Rich Kids in Trouble

The paradox of modern privilege. By Suniya Luthar, Ph.D.

Justin Bieber, Little Emperors, and Narcissistic Children

Over-indulging our children puts them at risk of becoming self-centered brats

I seem to be following Justin Bieber around the globe. I was there just after he performed in Amsterdam, then missed him by a few days in Beijing where people were duly unimpressed by the boy and pictures of him being carried up the Great Wall on the shoulders of his body guards. Now Australia, where he is expected to perform in a few weeks in the stadium across from my hotel. Chance? Sure, but also a good opportunity to reflect on what Bieber can teach us about over-indulged children.

Chinese parents, like the rest of us, are becoming worried about indulging their only children’s every wish, especially their sons. Maybe, just maybe, turning our children into little emperors and narcissists is something we should reconsider. All that attention is not what children need for healthy psychological development.

Interestingly, my books Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive, and We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids, have both been released this month in China. Parents there are genuinely concerned that while their children are expected to study hard and show filial piety, this next generation may have been indulged and protected a little too much. They call it “umbrella parenting” which is a pretty apt description of how we can overprotect our children and fail them by not allowing them to experience life’s inevitable setbacks.

Which brings me back to Bieber. He was a nice Canadian kid with talent. I remember following his career with admiration and laughing in a pleasant way at the way teenage daughters of my friends saved their allowances to buy backstage passes to his concerts. I wonder if adolescent girls in Australia where I once again have encounterd the Bieber world tour will come out to see him in record numbers? I have my doubts. This new Bieber would be a lot more palatable if he left the floodlights for a while and reminded himself that he is still just a young man who wants to be loved. Heck, I’d even be happy to provide him some one-to-one therapy to help him get back to normal. Call me Justin…It’s the least I can do for a kid who once inspired people.

If I did have that chance to spend some time with Bieber I’d explain that no child needs constant admiration. It warps a child. It creates little dictators the likes of King Joffrey on Game of Thrones. It creates the twisted identity development of a Michael Jackson, Brittany Spears, and so many others.

Our own children are not immune from such petulance. It is up to us, however, as their caregivers to remind them of both their talents and their need to humbly accept their shortcomings. They need to be reminded that the world is not all about them. I’ve noted in my clinical practice and research that children who are accused of always thinking “Me” often have parents that reinforce or model that way of behaving. While all children go through a period of developmental narcissism, histrionic, hormonal and self-absorbed, very few persist with such behaviours if the adults in their lives challenge them to look beyond their small troubles. Empathy for others is not something we learn in the classroom. It is something that is modelled for us, experienced first hand, then lived. The child who is shown respect and given reasonable responsibilities for themselves and others, is provided a role model who also does things for others, and who is expected to contribute to another’s welfare at home, school or in the community, is a child who is going to grow up well.

The little emperors in Chinese families can be great kids. I know many Chinese friends raising wonderful children. But it is usually because these parents have not overprotected their child, have insisted the child contributes to the welfare of others, and have modelled for their child what it means to be part of a community that shows concern for those less fortunate.

Which brings me again back to Bieber. Who is reminding him that he is still just a young man who needs to show some humility? Who told him how inappropriate it was to sign the visitors book at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam with an expression of hope that she would have been a “belieber” if she’d been alive today? Why exactly did he turn this situation which should have been focused on Frank, an icon of resilience, into something all about Bieber? I was in Amsterdam just after Bieber did that as part of my own world tour to understand patterns of resilience among high-risk kids. I never thought he’d become a case study in narcissism and how we create problem children.

To my mind, the Bieber brand would be a lot more sustainable if it included less self-centeredness and more thoughtfulness. But then, maybe that’s Bieber’s gift to all of us. A warning…that your spoiled, overprotected, doted upon child can become an obnoxious young adult if you’re not careful. That, at least, is one enduring gift the little boy from Stratford, Ontario has given us.

Rich Kids in Trouble