The killer narcissist

Could Therapy Culture Help Explain Elliot Rodger’s Rampage? asks Brendan O’Neill on Reason. The 22-year-old started therapy at age 8 and reportedly was seeing multiple therapists while living in Santa Barbara and plotting “retribution.”

. . . he was full of self-regard, was incredibly self-obsessed, and was utterly outraged when people, especially women, didn’t treat him with the love and respect he felt he deserved.

Could Rodger’s fury at the world for failing to flatter his self-image as a good, civilized guy be a product of the therapy industry, of the therapy world’s cultivation of a new tyrannical form of narcissism where individuals demand constant genuflection at the altar of their self-esteem?

Therapy’s children are “invited to focus” on their inner selves rather than the world around them, writes O’Neill.

We see it in university students who want to ban everything that they think harms their self-esteem, because they’ve been educated to see any attack on what they think and how they feel as utterly unacceptable. We see it in the growing cult of self-revelation and the search for validation on social networks like Twitter, where individuals’ frenetic tweeting and their desperate desire for that all-important retweet speaks to the reorganization of society around the need for recognition, the need for an “admiring audience” to make the self feel puffed up. And we potentially see it, in its most extreme form, in Elliot Rodger, the son of therapy . . .

In his murder manifesto, Rodger complains that people’s attitudes towards him “really decreased my self-esteem. . . . if they won’t accept me… then they are my enemies.”

And then he makes the key cry of our therapeutic era: “It’s not fair. Life is not fair.”

Watch Rodger’s video. The most alarming thing is how cool and well-spoken he is. This is a man used to talking about himself, following years of practice in therapy sessions. Clearly having decided to have a love affair with himself, Rodger terrifyingly declares: “I am the closest thing there is to a living god… Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent, divine!”

He’s not a religious nut, writes O’Neill. “It’s a therapeutic thing.”

You might call Rodger a homicidal narcissist. His own life has supreme value. Nobody else matters.

Does “therapy culture” turn loners into enraged sociopaths?

Shame can be educational

Shame can be used as well as abused, writes Julia Steiny

Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming. . . . when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires.  Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester.  Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.

Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist.  Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort.  But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized.  They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.

Learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family, says Australian criminologist John Braithwaite.  “Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.” Children learn to control their impulses.

Parents who rely on humiliation to force the behavior they want tend to raise delinquents, he says. The “parents do all the work of controlling behavior.”

“Shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil,” Steiny concludes.

Sure, let ‘em all be winners

Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy? asks Alfie Kohn in the New York Times. In a column adapted from The Myth of the Spoiled Child, he defends “participation” trophies for all — if we must have competitions with winners and losers. “Grit” lovers who think kids should earn rewards and honors want children to be miserable now to prepare for the miseries of adulthood, Kohn believes. They think children shouldn’t “be allowed to feel good about themselves” without “tangible accomplishments.” Conditioning approval on children’s behavior is a big mistake, he argues.

 (According to research), when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.” Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short.

I think Kohn confuses parents’ unconditional love of their children with the world’s opinion of other people’s children. If Mom and Dad love their kids only when they score the winning goal or ace the test, that’s a serious problem. Children need to feel lovable.

But kids who grow up thinking that everything they do — however ordinary — will be cheered by non-family members are going to be very frustrated adults. And they won’t have the grit to deal with frustration and keep on going.

Outside your family, who think you’re wonderful just the way you are, the world is just not that into you.

When I was an adolescent, I found it comforting that the world did not revolve around me. It was less responsibility.

‘Incredibly good’ is bad for kids

Lavish praise makes kids who aren’t confident less likely to pursue challenges, according to a study titled That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful.

Honest praise is just fine, writes Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. But adults often heap compliments on children with low self-esteem.

In one study, Dutch children were asked to rate their confidence. Later they were told to copy a famous painting, which would be evaluated by a “famous painter.” There were three random responses to the child’s painting: “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise); “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise); or no comment about the drawing at all (no praise).

The researchers . . . asked the children to make a new drawing and let them pick their subject: either a complex drawing or a simple one. It turned out that the students with low self esteem were less likely to do a complex drawing if they’d received inflated praise. “Compared to non-inflated praise, inflated praise decreased challenge seeking in children with low self-esteem,” the researchers wrote.

In another study, parents gave more inflated praise to children with low self-esteem than they did to children with high self-esteem.

 “Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well.  They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”

Confident children can handle excess praise, researchers said.

Coddled kids vs. high standards

Common Core’s critics — “right-wing alarmists” and “left-wing paranoiacs” — have been joined by parents who think higher standards are too stressful, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. Are Kids Too Coddled? he asks.

Stress is “an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper,” writes Bruni. And school isn’t going to be fun all the time.

Higher standards are traumatizing children, according to New Yorkers at the state’s Common Core hearings.

One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”

A social worker testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.

A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”

“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause.

If children really are falling apart, writes Bruno, maybe it’s because they’ve been protected from blows to their egos. They’ve won trophies for participation. They’ve made “bloated honor rolls.”

“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.” Our global competitors are tougher.  “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”

It’s those white suburban moms.

