up children's self-esteem, and I have seen baby books which tell each child that he or she is the most special child in the whole wide world. Parents mean well when they say such things, but the danger is that over time, such messages might actually lead the child to believe that he or she really is somehow better than everyone else.
But isn’t high self-esteem necessary for success in a competitive climate? We are told that if we “believe in ourselves” then we can accomplish anything, and we try to instill self-confidence in our children by eschewing win-lose scenarios and handing out feel-good trophies “just for showing up”
As it turns out, the research shows that high self-esteem doesn't actually help academic performance. In fact, it can even make students more likely to drop out. The highest achievers in society are apparently often insecure around the edges, and they worked their way to the top by trying to prove they were good enough, rather than believing they were good enough from the start.
So to really help your kids succeed in life, stop artificially building up their self-esteem. Let real-life accomplishments be the source of their self-confidence, and don’t try to fix their mistakes for them. It’s good for their egos to suffer from the truth. Failure is a great teacher - let them rise above it. You might even consider enrolling them in competitive sports, as one of the best schools of personal discipline, hard work, and coping with failure.
(3) Avoid Entertainment With "All About Me" Messages
Four years ago, Mattel introduced “My American Girl", a doll that could be customized to look like your daughter. It is still going strong today, and the website shows mostly photos of little girls holding doll versions of themselves, complete with identical clothes (like Austin Powers and his Mini-Me). A creepy education in loving oneself.
What’s more, there is also a hidden problem with various tween TV shows, even the "clean" shows on kids' channels that we often think are okay for kids to watch. Big parental wake-up call here! A lot of these shows encourage young girls to desire celebrity status, and that leads them right on the narcissist track:
Very young girls now watch TV shows like Hannah Montana and High School Musical. Even though these shows are about teens, their biggest fans are elementary school and even preschool kids as young as 3. Girls are now exposed to “tween” culture at age 5 or younger, eschewing Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer for Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and other preteen shows.
Although these shows are free of inappropriate sexuality and crass language, they are unfortunately not free of narcissistic attitudes. “You get the limo out front,” sings Hannah Montana in the show’s theme song. “Yeah when you’re famous it can be kinda fun.” She then goes on to sing about going to movie premieres and getting your face in magazines. Hannah Montana draws more viewers age 6 to 14 than any other show on cable, reaching 164 million viewers around the world.
Finally, don't primp and pamper your little girls with make-up and polish and make them into little princess-divas. According to a 2007 survey, "55% of 6- to 9-year-old girls said they used lip gloss or lipstick, and 65% said they used nail polish." What this shows is that “Our little girls now grow up thinking they need to be ready for their close-up, lest the paparazzi arrive.” The best thing we can do is tone down the whole obsession with physical appearance, and stop encouraging our little girls to be pre-pubescent versions of a Hollywood celebrity.
(4) Take Less Photos of Your Kids
How many people have noticed that many children are being turned into celebrities by their own parents? I didn't pick up this point from the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, but I believe it goes right along with what they are saying. Armed with good intentions and a phone or camera, many parents have become the family’s paparazzi, snapping dozens of photos of their kids each day. As if that was not enough, there are sometimes regular sessions with professional photographers who pose the children and take magazine-like closeups.
There is lots of evidence of this parental behaviour online, from blogs to Facebook pages. The kids of such parents are literally growing up in the public eye, with hundreds, if not thousands, of their photos shared with a wide circle of family and friends, and even the world. They are catching up to Suri Cruise!
But posting online isn’t the whole harm of the matter - even if these photos are simply stored on the hard drive or used for scrapbooking, the volume itself is a problem. What happens to the innocence and lack of self-consciousness of childhood, when the spontaneity and immediacy of so many moments is usurped by the camera’s eye, when children constantly redirect from enjoying to posing or even repeating just for the camera? And what happens when children see so many photos of their own faces in the family’s photo collection?
No one yet knows the effect of all this camera attention on such children, as this is the first generation to be growing up so self-consciously under the camera lights. But I believe it's possible to anticipate what happens to these kids. In fact, I have already seen it happening on Facebook: not picking on anyone in particular here, but I have seen the children of paparazzi parents, when they grow up and start their own Facebook pages, start posting selfies and magazine-like photos of themselves. While it might have been cute when their parents did it, it is far less cute when teens and young adults become their own paparazzi.
(5) Don’t Forget to Look In The Mirror
As many parents know, no parenting strategy is as effective as leading by example. So as we try to keep our children normal in a culture of entitlement and excess, we need to look closely at our own behaviour. Even adults are under a constant stream of influences which tempt them to focus on themselves, and they may struggle with the desire to look like movie stars or a strong appetite for material things. As Twenge and Campbell point out: “Five times as many Americans undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures as ten years ago, and...for the past several years, Americans have been buying McMansions and expensive cars on credit they can't afford.”
To resist narcissism, both in our children’s lives and in our own, is to become truly counter-cultural. It is no easy task, and many people who have come to view narcissism as the standard might consider us oddballs. At a time when the Joneses are living in the McMansion and driving the latest, the family that resists societal peer pressure may live much more modestly. They may not splash their family photos all over the Internet, and their children might not have the latest and greatest, or have the lowdown on popular TV shows.
There is so much more to life than ourselves. Our society has bought into the lie that happiness is to be found by feeding our own desires and pleasures, and many children are being sent on this wild goose chase that will ultimately leave them empty inside. Modesty, humility and self-sacrifice may be the losers in our society, but they remain the keystones of a healthy, balanced and moral human life, and they are well worth it.
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