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.
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.