23 Apr Are Christians Rearing Narcissistic Children? (edited format)
By Gary Hendrix
– Narcissism is defined in this way:
inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity.
Synonyms: self-centeredness, smugness, egocentrism.
Narcissistic tendencies are inbred in each descendant of Adam. All of us are lovers of self and want to have attention focused upon ourselves. That drives so much of social media. Selfies and ruminations on Facebook and elsewhere are efforts to draw attention to ourselves and to solicit responses from others. We derive pleasure from knowing that others are looking at us, admiring us, thinking about us and what we say. Narcissism is a widespread disease.
This in turn defines one major objective of Christian parenting, namely to do everything we can do to wean our children away from confusing mirrors with windows. That means looking at others and their good instead of themselves.
And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
— Ephesians 6:4
Nurturing children to live unto Christ is the direct opposite of allowing them to live unto themselves.
The problem is that instead of countering narcissism in our children, Christian parents may actually encourage it and worsen it while supposing that they are in fact helping their children. If this is happening it will have disastrous consequences for children in Christian families and for the church in years to come. Narcissistic young people will not die to self and take up their cross and follow Christ. They will not serve Christ or His people. They may profess Christ and be baptized in order to draw attention to themselves and to feel better about themselves; but such professions and baptisms are empty unless they are rooted in a faith that repudiates self and bows authentically before Christ as Lord. Thus, we may find baptized youth pursuing goals that are diametrically opposed to the kingdom of Christ. Their lives are not calculated according to what Christ wants at all, it is all about what they want. And what they most passionately want is to be exalted in some way that satisfies their narcissism.
If indeed Christian parents are contributing to the narcissistic inclinations of their own children, no doubt it is unintentional. It is extremely difficult to imagine a true lover of Christ and of the souls of their children taking deliberate, knowing steps toward raising narcissistic children. Nonetheless, it may be happening. It may be embedded in certain established philosophies of child-rearing that have have become commonplace within the evangelical culture over the past 30+ years. Actually the trend may have commenced with children whose parents suffered through the Great Depression and WWII. In other words, children born just after the end of the war may have been the first to be nurtured toward narcissism. If so, we and our children have pushed the trend much further. Here are some of the ways that well-intentioned parents may be reenforcing, solidifying the self-centeredness and “me-ism” of their children:
1. By permitting their homes to become child-centered. No one can dispute that having a child is a life-changing event, as indeed it should be. However, from day one parents can either determine to bring the child to fit in with the life of the family, already established, or they can craft a new family life that centers upon the child. When family life is determined by what the child “needs” or will tolerate or wants, that family has become child-centered. As difficult as it might be for some young parents to imagine, children can adapt to your schedule. Children are flexible if you want them to be flexible instead of training them to be inflexible. Of course, they need extra-rest and attention but they can be trained not to dissolve into chaos if they are placed in bed an hour later than normal. Very early a child detects who is the center of things: himself or his parents. Child-centered families breed narcissistic children.
2. By making social events to become showcases for the children and their accomplishments. It is customary with some parents that at a point in every visit to their home, visitors will be “treated” to a concert or a dance performance or an art exhibition presented by the children of the house. This will occur regardless of the child’s age or ability. Perhaps the thought is that it will foster a sense of being appreciated and valued. There may indeed be a place for these private performances but only after a child has truly accomplished a measure of proficiency through hard work. (The thought here is not so much of toddlers but of school-age children). We want our children to learn that self-denying hard work produces good results. Performances and praises apart from hard work send the wrong message. Under any circumstances it is a serious mistake to permit the focus of social occasions to be upon the children and not upon the adults (unless you are celebrating a child’s birthday).
3. Homeschooling can become a classroom for narcissism. This is not necessarily the case; however, to avoid it will require conscious effort on the part of parents. In a classroom setting each child must share and even compete with other children. The classroom becomes a negative if there are undisciplined children demanding inordinate time and attention. However, in a setting of common grace there is profit in our children not being the sole or prime focus of attention. The home schooled child has often been the only scholar in his grade level or one of very few. Thus, the assignments and lectures are tailored just for him. There is no need to “keep up” with the class, he is the class. There is no opportunity to learn patience while the teacher answers the questions of others or praises others for their superior achievements or applies discipline to their misbehavior. Homeschooling is advantageous in large measure because of the one-on-one ratio between teacher and pupil. Yet without deliberate effort that very advantage can become a prime occasion for deepening the narcissistic inclinations of a child’s heart.
4. Narcissism is also fed by the failure to teach social skills. It is increasingly apparent that fewer and fewer children have been trained to behave for the good of others in social settings, whether those settings be a crowded restaurant or a worship service. This is the fault of parents. There should be clear and repeated expectations made early upon a child regarding behavior in the presence of others. Love and respect for others means, in part, refraining from actions that would distract from the business at hand whether enjoying a nice meal or listening attentively to the Word of God. Children will not be harmed by having to conquer their desire to move or to speak aloud or to be entertained or to entertain. It is humbling to subordinate our desires for the sake of others. That is a humility all of us need. It is best learned in childhood. Though it was not appreciated at the time, I am thankful for parents who did not think it unreasonable to demand that I sit still and be quiet for an entire worship service. Neither do I think that we did some irreparable harm to our children by requiring the same of them. Demanding social decorum of children at the age of two is a small, but necessary blow against narcissism.
5. Parents encourage narcissism by instilling the idea that a child is “exceptional” and not subject to the ordinary expectations common to others. Even if a child has special talents or needs he must not think himself above the requirement of loving others better than himself. Some things are common to us all and one of those things is the necessity of submitting ourselves to the needs and interests of others. Few things are more counterproductive to love than the often reinforced notion that a child is above others in some way, that the rule of esteeming others above ourselves does not apply to them.
The primary burden of this article is to remove a major impediment to children coming to Christ. Nothing is a greater hindrance to genuine repentance than narcissism. But there is another, a secondary concern. Narcissistic children grow to be unhappy teens and even more unhappy adults. Narcissism leads to restlessness, depression and even despair. Where can we find people who will admire us and pamper our egos the way we have come to expect, even demand? Where will we find a spouse who will gratify our guest for preeminence the way our doting parents gratified it? Narcissistic young people are often found complaining that people don’t treat them well. Often that means that others do not satisfy their craving for admiration. The goal of every Christian parent should be to raise children who are much more concerned about loving others than being loved, about serving others rather than about being served, about encouraging others rather than being encouraged. Those objectives are extremely difficult to achieve; but they are worth more than gold.
We might think that the Gospel would prepare parents to do battle against narcissism. Sadly, that is proving not to be the case. In large measure this is because we love our children and we want them to know that they are loved. That is right, good and necessary. The challenge is to envelope our children in love while teaching them not to be in love with being loved and praised and admired. One small step in this direction might be to require children to do good deeds to others (children without the advantages they enjoy, or the elderly) without praising those good deeds or broadcasting them to others. Teach your child that doing good to others, denying yourself for others is expected. It is not a means for drawing attention. It is simply right and an end unto itself.
Please consider soberly the words of this article. If they seem completely inapplicable to your situation, dismiss them. But please do not dismiss them without considering them. If they strike you as appropriate and needful to you, remember Christ is our Savior! He forgives, He delivers, He empowers, He heals and He is able to overcome the fruit of our sins and errors.