February 03, 2010

Do we ‘idealize’ our children or do we Love them?

Soap Bubbles, by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin

"You're right, Mom. Anyone who is too afraid to perform in public isn't gonna be a rock star." Bursting his bubble gave the kid half a chance to figure out what he was good at doing. Over Christmas, I got some mighty big hugs for helping my son face reality in his early twenties. He didn’t like having his grandiose bubble busted; but now he is living his dream as a computer game programmer. Something he is much better suited for. Was he ‘narcissistic’ as a young man, living inside a bubble of grandiosity and fantasy? Yea. But he wasn’t pathological." ~excerpted from my blog, Normal or Malignant Narcissism

Not long after writing a personal article about being called a Bubble Buster, I read an entry by therapydoc on her blog, Everyone Needs Therapy. It’s an awesome post and she inspired me to dig a little deeper. I’ll include a link to her article here: Enlightened, published January 23, 2010.
Therapydoc wrote: "It can feel huge, failure. Slows us down, is what it does, smashes the ego, forget about deflating the ego, these aren't balloons...Do not withhold praise thinking it a good parenting strategy, and do not abuse children either."
I hope my attempts to write about parenting with a narcissist are not misread. Withholding praise or intentionally sticking pins in children’s grandiosity to teach 'em what ‘failures’ they are, was never my intention. 

If we do not gently guide our children towards occupations or interests that align with their ‘true selves’, we are doing them an injustice. Setting a child up for success means accepting their limitations while encouraging them to achieve their potential. Allowing a child to exist within a bubble of his or her own fabrication is setting them up for failure. Realistic appraisal of who they are as individuals means seeing, hearing and loving their individuality. It means knowing them perhaps, a little better than they know themselves. It means understanding when to let them ‘float’ and when to get the safety net ready for an inevitable explosion.

It means loving the child, not idealizing or devaluing them as objects.

I’m pretty clear about my intentions when it comes to raising children by consistently asking myself what my motivations might be. Before doing anything as hazardous as ‘squashing dreams’ (Dream Squasher is what my X called me), I ask myself this question: “To what End?” Am I sticking pins in a twenty-something-year-old’s Rock Star fantasy to beat him up or remind him he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is so he might as well give up his ambition and start sweeping streets for a living? Am I attacking his grandiosity because I cannot tolerate seeing arrogance in myself? Am I bursting his bubble because I want to crush his ego? Or does this child’s grandiosity make ME feel uncomfortable and I want to teach the kid a lesson in humility?

Bursting children’s bubbles to ‘teach ‘em a lesson’ is not humility. It is humiliation: a shameful judgment of the ‘self’ as inferior. If parents are not empathic to the pain of inevitable ‘reality checks’, we might err in humiliating a child, which is exactly what drives children towards hiding inside grandiose bubbles of their own blowing.

My intent as a mother was to ‘see and hear’ my children and support their decisions towards their best welfare. Healthy self-esteem is ALWAYS based on reality: our true skills, our excellence in some things but not all things, our comfort with living in our own skin, being honest with ourselves, accepting ourselves as part of the human race---neither inferior nor superior to others.

Healthy self-esteem is a realistic appraisal of our worth and value.

Healthy self-esteem is not the result of over-praising children to protect them from disappointment or harsh comeuppances via failure. Healthy self-esteem allows us to cope with failure without protecting an inflated ego inside a fantasy world of one. I believed my role as a mother was to ‘see’ my children in all their glory---which included encouraging them to develop relational skills that were inclusive, not exclusive of others. Which is exactly what striving for success does: tells kids to disconnect from others and prove their superiority.

I never aspired for my children to reflect MY glory as their mother, so the world could see ME in my children's reflections. You know those parents who encourage their kids to do things the kids are lousy at doing just so the parent can claim the child’s fame as their own? I wasn’t interested in my children being famous OR rich, just happy and content to be a PART of society.

Perhaps my intentions were the direct result of parents who expected me to live out their unlived dreams, piling expectations on me that had nothing whatsoever to do with my personality, my desires, or my passions---nothing whatsoever with seeing ‘me’ as a valuable individual in my own right. I swore as a young mother that I’d never alienate my children from their true selves after feeling like a ‘failure’ for not becoming the Leader of the New World or Mother of the Year.

Getting to know myself and accept my limitations, not inferiority, has been a lifelong challenge. As the wife of a narcissistic man however, we were engaged in a battle of wills. Narcissists thrive on unlimited dreams, impossible wins against all odds, being the best, the richest, the most famous; and yet, in the end, they are dissatisfied even IF they reap the rewards of what they deem to be a successful life. I had to become very clear about what I deemed success to be and then parent my children based on values and principles that would ultimately bring them happiness and contentment with themselves.

The battles in our narcissistic family were ugly sometimes. I won’t lie about that. A child is easily drawn towards pleasing a narcissistic parent who paints pretty pictures by telling children they can do anything, be anything, that they are special and unique, and fated for mention in world history books. It seemed silly to me, but then again, I’m not a narcissist. Just a regular ol’ confused woman out of sync with narcissistic values of the 21st century.

My goal for myself was to BE myself. My goal for my children was to BE themselves without focusing on external validation such as fame, celebrity, or monetary rewards. Not that I told them money didn’t matter because it did. Helping them achieve a realistic appraisal of their talents and interests was quite a challenge when the narcissist lured them into bubbles of grandiosity…so tempting when kids are uncertain of themselves. If they were to be financially independent (thus increasing their self-esteem), then they needed adult guidance directing innate skills and talents into occupations that ‘fit’ with their personality.

Many years ago, when I was working in an art studio with several women my age, I met a talented woman who was making her mark in the art world. She was not only talented she was beautiful. You know the middle-aged type who looks like she’s in her thirties, has five kids she frequently talks about, an adoring husband who built her an art studio after she won a couple of competitions? The woman who appears to have it all and you sit there in your black stretch pants with clay smeared on your nose, stare at your short-clipped fingernails (or perhaps they’ve been chewed off after the narc gave you a severe thrashing for being incompetent) and you look at yourself and you look at her and you look at yourself and you think, “I am such a waste of space.”

This is the reaction most people have to narcissists. We compare ourselves to their grandiose self-admiration and automatically defer to their ‘greatness.’

Well, she started talking about her kids and of course, she thrilled every audience with stories about her amazing and oh-so-successful children. Four of which were either doctors OR attorneys. (Occupations signifying ‘success’ in a ‘success-oriented’ society, of course.) I was thinking, “I hope to hell she doesn't ask me about my kids", and decided to shut my mouth since my definition of ‘success’ was completely different from hers. Obviously. I know a lot of doctors and lawyers who are complete failures as human beings, according to what I call a 'successful life'.

Hoping to divert the attention from me and keep it on 'her' (which she was more than happy to do) I asked about her fifth child, the one she never mentioned in her soliloquies on successful parenting that resulted in rich and fabulous children.

She replied, “Well, our last son is a teacher. But we love him anyway.”

Needless to say, her comment threw my clay pot off-balance and it collapsed into a muddle in the center of my potter’s wheel. Then the dreaded question finally came: “So, CZ, you have two children. What do they do? Tell me all about them, I’d love to get to know your family.”

(What I need to insert here is that she didn’t even deign speak to me until I had won a sculpture competition at a local gallery. Suddenly, she wanted to know all about CZ. O yes…she was looking for a way to put me in my proper place. I get it now. Even back then when I was psychologically ignorant, I had enough life experience to tell me this woman was on a mission and ‘intimate friendship’ was not her goal. Ha!)

Back to her question: I thought about telling her my kids were excelling in ‘addictions’ at the moment but decided otherwise. She wouldn’t understand and she certainly wouldn’t empathize with me as a mother. So I thought about telling her that they were doing an outstanding job being average; but decided otherwise. Average equated to failure in her estimation. I'd be overjoyed had one of my children decided to be a teacher. Obviously, she was not. "Nah, she wouldn’t hear me." I thought to myself.

What could I possibly say that she would hear? Because the truth is: she wasn’t listening with her heart. She was competing for mother of the year and figured she had it in the bag if “I” was her competition. She had seen my son walk me to the art studio some mornings and my guess is that his dreadlocks, torn jeans and pierced protrusions told her he wouldn’t be much competition for her kids. Not even the ‘teacher’.

I believe, even more now that all those years ago, that mothering requires seeing a child as a unique individual in his or her own right. That we become emotionally attuned to them as human beings. That we reflect our acceptance of who they are and burst our own bubbliest notions of who a child needs to be in order to prove our success to others. A good-enough mother comes to know and accept her children for ‘who they are’, not who she or society expects them to be. And when we accept our children for their True Selves, they learn to accept and appreciate themselves.

There is no need to blow bubbles when a parent sets expectations that are achievable. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, beats down a child’s self-esteem more than expecting them to achieve in areas in which they are doomed to fail.

Like my son, the rock star. When he picked up his first guitar, I paid for his lessons. Encouraged him to practice non-stop for hours (I got some earplugs, LOL). When he needed to be driven to lessons, Mom took him and waited in the car, without complaint, may I add. I did not expect him to show the world what a fine guitarist he was or tell Guitar Monthly that were it not for Mama, they wouldn’t be interviewing him for a lead article.

