In 1950 the Gallup organization gave a questionnaire to a large sampling of high school seniors. To the question: “Are you a very important person?” 12 percent said yes.
In 2005 Gallup administered the same question to another large sampling of high school seniors: 80 percent said yes.
The large increase in percentage may seem remarkable to some. Others will quickly relate the upsurge to the great increase in narcissism in our culture.
Remember Narcissus? He was the handsome young man of Greek mythology who gazed at the reflection of his image in a pool and fell in love with himself.
Narcissists are self-absorbed. They betray a sense of grandiosity and self-importance. They have a need for praise, and often show an explosive anger when their fragile sense of self-importance is in any way met with reserve or disbelief.
(Anyone who wants to know more will find a great deal of information by googling not only “narcissism,” but also terms such as “narcissistic injury,” and “narcissistic supply.”)
My understanding is that a majority of teenagers show narcissistic traits (as our generations before them did). But for most, the wear and tear of fighting their way into adulthood rubs away these traits or reduces them greatly.
Also, people of any age may have narcissistic moments or blind spots, but only a small percentage reach adulthood with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Some experts suggest one percent.
What resources can Christian parents draw upon to assure that their children grow up with a wholesome sense of self-respect and at the same time a proper interest in and respect for others?
Perhaps a key insight is given us by Jesus when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is apparently a proper sense of self-love — perhaps called self esteem. So parents should be concerned that children develop appropriate self-esteem but also neighbor-love. To encourage the development of a healthy sense of both, what practices should parents attempt to follow?
To begin with, we must recognize that children are a gift from God and that they bear God’s image. Therefore they are to be treated with respect even when we are correcting them. Sometimes we need to sit down and prayerfully review our child’s value to God so as to check and amend our own vexation over their slips.
At the same time, Christians believe their children (and they too) are members of a fallen race. So early in their lives they will show a “bent to evil” and this will manifest itself early and require parental alertness as well as readiness to instruct, restrain, and discipline.
Parents will be alert and respond in a correcting, teaching way, for example, to their child’s first intentional untruth, the first conscious disobedience, and the first unkindness to others or selfishness.
Parents will want to provide a home where there is lots of warmth, love, and laughter but never lose sight of the fact that moral instruction and Gospel claims are serious tasks.
The tendency to romanticize human nature, strong as it is in our culture, may cloud the minds of Christian parents, making them overlook or see as cute or charming the sinful conduct in the developing child. This laxity could easily plant early seeds for narcissism.
Countering the tendency for our children to be narcissistic calls for a 24/7 alertness so that we can show appropriate but not overblown approval when growing children do what’s right, and appropriate and pointed correction when selfishness creates trouble.
By these means parents help children to form a realistic sense of themselves — that they bear God’s image and have gracious gifts from Him, and at the same time along with all of humankind, they have a sin nature.
At the same time, the deepest remedy for curbing narcissistic tendencies is the embrace of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That must mean true repentance — a turning away from sin; and faith — a deep turning to Jesus Christ, declaring him Lord and Savior.
Nothing short of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can begin life’s transformation at the center.
Image credit: John William Waterhouse