The Kid As King

I have taken a break from reading history and turned to a popular book by two behavioral psychologists, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Their book is The Narcissism Epidemic and, allowing for hyperbole, the title says it all. Apparently I understated the problem in my blogs about self-esteem and the movement in the schools that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. According to our authors this movement has moved out of the schools and has blossomed into narcissism which is a cultural phenomenon of epidemic proportions. To quote the authors at some length, we are told that:

The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.

As the authors are at pains to point out, this has all resulted from our preoccupation with ourselves and our mania to promote “self-esteem” not only in our schools, where it may have its roots, but also in our culture at large. And as I have mentioned in previous blogs, the problem is not that people are told that they are great; the problem is that people that are not great are told that they are. In other words, narcissism, as defined by Twenge and Campbell, is built on a lie. Praise when deserved helps build genuine self-esteem and self-confidence. Undeserved praise builds a false sense of self-esteem which quickly translates into preoccupation with self, conceit, over-confidence, and the inability to establish emotional connections with others. It also results in a sense of entitlement and grade inflation in our high schools and colleges. It even leads to violence, according to the authors. As they say, “The long-term consequences are destructive to society.”

The narcissistic personality, which is becoming commonplace, lives in a make-believe world where he or she is the only thing that matters: narcissism is a flight from reality that can become violent when the person is forced to see things as they really are. As the authors point out: “In fact, narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.” Again, the problem is undeserved praise and adulation. It is essentially false, and that’s the core of the problem — for a culture that prides itself on its honesty.

We want our kids to be confident and self-assured. But heaping undeserved praise on them is obviously not the answer. In fact, studies have shown that it is actually counter-productive. As our authors tell us, “Self-esteem boosting [in a number of tests cited] led to failure, not success.”  And if our two authors are correct, the narcissism that stems from unwarranted self-esteem has serious consequences indeed as the kids grow into adulthood. The solution to the problem is better parenting coupled with the elimination of the self-esteem nonsense at home and in the schools. We need to be honest with kids, praise them when they deserve praise and never hesitate to engage in constructive criticism when it is called for. It really isn’t rocket science: it’s just plain common sense. Our grandparents knew all about it long ago.

My take on it is that this movement started in this country in the late 1960s with the “I’m OK, You’re OK” movement and the attendant cultural strictures against being “judgmental.” The notion that we shouldn’t judge one another, that everyone is fine just as they are, rests on the assumption that there is no room for improvement — which is absurd on its face. Studies have shown that self-esteem comes after genuine accomplishments; when it is based on empty lies it is easily deflated, leading to disappointment, frustration, and even (as noted) violence.

There are important differences between negative and positive, constructive criticism. The idea that we should not judge one another rules out the critical observations about our own and others’ behavior that is in need of correction. None of us is perfect and we all have room for improvement. But not for the narcissist: in his or her world things are hunky-dory and everyone is perfect just as they are. Even the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

Climate Change and “Gen-X”

I recently read a fascinating article on the weather site. Apparently so-called “Generation X-ers”  (people born between 1961 and 1981) don’t particularly care about climate change. As the article notes,

Who is Generation X?
They’re the Americans who “grew up with MTV, Nirvana, and the dot-com bubble,” says The Atlantic. These individuals are better educated than their parents and work longer hours. They sit on their children’s school boards and are often active in their communities. “But, when it comes to climate change, Gen Xers voice a resounding ‘meh.'”

There are a number of reasons for this laissez-faire attitude apparently: information overload, economic worries, and problems with raising families, among others. But it is surprising that those in this group, most of whom are well educated — or at least schooled beyond the norm — seem to be unconcerned about an issue that should be of great concern to us all. And this is especially so since the weather news lately suggests that the problem is no longer a remote one but has arrived in our own back yards.

Social scientists have referred to this generation of young people as the “me” generation, which suggests a tendency to center their attention around themselves and their own immediate needs and wants. A number of readers who comment on my blogs seem to be “Generation X-ers” and they are almost to a person exceptions to this rule. In addition, I have two sons in this group and one of them (at least) is very concerned about what is going on around him. There are obviously Generation X-ers who care deeply about what is going on in the world, including challenges to the environment and the radical changes in the climate. But apparently, if polls are to be believed, the people I come into contact with are the exception. And this does not bode well. In order to solve a problem, we much first perceive that it is a problem. If there are growing numbers of people who ignore the problem it gives one pause.

But, one might say, there is hope among the “Generation Y-ers,” those who were born after 1981 and are now growing into their adult years and who are reputed to be deeply concerned about the world around them. Not so. A major study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which I alluded to in a blog back on March 22nd, suggest this generation, also called the “millennials,” care even less than their parents do about their world and turn their collective back on problems that demand our attention and our concern. The study reveals that, in fact, these young people are increasingly preoccupied with “money, image, and fame.” Thus the problem is compounded.

As far back as 1979 Christopher Lasch was describing our “Culture of Narcissism” in his best-selling book by that name. So the fact that many in our culture are preoccupied with themselves and their own problems is not new. These recent studies simply suggest that the problem has deep roots, perhaps even deeper than Lasch suspected. But given the fact mentioned above — that there are a number of very capable young people in these age groups — and given that preoccupation with self is natural when one is young and especially when one is trying to raise a family in a weak economy, awareness of the dangers of climate change may come eventually to these age groups. The problem seems so huge one tends to become a bit overwhelmed, especially when there are other problems close at hand that demand attention.

I would expect that when climate change begins to affect these people in the pocketbook — at the gas pump and the grocery store, they will realize that action is necessary. At that point they could become a formidable force and when the sleeping giant awakes (s)he may wreak havoc with the status quo. Let us hope so. In the meantime, the only formidable force in our nation today is the power of great wealth and for the most part the wealthy don’t give a tinker’s dam about climate change. Let us hope there is soon a resounding collision between the two forces.