5 suggestions for raising non-narcissistic children

April 27, 2015

A recent study on the origins of narcissism in children concluded, “narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others.” The abstract of the study further explains, “children seem to acquire narcissism, in part, by internalizing parents’ inflated views of them.” Unfortunately, the “you are so special, so smart, so beautiful, so talented, so gifted—you can do anything you want to do and be anything you want to be—mantra” is often believed, and our children suffer because of it.

Counterproductive praise

The study dovetails with New York Times bestseller Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Their research concluded that heaping praise on children detached from achievement in an effort to boost their self-esteem is counterproductive. They assert that the result of this “self-esteem above all else” approach to parenting has produced a generation of American young adults who feel better about themselves though they achieve less and fear challenges.

Every Christian parent ought to know there are grave implications for nurturing children in this type of self-oriented flattery culture. Yet, Christian parents who possess a nice-centric worldview are often the worst offenders. Above all people, Christian parents who understand the gospel of Christ should know that a smiley-faced sentimental approach to child rearing is an impotent placebo for preparing their children for the spiritual war that is life. Over-praising children detached from achievement encourages them to live based on an image and makes them fearful they might be exposed as not being so special, smart, talented, beautiful and gifted. Such parenting makes children inordinately self-conscious and frequently discontent.  

Purposeful parenting

Above all else, a Christian parent’s job is to create categories in their children’s daily lives that help make the gospel intelligible as they prepare them for adulthood. Foundational to a Christian worldview is the truth: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5). Parents must exert authority over their children, not for their own sake, but for their child’s sake. Teaching your children to live under appropriate authority is a gift that leads to contentment. A gospel-centered approach to parenting that cultivates a biblical worldview will not abandon honest conversation about the child’s strengths (appropriate praise is vital) and weaknesses.

Children are created in the image of God with a responsibility to honor and obey God—and parents. Christian parents must love God and their children enough to demand obedience and honor from their children (Exod. 20:12, Eph. 6:1-3). No child is helped by a parent who cultivates Gnostic-style categories of assessment that sever the child’s actual behavior from who they are. For instance, the parent who thinks the proper response to a child’s act of rebellion is to try to raise their self-esteem (you are such a good person) has lost touch with biblical reality. Some parents go so far as to give positive names to rebellious acts. I knew a parent whose child got out of bed during naptime, opened the window and threw toys outside in the yard. When this mother found out what he had done she exclaimed, “He is so creative!” which was not the descriptor that came to my mind.

Below are some simple suggestions on how to raise non-narcissistic children who have been taught the value of humility, submission and hard work. I do not offer these suggestions as though they carry “Thus saith the Lord” authority but as sanctified Christian common sense.

  1. Tell your children the truth. No really, tell them the truth. Do not tell them the empty delusional clichés like, “If you believe it, you can achieve it.” If they are not very good at something say, “You are not very good at __________. so here is how you can work hard to get better, and if you don’t get better, here is how you can serve others or help your team.” After all, most people are not the best at anything, but they can strive to be their best at what they do and value their contribution as a role player. Sounds a lot like Paul’s description of life in the church (1 Cor 12).
  2. Say “no” often and mean it. Saying “no” is a gift; maturity cannot take place without it, and it also makes it meaningful when you say “yes.” A parent who rarely says “no” to his or her children or only does so apologetically is cultivating an entitlement mentality and setting them up for failure as adults. Winston Churchill famously and insightfully said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Humbly hearing “no” from someone in authority and resourcefully pressing ahead with eagerness is a foundational life skill. Such ought to be obvious to a people who say, “Jesus is Lord.”
  3. If they play sports, always support the coaches’ decisions about playing time. When the familiar family drama of playing time in the child’s athletics arises, it is easy to react with all priority given to the child. It may even be that your child is better than the kid who is starting in front of him or her. But, so what? The real question is how he or she responds to the situation. What good will it do to tell your child they should be playing more and to talk to the coach about them getting more playing time? Tell them, “Most coaches want to win, and if they thought you gave them the best opportunity to win, they would be playing you. If you want to play, then work harder and make it clear to the coach that you are the best option, and do not sit around and whine about it.” What a great opportunity to learn to be an adult employee to the glory of God.
  4. Teach them their teacher is always right (even if they are wrong). Teach your children that it is not the job of the teacher to adjust to them; it is their job to adjust to the teacher. The teacher is the authority in the room; not your child. That means that unless the teacher does something immoral or unethical (and you need to have those discussions with your children as well), then their authority should be honored in the classroom. The teacher may make arbitrary decisions in the classroom, and they may unfairly grade an assignment—I call that great life preparation. Children who grow up as fairness policemen of others rather than focusing on their own effort are generally unproductive in culture and the church.
  5. Require that they use honorific titles. Doing so cultivates a basic respect for authority and a willingness to recognize hierarchal structures and roles that God has wisely ordained. Demanding your children use Mister, Miss(es), Doctor, Officer, President, Governor and so forth is a consistent theology lesson. Few things are more detrimental to shaping a biblical worldview than a child walking up to an older man and saying, “Hey, Bob.” Or, as is often the case in my conservative evangelical circles, children who call the president “Obama” with a sneer, and parents who approve because they disagree with the president’s political positions. Parents, do we really want to teach our children that they do not have to show respect for those in authority because they disagree? What about when they disagree with you?

I could offer countless other suggestions, but I hope these five will provide a helpful trajectory. If Christian parents desire their children to say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3), take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and to count others more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3), then the empty, self-referential, flattery model of parenting must be abandoned in favor of a cruciform worldview.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24