My mom adopted me after I’d spent the first five years of my life with another mother, father, two sisters and a brother. When she brought me home, she spent the next decade showering me with praise and letting me know how “extraordinary” and “smart” and “talented” I was. We celebrated “Adoption Day” and she let me stay home if I had so much as an upset stomach. Later, she would tell me that her excessive show of love was just making up for my early upset in familial resources.
Of course, she wasn’t completely indulgent. I remember all of my friends noting that I did much more around the house and yard than they did, but that was easily dismissed as the necessity of being the only child of a single mother.
Given my hodgepodge of psychological upsets, from failed adoption to early exposure to violence, death, drug addiction and sexual situations, it would be impossible to say whether or not I’m functional or dysfunctional or to connect that to my upbringing. What I do know is that I spent most of my lunches in high school eating in the art room, attended only one social function, walked out of more than one class due to panic attacks, and my early time in community college was mostly just … practice. I skipped classes if the idea of social interaction was — let’s just say — alarming. I worked but lived at home. And my mom? She never threw this in my face. It was only after I went to a college adviser to seek out some much-needed direction that someone gave it to me straight.
“I look at your transcript,” said the woman behind the desk, rather sternly, “and I mostly see a bunch of crap. I see strokes of — I’ll just say it — genius, but the rest of this is pathetic.”
She looked almost angry, but mostly puzzled. With another glance at the computer, then back at me, she asked, “What happened?”
That one question threw me. I hadn’t cried in front of anyone (especially a stranger) for years, but that question felt like an inquisition, an interrogation into my mental and emotional whereabouts, rather than merely my physical and academic status. It revealed the false image that I’d been vehemently projecting.
“I don’t know,” I answered, after finally regaining the ability to speak.
As a high school senior, I’d picked a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote for my yearbook: “Between eighteen and twenty, life is like an exchange where one buys stocks, not with money, but with actions. Most men buy nothing.”
I realized as I answered the adviser that I’d bought nothing. I’d done nothing. I had survived, but by not acknowledging my shortcomings, my flaws and recognizing how much I’d truly been given, that survival had been essentially wasted. Where had I invested my assets? I’d been hoarding them in a thinly veiled narcissism. Like I said, this wasn’t my mother’s fault.
She made me work for my first car and she never overstepped her bounds helping me with homework (truthfully, she didn’t have the time and I never asked for any help whatsoever), but I had been raised being told that I was the perfect, long-awaited child. I had been living in the shadow of a doting and biased critic, never realizing (or choosing not to see) that the real world might have higher and harsher performance objectives.
I’m not the only one in my generation who has discovered that personal ego far exceeded my actual contribution to the world.
Loni Coombs, a mother herself, who worked as a prosecutor for years, wrote a book about the complex relationship between parental expectations and children’s ability to cope with everyday struggles. The book, You’re Perfect … And Other Lies Parents Tell: The Ugly Truth About Spoiling Your Kids, raises severe concerns about modern day parenting. For the parents who are constantly concerned about protecting their children from criticism, social problems and the natural negative consequences of their actions, Coombs advises them to redirect their worry.
In her book, she suggests an emphasis on goal-orientation: “Help them break their goal down into steps that will get them there. If they want to buy a car, for instance, have them answer these questions: How much money will I need to save each month to be able to buy the car by a certain date? What costs will I need to cover once I buy the car? Make it a collaborative process by helping your child figure out solutions they can manage for how to get things done. They should feel responsible and in control of the process from the beginning.”
One great thing about the Montessori school where I currently work is getting a front row seat to view the progression of young people in an academic setting, and much of that is seen through early goal-setting. Another perk is the support and nurturing of children’s individual natures while recognizing the need for them to conform to communal behavior standards. Children are not shielded from criticism, nor are they bombarded with rejection of their personal preferences. Their goals are important because they reflect the constant room for growth and self-improvement in a positive, uplifting and realistic way.
Alan Neuhauser, a writer for US News & World Report, wrote recently about a new study on the link between parental views of children and an inflated sense of self-worth and abilities.
The recent Amsterdam study was based on a survey of over 550 children between 7 and 11 years of age, with questions designed to reflect “parental overvaluation,” such as how the parents ranked their children in comparison to others. The goal was to then discover whether or not social scientists could detect a positive correlation between higher-than-average parental views and their children’s tendency to be narcissistic.
Needless to say, the Netherlands study wouldn’t make much of a wave if they discovered no correlation. With comparison to other children and “superior” as the only acceptable award, children do not thrive but stall — or, worse yet, regress.
Newhauser notes an important point, while quoting a different 1998 study: “The difference between narcissism and self-esteem … .is high self-esteem means thinking well of oneself, whereas narcissism involves passionately wanting to think well of oneself.”
The key to helping your child thrive seems to be in encouragement rather than protection, which unlocks an attitude of capability, gratitude and grit. Don’t pave the road to success, but encourage your child to pack wisely for the journey.
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.