Mom: Take my son off the honor roll!

When Beth Tillack’s son made the middle-school honor roll, she demanded he be removed. He’d made a D in civics, a C and three A’s.

“The bottom line is there is nothing honorable about making a D,” the Pasco County, Florida mom told a local news station. “I was not happy, because how can I get my child to study for a test when he thinks he’s done enough.”

As a result of her protest, the policy will be changed:  Students who earn a C or below will not be eligible for the honor roll.

“It makes my job at home so difficult,” Tillack said of the current policy. She took away her son’s iPod as punishment for the D. He claimed making the honor roll showed he should get it back. This didn’t work.

Core to kids: You’re not so smart

At an Albany middle school, angry parents told New York Commissioner of Education John King what they thought of the new Common Core standards, writes Marc Tucker on Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog.

Kathryn Biel described her fourth-grade son’s response when he came home from Forts Ferry Elementary School in the North Colonie school district.  “New York State thinks we’re stupid.  We did not pass the test,” Biel said recounting his frustration and loss of self-esteem.  Deirdre Kelly, whose children attend Albany School of Humanities, said she is opting her children out of the testing and will urge other parents to take the same action.  “It hurts them. They go home feeling bad,” said Kathy Neuffer, a teacher at Greenville Central School District in Greene County.  “The new curriculum is not enjoyable,” said Reeve Churchill, age 13, an eighth-grade student at Myers Middle School.

U.S. parents and students expect school to be easy and fun, writes Tucker. “We are reaping what we’ve sown.”

Over the last 20 years or so, the reading grade level of upper division high school textbooks has fallen from 11th and 12th grade to 8th and 9th grade.  We have seen widespread grade inflation in our high schools.  When our children get to college they can expect more of the same.  At many, perhaps most institutions, B+ is, in effect, the lowest passing grade, and, in many institutions, college administrators effectively prevent college instructors from giving grades lower than that except in rare cases.  The record shows that our colleges are providing fewer and fewer hours of instruction with every passing year and students are spending less and less time studying.  But they still get the same degrees.

. . . Consistently given higher and higher grades for ever-more-mediocre work, our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess.

“It feels a lot like the housing market before the market crashed and brought on the Great Recession,” writes Tucker.

In Asia, especially in Korea, parents push their children to work hard in school, he writes. Standards are rising. Students expect they’ll need to work hard to get ahead.

The Common Core is our best chance to face reality, Tucker concludes.

Responding to the challenge is going to require both students and teachers to work a lot harder.  It may not be fun.  Maybe New York State does not think you are so smart because you have not demonstrated that you know and can do what millions of kids in other countries know and can do at your age.  Maybe it’s time to do something about that instead of reflexively doing what we have always done—lowering the standards, once again.

Comments?

Tough teachers are the best

book

Tough teachers teach more, writes Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.

The book is a paean to Jerry Kupchynsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who taught orchestra at a New Jersey high school for 40 years.  He “called his students ‘idiots’ when they screwed up.” They loved him.

Today’s teachers “are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads,” writes Lipman. “There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

Mr. K’s former students were successful in a variety of fields.

 “He taught us discipline,” explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. “Self-motivation,” added a tech executive who once played the cello. “Resilience,” said a professional cellist. “He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again.”

Lipman believes in eight principles of learning.

1. A little pain is good for you.
2. Drill, baby, drill.
3. Failure is an option.
4. Strict is better than nice.
5. Creativity can be learned.
6. Grit trumps talent.
7. Praise makes you weak . . .
8. While stress makes you strong.

Plenty of today’s teachers are strict, demanding character builders, responds Nancy Flanagan, a veteran music teacher. “Tough teachers get good results . . . when their students are emotionally prepared for intensive criticism,” she writes.

Lipman is a big fan of injecting failure into the classroom. Educators, she says, need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers, and cites a study where college musicians who placed low in auditions suffered no harm to their self-esteem.

Hey, I’ve no problem with voluntary competition–winning and losing on the volleyball court or the debate floor, vying for roles in the school play or college musical ensembles. I have witnessed first-hand, however, the corrosive effects of turning the classroom into a playing field, and every lesson and assignment into a contest. I abandoned the familiar practice of seating my band students in ability-based “chairs,” with these results: more kids in the program, more students accepting the challenge of individual solos and ensembles, higher levels of performance.

Students “who have coped with failure and adversity from the outset” are motivated by “a little honest success,” writes Flanagan. “Not more stress.”

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. “If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”

With no soccer ball, every child ‘wins’

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are runnign wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

According to the Soccer Association of Midlake, kids imaginations are running wild. (Steve DePolo/FLICKR)

Worried about too much competition, many Canadian youth soccer associations no longer keep score, reports This is That, a CBC radio show. Removing the soccer ball is even better, according to the Soccer Association of Midlake, Ontario.

Without a ball, “it’s absolutely impossible to say ‘this team won’ and ‘this team lost’ or ‘this child is better at soccer than that child,’” said Helen Dabney-Coyle. “We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.”

Is this for real? No, it’s satire. But it’s eerily close to plausible.