I encouraged him to play music for one reason: he loved playing music. If nobody heard him play music except himself in his own room, then that was enough of a reason to keep practicing.

When his Dad however, started telling him he could ‘rule the world’, that’s when the bubble of grandiosity appeared. If a kid who was socially phobic could have girls throw panties on the stage when he played music, then Dad would be so proud and maybe a son would get the approval he wanted from his father. So my prior message about bursting bubbles was not about beating kids up…it was about guiding them towards a reasonable match between their skills, interests, and talents and a viable occupation.

Far too often, when people fail to achieve fame or success, they give up on the Rock Star image and never ever pick up a guitar again. I surely didn't want that to happen when my son was never offered a Rock Star Music Contract.

My response (what I refer to as sticking pins in bubbles) isn’t quite as sadistic as it might sound in a short post. My response was to talk to my son about what made his heart sing…what he loved doing, what he wanted out of life and ‘why’ he played guitar. Was it for others? Was it for himself? And if he played guitar for himself, did he need an audience to tell him playing music was worth his time practicing? Or could playing guitar be a vehicle for self-expression, an intimate connection with himself? Could passion for music make life worth living even if he never had an audience or earned a dime?

Yes, he had the example of an artist who chose to be a mother instead of pursuing a career, which helped, I’m sure. But eventually, my son decided his love for music did not need validation from the world to make it valuable for him. He continued studying classical composing but gave up the ‘rock star’ fantasy. And years later, he still plays music because he loves playing music. His passion is all the validation he needs to make it worth standing alone in his living room, his rock star guitar slung across his shoulder, and forcing the neighbors to buy earplugs.

I know this is a long post but I wanted to be very clear that bursting people’s bubbles does not justify sadism or cruelty. As parents, we must give thoughtful consideration to the motivation behind our 'reality checks.'

I believe in doing no harm to others. It is the guiding mantra of my life. If brutally shattering someone’s grandiosity would do more harm than allowing life to shatter narcissistic notions for them, then of course, I restrain. It’s all in the timing and the only way to know when it is time to offer loving feedback, requires seeing our children as human beings.

Harmful parents are those who do not see a child; they see a mirror of themselves. Narcissistic parents will shine that mirror, spit-polish the frame, peer inside the glass and trap a child inside, like a suffocating bubble. When  narcissistic parents do not see what THEY need to see, they will shatter the mirror or maliciously burst the child's bubble for having 'failed' their expectations.

Narcissistic parents have no more empathy for the human being trapped inside the mirror than they do for a defective looking-glass. 

Narcissists shatter 'imperfect' mirrors and burst children's self-protective bubbles with impunity.

Even after blowing that pretty bubble and urging the child to climb inside.



  1. I've just discovered your blog and find we share common purposes and similar content on understanding narcissism, achieving healthy self-love and healing. A couple months ago I wrote about mending hurt feelings, or "shame recovery" in professional terminology, and its importance in parenting an emotionally healthy child. The post is "Love and Lessons on Shame Recovery" at thenarcichronicles.blogspot.com. I think you might enjoy it. I look forward to returning to your blog and catching up on your past posts. PS I agree with your approach to loving children, not idealizing them, especially for our own vain ambitions. Take care.

  2. Hi Echo! I had a little trouble pulling up your article, so here's the link for other people:


    Thanks for letting me know about your blog. I've enjoyed reading several of your entries.

    Keep writing!


  3. Ooops! that link was for 'commenting' on your article.

    Here's the link to Echo's entry, "Love and Lessons on Shame Recovery":


  4. Have you read this?


    It's an article by Po Bronson summarizing the research of Carol Dweck, a psychologist who has been researchign the effects of praise on kids for decades. And what she finds is pretty much what you write here: that praising kids for being just generally great is hugely destructive, but specific praise can build self-esteem AND help kids perform better in just about every area. Reading this (and Dweck's book, Mindset) changed the way I talk to my daughter. Or at least I try to change it, but the knee-jerk impulse to say "you are awesome!" every five minutes is pretty strong.

    Anyway, I haven't read the post you link to (though I will) but I agree with you. Just boosting kids up by telling them they're fabulous backfires. They know we're full of it, it doesn't work. My goal with PP is to, as you say, help her find a realistic appraisal of her talents and skill level and praise her for those things she genuinely does well--including being a nice person, sharin well, listening etc.

    Did you know bullies and prison inmates have above-average self-esteem?


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