It can be cute and it can be heartwarming. It can create memorable pictures from childhood, such as this photo of me as a little boy dressing up in my father’s business clothes.
But it’s dangerous, too, because a parent with narcissistic tendencies is going to jump at this pint-sized hero worship — and create serious psychological issues for the child and the family.
Since I started studying narcissistic personality disorder 10 years ago, I’ve learned that one of the most important jobs of any parent is teaching his children that each child is an individual with separate worth and personality, not an extension of the parent who must mirror and mimic whatever the parent happens to be.
My father never learned that — and his children paid the price in the decades to come. It’s not a mistake I’ll make with my own children.
When I started learning about narcissism, I was confused by some of the things I read. I had been so close to my own dysfunctional family situation that I couldn’t even comprehend some of what I was reading.
For instance, I read that narcissists have trouble seeing people in their lives as separate individuals. Narcissists tend to see others in their lives — their children or spouses or others who they target as victims — as extensions of themselves.
The narcissist doesn’t see his or her child as a separate individual with his own needs and wants and likes. Instead, the narcissist sees that child as a “mini me” — and he or she unconsciously treats that child just as he or she might if the child were an extension of his or her own body.
I grew up being told that I liked and wanted what my father liked and wanted.
I was supposed to look like him, act like him and reflect well on him. I was supposed to be the new and improved Ed. I might be called David, but he treated me like Ed 2.0. My sisters were subjected to the same treatment, but it was especially intense for me since I was his only son. (In complicated ways, I had it both better and worse than my sisters. I sometimes got preferential treatment, but the expectations for me were entirely different from what he expected of them. But that’s another story.)
When I got to college, pizza was a major discovery for me. When a girlfriend wanted us to get some for the first time, I told her I didn’t like pizza. I had to admit that I had never eaten it, but my father had always told us that we didn’t like pizza.
You see, he expected us to like and dislike the foods which he liked and disliked. He would force us to eat foods which he liked and which we hated. (I could tell you ugly stories about having to eat foods such as turnip greens, which made me physically gag. If a food made me gag and I threw it up, I had to eat the food I had just thrown up.) And if he didn’t like a food, we never even tried it. We were assured that we didn’t like it.
So pizza was a major discovery for me when I found that I loved it. He didn’t like cheese, so we had never even had cheese. I had no idea at the time how abnormal this was.
The same was true with other things. He didn’t like any modern music. He listened to a lot of music, but his tastes quit growing in the mid-’50s. Frank Sinatra was about as recent as his tastes ever got.
So we weren’t allowed to listen to any popular music. We were assured that we didn’t like rock music or other types of pop. It wasn’t that he thought they were evil. He just didn’t like it, so we didn’t listen to it. Until I had a car and started driving regularly, I had heard almost no pop music, so I was ignorant of what was out there. I had a lot to learn, but even after I started discovering new music — and liking a lot of what I heard — I had to sort of hide it from him. He didn’t approve — simply because it wasn’t what he liked.
It was true of humor, too. I once saw a crude bumper sticker on a car — when I was about 13, I suppose — and I snickered at it. (The juvenile humor: “Eat more beans. America needs the gas.”) When he saw what I had laughed at, he was furious — and he told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t that he was afraid I was going to go quoting this at inappropriate times. No, he was offended that I laughed at something which he didn’t find funny.
A narcissist wants a child (or spouse) to be like him in every possible way. He needs his victims to agree with him about everything. He’s deeply hurt if the victim thinks or feels anything different from how he thinks or feels, just as you might be offended if your arm or leg suddenly had a mind of its own — and disagreed with you.
I had no idea how dysfunctional his behavior was.
Even when I was well into my adult years, I didn’t know how this fit into narcissism. In fact, until a psychologist told me about narcissism — and I started reading a lot about it — little about my childhood made sense.
Stop the “Pygmalion project,” to use the memorable phrase of psychologist David Keirsey. Stop acting as though your child needs to be like you or needs to approve of the same things you do or need to think as you do. Teach the child about his or her choices — and explain the choices you’ve made — but let him or her make individual choices about the future.
This can be difficult, especially if there’s something you’ve closely identified yourself with. If my child doesn’t show an interest in writing or other types of artistic expression, I’ll be disappointed, but it’s not my job to turn my child into a writer or a photographer or any of the things I’ve been.
If you were the star athlete, your child might not have an interest in your sport (or any sport). If you were the academic all-star, remember that your child might have entirely different interests. Quit trying to push him or her to become your little clone.
If you push a child to become a “mini me,” you can probably succeed for awhile. By offering the right incentives and praise for doing what you want, you can produce the behavior you want. But you will be training your child to believe he or she has worth only when he or she is like you — and only when he or she is pleasing you.
My father never learned to see me as anything but his son — a “mini me” who he had every right to shape and manipulate as he saw fit. I’ve always resented that and I still struggle with accepting that I have worth just for being myself — and that I have the right to pursue things that will make me happy, not things which would please him.
Being a parent is the toughest job in the world. You are entrusted with a tiny life that will one day go out into the world on his or her own. You have a responsibility to teach that child so much — and it’s easy to confuse teaching what he or she needs to know with teaching the child how to be and act just like you.
I still struggle every day with the issue of whether I have the right — really, deep down — to be myself. I still find myself subtly being pulled back to a more conventional life — because that’s what he wanted for me. Don’t do this to your child. Or your spouse. Or whoever you might turn into a dysfunctional source of “narcissistic supply” just because you weren’t conscious of what you were doing.
Every child is a miracle. Every child is entirely different. Every children can think and feel and be whatever is right for him or her. Honor that miracle. Teach that child that he has worth and dignity whatever he or she turns out to be — even if that is something you would have never chosen.
My father would never have chosen any of my thoughts or feelings or preferences. He tried really hard to block them. But I was miserable trying to make him happy by being anything like him.
Please don’t do to your beautiful child what my father did to me.