As a mother, I try to do the right thing, and often I succeed. But sometimes I fail in ways that are hard for me to recognize.
According to an article in the Washington Post, a recent study shows that parents who reinforce ideas of superiority and entitlement during the developmental stage between ages 7 and 11 are more likely to raise narcissistic children than parents who avoid this trap.
The Internet response has been a mixture of interest, defensiveness, attempts to discredit, and rushes to use the results to support unrelated theories of parenting. (also known as the typical Internet response). What there has been very little of is honest reflection about how the information could perhaps change the way we parent our children.
First of all, it is important to understand what the research is saying. Telling your daughter that she is a gifted singer and encouraging her to follow her dream and try out for the lead in the school musical is not teaching her superiority. It’s teaching her to use her gifts, along with a lot of rehearsal time, to obtain something she desires. It’s providing her with an opportunity to either succeed and experience the payoff of hard work or fail and learn that her world doesn’t end because she tried and did not achieve her ultimate goal.
However, if you react to your daughter’s failure by dropping out of the PTA and attacking the musical director, you are teaching a very different lesson. You are teaching her that she should have won the part, not through her own merit, but because your status in the school entitles her to it. That is the problem behavior. Think conservative politicians, raised in wealth, elected because of wealth, who feel entitled to judge the plight of the poor.
And then, because it might be useful, think about yourself as a parent. If you are the kind of parent who angrily protests your child’s every failure, this should be an easy one—stop it. And then, for the rest of us who do try to instill strong measures of self-confidence and empathy, think if perhaps there is a more subtle way in which we promote entitlement in your children. Even if it is not egregious enough to create a narcissist, our children will benefit if we stop.
I’ll go first.
My son has Down syndrome. Our society is largely conditioned to believe that people with intellectual disabilities are defective, or certainly inferior in important ways. I fight against that every day. How could he feel entitled in such an environment?
Well, my son has a very special gift. No matter the situation, he will charm someone into taking care of him. And while it is true he does reasonably need some assistance, he cons people into doing tasks he could easily take care of himself.
They help him because he’s cute, but also because they wrongly assume that his disability means he needs constant assistance. My son doesn’t understand what Down syndrome is yet nor is he willfully using it as a tool to manipulate, but he certainly takes advantage of the fact that people will cater to him and not expect him to reciprocate.
And it’s easy for me to fall into the trap of allowing it. As a mother, I find comfort in knowing that his needs are met when he’s not with me. And his life is full of major challenges—does it hurt if he gets extra help along the way?
It hurts if he goes about obtaining the help in this way. It discourages his independence while encouraging him to develop behaviors that are not conducive to having real friendships. He needs to learn that while it’s OK to get help from others, he also needs to be a helper, to show appreciation. To understand that other people’s time and effort is not his for the asking.
In the absence of reciprocation, his behavior is, well, kind of narcissistic.
I need to work on that.
In reading the Post article, I don’t take this information as an excuse to beat myself up as a parent. I try to do the right thing, and often I succeed. But sometimes I fail in ways that are hard for me to recognize.
And this sort of research is not meant to overturn everything we know about parenting or challenge our basic values. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on our parenting in a new context. Why not take advantage?
Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on her experience with disability (her son has Down syndrome and she lives with mental illness) and parenting. She has published in Brain, Child, Quartz, and Chicago Parent and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives with her partner and son in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.