March 13, 2017
“Hi everyone!” Jennifer loudly exclaims, smiling broadly.
Jennifer, a beautiful, highly accomplished businesswoman in her mid-30s, briskly walks over to a crowded breakfast table in an expensive hotel restaurant. She holds the hand of her 3-year-old daughter.
“This is Melanie,” Jennifer states as she picks up her little girl and stands the child on the large table.
Around the table sit Jennifer’s extended family. Gathered are aunts, uncles, and cousins – family she loves – family Jennifer hasn’t seen since before her pregnancy; family whose judgment she secretly fears and who she always has sought to impress.
A chorus of “Hi Melanie!” ensues. The little girl reaches for her mother. Jennifer holds her firmly in place. Standing on the table, the child looks out over a sea of strangers.
“Sing your ABCs Melanie,” Jennifer instructs. The child backs into her mother’s arms. “Come on, show everyone you know your ABCs,” Jennifer continues, pushing her forward.
So, the child sings. Quietly, little Melanie obeys: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G….”
She finishes the familiar song and then reaches again to be held.
“Now, count to 10,” Jennifer insists, again holding her daughter in place.
Melanie looks around.
“Smile, honey,” Jennifer insists.
The resulting smile is a frozen one. The little girl is clearly uncomfortable. Who are these people? Why does she need to count in front of them? After a few moments of hesitation and repeated instruction, she complies.
“1, 2, 3, 4…” the child stops counting at 10.
“Wonderful!” Jennifer says with a smile. She picks her daughter up in her arms and everyone around the table claps.
“She’s a smart one!” one of the aunts gathered remarks.
“Look how pretty she is!” says another.
“She’s smart and pretty, just like her mother,” states Jennifer’s favorite uncle. Jennifer beams with pride. And this is how Melanie meets her mother’s extended family.
For some, Melanie’s story will be familiar. Perhaps they also have been asked to perform as extensions of their parent’s need to project a certain self-image or cover a hidden, fragile self-esteem. Whether such performances occurred in beauty pageants or spelling bees, the awards and accolades received mean much more to the parents than the children at hand.
For others, Melanie’s ordeal is very foreign. Who would introduce a child to a gathering of family (or any gathering) this way? It’s one thing for a parent to brag about her child’s accomplishments with his or her own peers, but it’s quite another to request the child perform in front of them, especially as a first encounter. Being proud of a child’s competency in mastering basic life skills is a common experience. After all, families rejoice in seeing their children reach key milestones. Yet, this is different than showcasing skills in order to boost a parent’s own self-image.
And what does little Melanie learn from this performance-based introduction? Does she learn that her worth depends on her accomplishments? Perhaps she discovers that her mother’s loving embrace and happy approval depend upon her performance of requested tasks? These tasks make her mother feel good, even if they make her scared and uncomfortable.
For children growing up in homes with parents suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, the scenario described above is all too familiar. Why? Julie L. Hall, author of "The Narcissist Family Files" blog, writes:
“In an effort to scaffold an all-consuming sense of worthlessness formed in early childhood, the narcissist constructs a grandiose self that he continuously asserts and protects with all of his resources. The narcissist’s needs trump everything else, and his children are manipulated within a family system designed to support his ego.”
Consider the following example, again drawing from the character of Jennifer:
Melanie’s fourth birthday is just a few weeks away and Jennifer will be out of town on a business trip.
Her husband, Sean, inquires one evening, “How should we celebrate this year?”
Jennifer suggests they celebrate as a family and go away together the weekend before she takes her trip.
“OK. But what about on her actual birthday?” Sean continues. “You’ll be out of town, but I’d like to have a party for her.”
“Well,” Jennifer states. “Have a few friends over, but no more than two or three. I don’t want her to have a party.”
“I won’t be there to be in the pictures.”
Sean and Jennifer end up having a rather fierce argument.
“This isn’t your birthday!” Sean reminds his wife.
Eventually, Sean promises to Skype Jennifer in so that she can “appear” in the group photo and Melanie enjoys her 4th birthday party with her father and friends.
Perhaps Jennifer carries a deep sense of worthlessness within and her daughter is a wonderful “resource” with which she can project a superior image of herself, one that is grandiose and accomplished. Whatever may be going on in Jennifer’s psyche, it’s clear that she has a need to use her daughter as an extension of her own self-image, evident in both the story of the breakfast table introduction as well as the birthday party fight.
Should Jennifer’s behavior stem from an actual personality disorder colored by the distortions of narcissism, little Melanie will have a hard row to hoe as she moves forward in life. For example, according to Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, “The child of the narcissist learns that the only thing that matters is what I can produce in the world, not just my own little being.” Furthermore, children raised by narcissists often grow into adults who demonstrate an unusually strong need for flattery, attention, and admiration. Even a simple criticism can make them feel exceptionally vulnerable.
But parents don’t need to be diagnosed with personality disorders when it comes to placing children on their personal trophy shelf. We live in a culture that practically worships the acquisition of accomplishments that reflect success, wealth, and beauty.
We live in a culture that practically worships the acquisition of accomplishments that reflect success, wealth, and beauty.
There’s never “enough” and it’s tempting for parents to try to one-up one another by highlighting their children’s talents, successes, grades, performances, and “greatness.”
So, how can we honor our children without living through them? How can we teach our children that we love who they are (in both success and failure) outside of their ability to inflate our own ego?
Here are three action items to consider.
1. Examine your own past. Take stock of your own inner sense of worthiness and worthlessness. Is shame a significant motivator in your life? Do you feel you are never enough? If so, be courageous enough to examine these darker corners of one’s soul. For often, it is the parent’s sense of lack that propels him or her to co-opt a child’s accomplishments as an extension of self.
2. Notice how you talk about what makes you happy. Does your child hear you link accomplishments at work (for example) with your own sense of well-being too often? Is your sense of joy overtly tied to your successes and/or acquisitions? If so, downplay this in your conversations with both your child and the adults around you – conversations your child will inevitably overhear at times. Instead of talking about promotions, awards, the next big business deal etc., talk about stories that inspire you and people you love. Better yet, listen. Learn to engage your child directly and focus on child-led play. Learn about joy from your child. Enter into her or his world. Let go of how they can prop up your own.
3. Remember parenting is about sacrifice. It’s about nurturing the future. It’s not about feeding the ghosts of one’s past. It’s not about being in pictures or showcasing whose little one first memorizes their ABCs or multiplication tables. Shift into service mode. Shift into humbleness. Remember the wise words of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran who advised parents to “give [children] our love,” but avoid giving them our thoughts. “For they have their own thoughts.” Gibran continues: “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
We can make room for our children’s stories to unfold without the projection of our own unmet needs, without “living through” our children. As parents, we already have lived out our childhoods. However painful or wonderful they might have been, they are over. Yes, we can revisit memories through therapy, and, in the case of parents who continually put their children upon trophy shelves, therapeutic support is imperative. But our childhood stories are already written.
Now is the time to focus on the stories of those we are called to honor, serve, and love -- for their own sake.