Telling a parent not to be narcissistic is about as useful as telling a child to ignore a candy store’s display window. It does not work. Parents are wired to look at their babies as mirrors of their more perfect selves. We cannot eliminate this primal feeling, but we can manage it so that our children thrive.
When most people think about narcissism, they think about a full-blown constellation of traits: an inflated sense of one’s own importance, a need for excessive attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy. People who exhibit all of these traits over an extended period of time, without any awareness that they are doing so, are diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Children raised by parents with NPD suffer, usually growing up to assume either the narcissistic personality of their parent or a self-effacing demeanor of constantly trying to appease and accommodate others' demands.
However, not every person with traits of narcissism (which is to say every person) represents a danger to others. The need for attention and admiration, the need to feel important, even the need to establish boundaries that limit our empathy—these are all elements of the human psyche. They push us toward accomplishments and a belief in our own agency. When narcissism is balanced with the impulses for connection and empathy, it can even become a pro-social trait.
Infants are born narcissists; they recognize their caregivers only as an extension of themselves. As children grow, they slowly develop a theory of mind, an understanding that other people are separate beings with distinct needs, preferences, and perceptions. This recognition is an essential precursor to the transition toward independence.
Children are not the only narcissists in the parent-child relationship though. Parents see their own reflection in their babies as much as babies see themselves in their parents. The difference is that children naturally evolve out of this state, whereas parents must make a more intentional effort.
Children are born to be loved, but they are also born to mirror and validate their parents. A parent’s narcissism consists of seeing the child as a true and perfect reflection. The child embodies the parent’s best traits and compensates for the parent’s shortcomings. My newborn is a perfect version of myself.
Parental pride derives from the positive light that our children’s accomplishments reflect back onto us. We see it in every boastful conversation about precocious reading ability, athletic prowess, college acceptance letters, and financial success later in life. Those accomplishments? Those are my accomplishments, says the parent. Give me credit for creating and raising this extraordinary person!
I dare say this mirroring impulse, this narcissism, is useful in evolutionary terms. The more closely we identify with our offspring, the more likely we are to nurture them and encourage their success. They, in turn, are more likely to attract mates and build families of their own if they demonstrate that success. The genes live on.
So being a narcissistic parent is normal and natural. But the impulse must be kept in check. Allowing our children to develop their independent selves requires us to let go, to let them explore interests and behaviors we may neither recognize nor desire in ourselves. Even when we do celebrate their accomplishments, we cannot declare ownership (even if we feel it), because our children need to believe in their own efficacy. Watching our children spread their wings is terrifying because we worry about their safety, but also because we lose control over the reflection in our mirrors.
Holding on too tightly is only one pitfall of narcissism. What happens when the child’s reflection disappoints us? When the child does not advertise our strengths and compensate for our shortcomings? Every child, at some point, fails us. Our progeny simply cannot be more perfect than human imperfection allows. When we confront this disappointment, we may be inclined to blame the child, reject the mirror. At least for a moment. We have to will ourselves to accept the separateness of our children, to relieve them of the burden our narcissism imposes on them. Our disappointment in ourselves cannot be transformed into resentment toward the child who does not improve the reflection staring back at us.
I have been thinking about parental narcissism because the challenges it imposes are particularly acute for those of us who are raising children with special needs. We confront, at an early age, the fact that our children will not be the vehicles for our redemption. They will not, in all likelihood, become the belles of the ball, win the MVP awards, or garner Nobel prizes. As reflections of ourselves, they may be barely recognizable.
What then? Certainly, the fact of a disability does not diminish our love for our children. It can, however, interfere with the natural processes of attachment and separation. Our children still need us to mirror them when they are young, but we may instinctively reject their need for identification. Again, we do not feel less love, but we may communicate resignation rather than the joy of mutual experience. Later on, as our children mature, we may limit their opportunities for independent growth, perhaps because we expect so little or perhaps because we cannot imagine in them the same desire for accomplishment that we remember in ourselves and assume in more easily recognizable children.
Distinguishing our own preferences from the needs and desires of our children requires a concerted effort. Abandoning the hope that our children will redeem us, and doing so with grace, also requires a concerted effort. For our children’s sake, we must let them take responsibility for their own lives, just as we relieve them of responsibility for ours.