Tri-City Herald columnist: Being 'special' is not a predictor of success

WARNING: This essay is not about your children or grandchildren. (I’m sure they are all adorable with their rosy cheeks and perfect manners.) This is about someone else’s children — youngsters who belong to your neighbor or your congressional representative or the toothless bag lady on First Street. So should you read this through and find yourself ready to reshuffle my teeth, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “This is not about my children.”

Our children reside in a hallowed domain that is protected from scrutiny by outsiders, regardless of how judiciously our concerns are framed, so to quote Betty Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Several years ago, I taught a full load of communications courses at Washington State University Tri-Cities. At Christmas, my wife and I decided to invite 50 of my students to our home for a holiday celebration. We decorated the house, baked the cookies, made the punch and carefully tailored the entertainment for the evening.

When the big day arrived, I was giddy with excitement. “This is going to be fun,” I chirped.

We pressed our pants, donned our Christmas sweaters, and waited with childlike anticipation. And waited ... and waited. We gave a party and nobody came. Not a soul. Nor was there a single regret spoken telephoned, or emailed. We turned off the lights, sat in the dark, and breathed a long, sorrowful sigh. How much did it hurt?

After the forsaken Christmas party, I started to notice evidence of a curious cultural change. There was the teenage girl whose telephone answering machine bleated, “Leave your message. Maybe I’ll call you back, but only if it’s important to me.”

What was going on? I seemed to be witnessing a national epidemic of self-absorption. Was it true? Or was I just being hypersensitive?

To test my theory, I began examining all corners of our culture. I saw how businesses and even governmental agencies were responding to this new ethic. In 1995, Prudential changed their venerated slogan, “Get a Piece of the Rock,” to “Be Your Own Rock.” Burger King followed one ego-centric slogan, “Have It Your Way,” with another: “Be Your Way.” Then in 2001, the United States Army adopted the bewildering motto “An Army of One.” Huh?

Now, with more votes being cast for contestants of American Idol than for the president of the United States, it is not surprising to see more businesses catering to young egos. For example, take a look at a booming enterprise called “Celeb-4-a-Day.” For only $3,000, you can experience a celebrity’s life for two action-packed, heart-pounding hours. The package includes six personal paparazzi, one bodyguard, one publicist, one limousine and your own magazine cover.

Then I examined the research. In 2008, the Journal of Personality published a 27-year study that reviewed the rise in narcissism for more than 16,000 college students. Their findings were dramatic: Within two decades, self-reported scores on narcissism rose by 30 percent. To give you some perspective, narcissism in our country is rising at the same alarming rate as obesity.

In 2003, the Journal of Personality Assessment looked at more than 1,200 responses on a respected personality inventory (MMPI) over a four-decade period. In 1950, only 12 percent of the teenage respondents agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” By 1989, an astounding 80 percent agreed with the assertion.

Some might argue, “Come on, Allen, what’s wrong with that? Our young people should think they are important.”

The problem is that the pendulum has swung so far that “feeling important” has evolved into self-absorption, narcissism, entitlement and, particularly troubling, low empathy. For example, in a longitudinal study with nearly 14,000 college students, scores on empathy spiraled downward by 48 percent from 1980 to 2010.

As a darker example, consider the words of Eric Harris, one of the 18-year-old shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre: “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” Empathy: Zero. Narcissism: Off the chart.

What is the source of this spike in narcissism and free fall in empathy? In the 1960s and 70s, educators and pop psychologists preached that a child’s fragile self-esteem needed to be continually exalted. Parents were counseled to teach their children that they were “special” and that they could do “whatever they wanted.”

Because children were then (as they are now), our most treasured resources, we embraced that doctrine like the frenetic fans of reality TV. Meanwhile, our children took the message to heart — one 4-year-old girl in a frilly blue-satin dress telling me, “I can do whatever I want, because I’m a princess.”

Self-esteem — liking oneself — is healthy. Narcissism — feeling that one is better and more deserving than others — is not. For example, out of the fear of bruising a child’s ego, we have redefined the meaning of excellence. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, only 18 percent of American high school students earned an “A” average in 1968; by 2004 that percentage had skyrocketed to 48 percent.

Finally, cross-cultural studies offer a good deal of insight into the downside of overvaluing the specialness of children. For example, Asians score significantly lower than Americans on self-report instruments measuring narcissism. But how do Asians and Americans respond to academic challenges? Interestingly, Asians buckle down until they get it right, while Americans tend to give up and select a task that is not so demanding. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me, put it this way: “True self-confidence comes from honing your talents, not from being told you’re great just because you exist.”

So here is my point (fawning mothers and fathers may want to look away now). Telling your children you love them is healthy; it encourages a natural sense of self-esteem. Telling your children they are better than others is unhealthy; it imbues your youngsters with narcissism. Try saying this: “Little darling, you are indeed special, but no more or no less special than any other person on earth. If you are going to make a difference in the world — or just a difference among the people you love — there is only one thing that will make that happen: Self-discipline. Now get on with it.”

Dr. Allen Johnson is a columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of the novel, The Awakening. His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.