Over at The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge has proposed that narcissism is on the rise. If true, this creates a problem for parents. Is it better to cultivate your child's character by steering her away from egocentrism? Or does narcissism provide a survival advantage in an increasingly narcissistic society? Without it, will she be steam-rolled?
At our house, we have chosen to cultivate character in our three-year-old. For now, she lives within a simple ethical framework: be considerate of others; you are not the only one on the planet.
That lesson requires rules. Unlike other kids, she is not allowed to jump on couches, write on walls, manipulate others, throw tantrums, throw toys, or run into others without saying "excuse me." She must say "please," "thank you," and "may I be excused from the table?" She is expected to answer when others speak to her, and she is expected to allow others their turn to talk. Those are just for starters.
With rules come plenty of privileges, but politeness comes first. While rudeness is always an option, she usually chooses good manners because her world works better that way.
Why do we raise our daughter in this seemingly outmoded fashion? We hope to prepare her for the world, and so we create a microcosm in which courtesy works. But I sometimes wonder if we are being honest with her.
Soon, she will begin to notice that narcissistic behavior works for other kids, and she will ask questions. Why am I the only kid who must worry about the effect that I have on others? They act like knuckleheads, why can't I?
I would like to tell her that the world rewards decorum, but the opposite is often true. The same kids who suffer no disadvantage for egocentric behavior will probably become adults who infringe on their neighbors. Decent people suffer each time someone intentionally defaults on a mortgage, broadcasts their cellphone conversation to the entire restaurant, or slows traffic by preventing another motorist from merging. Narcissism pays -- at least in the short run.
The better question is this: hey Dad, how do I justify kindness and manners in world where incentives seem backward and people can profit by imposing on others?
"Because I said so," won't cut it.
The best counsel, I think, is this: relationships matter, so choose wisely. When you find yourself surrounded by three-year-old hellions, choose the company of the kid who understands that she is not the center of the universe. That relationship will be much more fulfilling than the others.
Stay with the good kids, even if acting thoughtfully seems unfair. Narcissistic kids are bound to be crushed the first time something important is denied them. You don't want to be standing next to them when that happens.
Later, when you find yourself in a society of too many self-possessed lumps, congregate with those who comport themselves with dignity and kindness. Narcissism is a reflection of weakness and chaos; the strength and peacefulness of thoughtful folk will rub off on you. It is in their company that you will find respite from society's takers. Call it The Good Kids Support Group.
I will tell my daughter what a teacher once told me: she who walks through poopies gets poopies stuck to her. Narcissistic people cut a wide, messy swath. Helping her keep her shoes clean is going to be a mighty task.
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It. You can read the introduction and find other goodies at guidetothemind.com.