My two-year-old is adorable and he knows it. When all eyes are on him, he transforms: He cocks his head upward, closes his eyes, puts his elbows in the air like a chicken, and slowly spins and dances, stops, and starts singing. He’s a ham and everyone (me and my wife included) love it and feed it and let him perform. He loves the attention! But now I’m starting to worry that we are going to raise a narcissist.
There are some signs that this is happening. If we pay attention to anyone or anything other than him, he tries to divert attention to himself. This has especially come to a head at dinner where he won’t join the conversation, won’t let us talk to each other, and doesn’t want to eat unless it’s an airplane-to-mouth production (with applause). Dinner has become a tantrum-filled, food-flinging mess. But for the most part, we love our kid, love lavishing him with attention, and he gives it right back. So, are we going to end up in 15 years with a stage-loving showman, a self-obsessed jerk, or just a kid with the confidence of parents who clearly loved him?
Looking at the Limelight in Lancaster
North America was settled by no-fun-nick Calvinists who brought to the New World stern parenting philosophies like, children should neither be seen nor heard. Parents who attended to their children’s desires for attention were committing the terrible sin of spoilage. In the centuries since the pilgrims made liberal use of the rod to keep kids in line, research has shined a light on the importance of nurturing children — essentially, supporting their needs, interests, desires, and imaginations. Turns out that kids who are nurtured have better outcomes in both mental and physical health according to numerous studies. The scientific consensus is that paying attention to your kid isn’t a sin as much as it’s exactly what parents are evolutionarily, biologically and socially supposed to do.
Still, the concept of spoiling remains a potent concern in modern parenting culture, which is likely why you’re writing to me in the first place. Your worry that you’ll raise a “self-obsessed jerk” is influenced as much by your observation of your child as it is influenced by a cultural story you’ve internalized that digging your kid’s act will turn them into an insufferable jerk.
Is there a chance you might raise a selfish, self-serving narcissist? Hell yeah. But that likelihood has pretty much nothing to do with how much attention you give your kid. It has much more to do with whether or not you, yourself, are a self-obsessed jerk. Are you? You don’t sound like it to me. But only you can say for sure, and that requires a little self-reflection.
Fact is that kids have a tendency to take on the values of their parents. If you make a point of showing your son that your family values selflessness, community, generosity, and kindness, they’ll probably turn out a-okay, even if you built a 50-seat theater dedicated to their genius in your garage.
Don’t get me wrong, though — it’s clear that your kid’s behavior can be disruptive and create a very specific point of pain. I’m not going to discount that. But that behavior isn’t about attention as much as it is about boundaries. Your kid isn’t a pain in the ass at dinner because you’ve indulged their performative whims. They’re a pain in the ass at dinner because you haven’t established appropriate boundaries of behavior at the table. Basically, they don’t get that there’s a time to get down to eating, and a time to get down to dancing. But, also, he’s only got two-years experience on the planet so we need to cut the kid a little slack. He’ll figure it out eventually, but understand that he’s displaying pretty typical two-year-old table manners.
Still, you’ll want his behavior to improve over time, which means establishing consistent strong boundaries. Parents have a tendency to struggle with this, particularly the “consistent” part of the equation. The trick is to build your boundaries, communicate them clearly (along with why they are important) and enforce them consistently. This isn’t a one-time thing. This is something you will do for weeks until it becomes so routine that your kid simply understands what’s expected. At least, until they discover a new way to push at the boundaries you’ve created. After all, that’s the job of a kid.
In the simplest terms, your life will be improved by understanding exactly what you’d like to see at dinner, telling your kid what you want to see and why and then correcting them when they strain against the boundaries you set. There are some caveats. First, be realistic. Your boundaries need to be appropriate for where your kid is in their development and their temperament. You’re never going to get a super performative kid to sit quietly through dinner while they placidly chew their peas. However, you might be able to get them to eat their dinner while you do some collaborative storytelling, or play a guessing game.
Also, in order to make boundaries work, you’ll have to maintain your own discipline. This only works if you keep your cool and enforce your boundaries in a dispassionate and collected way. It only works if you enforce the boundaries the same way every time. And it only works if you refuse to give up or cede ground. This is not to say you can’t change the boundaries if your boundaries aren’t tenable. You gotta bend if you’re on the verge of breaking, after all. Just make sure that if the boundaries do change they remain consistent from the reset point and the reason for changing the boundaries is communicated effectively.
Drawing the lines around when your kid can be the manic dancing monkey you love and the mannered eater you need is your optimal way forward. Do it right and you can lavish your kid with the attention he craves with pure abandon, while also ensuring that he knows that there are places to dance and there are places to keep still.