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Generation 'N' for 'Narcissist': Pushover Parents and the Kids They're Raising

The movement to coddle children for every imaginary achievement is indeed at the heart of an increasingly documented rise in narcissism among American youth.
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Jenelle and Dan took the day off Friday to be able to adequately celebrate their son Nathan's graduation. It's understandable to want to hail their son's accomplishment. Or it would have been. But Nathan is just turning five; it was his preschool graduation.

It brought to mind the scene from The Incredibles a few years ago:

Helen: I can't believe you don't want to go to your own son's graduation.

Bob: It's not a graduation! He is moving from the fourth grade to the fifth grade!

Helen: It's a ceremony!

Bob: It's psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity."

Count Bob and myself among the small, stodgy and fuming minority of 21st century people who feel that that America's children are not being prepared to compete effectively in the coming years.

The movement to coddle children for every imaginary achievement is indeed at the heart of an increasingly documented rise in narcissism among American youth, characterized by the "E" word that we increasingly associate with youth -- "entitled." A recent university study found that the rise had been particularly pronounced over the past 15 years.

The self-esteem movement is one of the well-intentioned culprits for Generation Narcissist. Many of us justifiably felt that students who aren't hungry for approval might be well-adjusted citizens. But talk to any employer of young adults and they'll tell you, "Kids these days don't know how to work for anything. They expect it all to be handed to them." Yes, they feel entitled. We Dr. Frankensteins didn't see that coming.

Bill Maier, a Colorado-based child and family psychologist who specializes in parent training, says he's been alarmed by the rise of what he calls "pushover parents." These parents fail in their duty to set up boundaries for children. (Think of Amy Poehler's Mrs. George in Mean Girls, offering to serve alcohol to her underage children's friends in her house rather than have them drink someplace else.)

"These parents can't or won't put limits on their children's behavior," says Maier. "Even behavior that's unhealthy, dangerous or destructive. These parents are so concerned with being liked by their kids that they give in to their children's every whim."

Maier says there is a "ripple effect" from pushover parenting. "Even if you do a great job yourself of raising responsible kids, your kids' lives will still be influenced by the trend. Your children's world will still be filled by peers who were raised by pushover parents -- think of bullies, dishonest classmates, or abusive boyfriends or girlfriends.

Maier also notes another issue. He recalls a case a few years ago in which an Arizona high school student was flunked for plagiarism and for missing assignments. Her failure didn't bother her parents as much as the school's unwillingness to allow her to graduate with her friends. For that sort of transgression on the school's part, the parents threatened to sue.

This is an era of bubble boys and bubble girls. Their parents have ruined Halloween because they suspect their neighbors are cyanide-wielding terrorists. They buy gas-guzzling SUVs because they want their children to be strapped safely into the most tank-like vehicles they can find. They drive past signs warning them of amber alerts, because they are convinced that kidnapping is an epidemic. In short, they worry more than any previous generation about little Nathan's welfare.

Joanne Weidman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Southern California, says that some of the narcissism that we see among youth is an inevitable result of the narcissistic tendencies of their own parents.

Weidman wonders if the entitlement we see in youth and young adults nowadays derives from a "parental commoditization of them -- as manifested in little robes and photo ops when they are young, and in ridiculous achievement expectations as they grow older."

She argues that this is "entirely about parents and not at all about raising healthy and whole children." I agree. There appears to be an arms war to host the biggest and best birthday celebration for two-year-olds, far out of proportion to the children's capacity to enjoy the event. Parents spend their entire time shuttling their kids to such events, taking notes on how to pass by their peers in this coddling competition.

Such lavish attention can't all be bad, I suppose. College students today seem astonishingly comfortable around their "best buddy" parents. Campuses have far more programming for parents than in my own generation, when we believed that parents are best not seen and best not heard, especially when peers we wanted to impress were around.

Still, Weidman sees a downside: "We have kids who have a shelf full of trophies and a house full of photos of their every move, but no idea who they are."

She says that, as with Narcissus, if the reflection in the form of awards and fawning is taken away, "there is no self left, which is the dynamic that undergirds entitlement." As such, Weidman believes that young people who act entitled simply long to be seen in a genuine way: "Similar to an individual with a narcissistic personality, we have raised a narcissistic generation, but their entitlement is their acting out against being reduced to being extensions of their parents, and they are screaming, figuratively, to be seen for who they are."

This won't be easy. Maier, the Colorado psychologist, argues that parents are undermined today by their own guilt, caused by working long hours or by contentious divorces and custody disputes. "As a result they often fail to enforce limits for fear that their kids won't like them," he says.

Speaking of parenting, a USC colleague of mine, Warren Bennis, is considered the father of leadership studies. And Bennis, in a recent book titled Geeks and Geezers, noted that young leaders are more committed than their older counterparts to the concept of work/life/family balance. Bennis seemed to see this as a healthy trend. But Bennis is the eternal optimist, and I'm more of a realist or a cynic. I have questions: Are the young people simply naive? Do they think they can achieve their goals without the sacrifices that older leaders took for granted? In short, do they feel entitled to success on their terms, not the world's terms?

Bennis penned a remarkable essay last year for Forbes, arguing that the economic meltdown presented a crucible that could refine a new "Greatest Generation." Again, he's an optimist who sees hope where others might not.

I hope he's right. But I believe that, first, the generation of pushover parents must warn their own children that life involves crucibles and challenges and setbacks and competition, not a succession of birthday blowouts and annual pseudo-graduation ceremonies.

Rob Asghar is the author of Lessons from the Holy Wars, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.