Me: Why did you do that? Why would you make that choice?
My Kid: Because I’m awesome!
I read an article written by a friend the other day. It made a great point about raising narcissistic children. Don’t do it. It pointed out the empty praise and lack of accountability that nurture narcissism and destroy empathy in children. I fully endorse the article. In the spirit of dialogue, I offer the follow-up pep talk for parents who see some level of narcissism as a defense against self-loathing and the race to “sameness” and a need to be “normal.”
Origins of Conversation
Ever since they were 3–developmentally able to articulate the basics of cognition and nearing the ability to think critically about their choice behavior–I have insisted that my children respond to questions. The goal was to engage them in organizing their choice architecture such that each choice is contemplated prior to action. The logic: If you can’t make sense of your action after the act, you miss the opportunity to self-correct. Children must be supported to consider actions that are more in line with their ability to justify toward a deeper understanding of proposed actions and projected consequences.
As my children inched closer to their teen years, I began to be concerned that their explanations may become simple justifications rather than an articulation of their thought processes preceding choices. I also wanted to provide them with practice to articulate their reasoning for sustainable actions as well as reasoning when they made mistakes. So, I began asking the “Why” question at random times after any choice they would make.
That’s when it became apparent to me. It made sense to my children that they would choose the more sustainable option. Yet, they didn’t see themselves as virtuous in a way that they could lead others into. In others words, they could make the right choice, they could explain the logic, but the next “Why” question–the ownership, self-defining–was uncertain. That next “Why” is the impact on the world or the responsibility question. It is important to the idea of being a captain that I explain this “Why” to my kids. Being a captain is not only making the most sustainable choice. It is also being able to articulate that choice process to others. And, empathy as a captain is knowing that YOUR choice impacts the outcome and choices of others. The challenge is to balance this sense of importance or impact while guarding against neurotic narcissism.
Parenting is not about subtracting things out of a child. It is about modeling and creating an environment of balance. It is about providing a consistent counterpoint that inspires critical thinking, solid choice architecture, and personal responsibility. A child ruled by narcissism would be intolerable. Yet, as well, a child with no sense of self-efficacy is equally ineffective. The question for me is to balance the sustainable combination of personality traits.
I practice three personality traits with my children: Work ethic, risk calculation, and self-efficacy. Work ethic is modeled in the requirement that my children write a proposal for anything they want to purchase. They outline how the item is an investment, not just a status symbol of consumerism. Risk calculation is modeled by articulating alternatives in choice situations. The best example is going out to eat versus grocery shopping. We explore the potential outcomes financially, temporally (time), and interactively (family interactivity) when determining whether to eat out. Self-efficacy is modeled in my insistence that each of my kids be a captain. That is, that they control the situation through their ability, and ask for help when needed. Why? The appropriate response is meant to convey a sense of “if not me, who.” Once you have exhausted the valid questions of process, only the truth of your definition of self remains: “Because I’m awesome!”
Me: Why were you able to do that when others were not?
Kids: Because I researched the needs at the personal level for the people I intend to connect with.
Me: How were you able to differentiate yourself in the market?
Kids: I determined what I had and how it was unique: me and my passion along with the product.
Me: Why would that work?
Kids: Because I’m awesome!