All of us want our children to grow up to be compassionate. We want them to contribute positively to the well-being of others, so that they leave the world a better place than they found it.
It's this desire that causes parents to constantly urge children "not to be selfish," to "wait their turn," and to "share" with other children. We believe that the more we demand this of our children, the greater the chance they will develop into selfless adults. Little do we realize that this is highly ineffective.
The problem with commanding and directing our children to share, give and be compassionate is that it has no effect on how they feel internally. And if our children cannot feel this on a deep, internal and authentic level, they will be unable to develop this on a life-long basis.
So, if instruction is not nearly enough, how do we teach a child to develop qualities of true compassion for others? How do we move them away from a narcissistic approach to life?
Many are confused about what narcissism really is. They imagine it refers to a superior sense of self emerging from an excess of self worth, whereas it's just the opposite. Narcissism originates in the child who has not learned to truly value themselves. This child grows up with a feeling of a void inside them. This leads them to develop a false sense of superiority as a way to cope with their inner pain.
It may seem like a paradox, but as a clinical psychologist, I've observed that when our children are taught to connect with their own needs, they quite naturally are able to connect with the needs of others. In other words, caring for another flows from caring for ourselves.
It is this sense of inner attunement and connectivity that is the key to developing a sense of compassionate giving to others. This is where parents need to turn their attention.
When a child consistently experiences in the home the kind of connection we want them to have with others, they grow up able to connect with others. So, if they feel we parents are attuned to their needs, present to their feelings, respectful of them as an individual and supportive of their unique way of being, they quite naturally grow up to be this way with others.
You might think you are "there" for your children. You take them to all kinds of activities, help them with their homework, make sure they have food and clothes they like. Ballet classes at two, math enrichment at five, equestrian training at six. You sit on the edge of your seat at their tennis or soccer matches, eyes swiveling back and forth, not missing a single shot that your darling takes.
And yet, I suggest that despite the intense investment many of us have in our children, we often fail to establish an authentic connection with them. And so they grow up selfish, narcissistic even -- unable to truly connect compassionately with others. Which is why you hear parents bemoan, "Why are they so selfish, when I gave them everything?"
Connection doesn't come automatically with things or activities. It involves real presence with our children -- often without things or activities. And our ability to be present, and therefore connected, has to do with how connected and present we are with ourselves. It is this inner connectivity that helps foster an empathic and compassionate connection to others.
It all boils down to the parent's ability to be connected to their own needs, boundaries and sense of self. From this place of inner attunement the parent will naturally be able to honor and validate their child's sense of self. A child who experiences this moment-to-moment connection will grow up sturdy and full of self-worth. It is this child who will stretch out their arms to others with tolerance, acceptance and compassion. You see, this child has no reason not to. After all, they are brimming with self-love and acceptance; they are unable to withhold this from the world.
The ultimate solution to the problem of childhood narcissism lies within the parent's sense of self-connection, worth and acceptance. A child's capacity to self-love is directly related to its parent's level of emotional integration. Parental evolution then, becomes the hallmark of an enlightened future.
Take a look at my TEDx talk on this topic: