Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Adventures in Pop Psychology, Part I: Teenage Narcissism

Sometime around the age of fourteen, perfectly decent and wonderful kids tend to turn rotten. This rotten stage can last...forever. But usually, thank god, it seems to last for six to nine years at most. Then those same kids, now adults, return to being perfectly decent and wonderful human beings.

I know that I was like this. When I think about how awful I was - narcissistic, rude and basically uncaring - in my teenage years, I cringe. My parents should have shoved me in a closet for a few years and thrown away the key. I wasn't fit for public interaction at all. My sense of privilege and entitlement was off the charts. My ability to see beyond my own nose was non-existent.

Those that study such things say that narcissism among teens is on the rise. They tend to ascribe it to the cultural fashion of boosting self-esteem among children. I never understood those boosting efforts. B.S.'ing your kid or your student and making him or her think they possess talent they don't really have is just plain silly. A child should know their strengths and weaknesses. When I was a kid, my teachers told me I stank at drawing. My parents said I drew like an infant. They were right. I have no talent in the visual arts, absolutely zero. Why should someone have lied to me and said otherwise?

But even before this little self esteem boom we've undergone over the last twenty years, teenage narcissism was prevalent. As I watch teenagers today behave just as bad as I did (which is very bad), I've been trying to understand just why. My tendency is to assume that most aspects of our nature represent some optimum for development. Why do I think this? It just seems to fit. It's an assertion really and probably untestable.

For example, think about an infant. At about three months they learn to smile. Why don't they smile right out of the gate? OK, here's my take on it. After a couple of months of sleeplessness and changing diapers, a parent is ready to throw in the towel. It's time to just give that baby up or worse. Life is too short to deal with such mishagoss. And just when you're about to say "enough already!" that little tyke starts to smile at you. Oh my. Now he or she has got you. The timing is just right. Another month or so without that positive reinforcement of a smile and that kid would be off to a baby resale shop.

OK, another few months go by and damn you're still changing diapers and not getting enough sleep. That smile is getting old, way old. You're starting to think "baby resale shop" again. And then what happens? That kid starts to laugh. Oooooh. Now that is something new and cute. Just in the nick of time too!

So my theory is that infant development over the years has been tuned to the patience of the parent. Kids that smiled and laughed right out the gate didn't have any new tricks to show until language development. That's way, way too long a wait. Out they went before they could show their stuff. I know that sounds crazy. And it is. That's what blogs are for after all. Crazy thoughts. And I hope it's funny too in a weird way.

So what about this teenage narcissism? What's its purpose? Well for one, I think it makes it far, far easier for a parent to see their kid leave home. Think about it. If your kid is sweet and wonderful at 18, why would you want to see them go? He or she is your shining beacon of hope. Who wants to let go of a shining beacon of hope?

But if your child is rotten and has been so for four years causing all kinds of havoc at home, well then, how do you feel about your kid leaving for college or to move in with his/her ex-con boyfriend/girlfriend or whatever? Euphoric? You bet. You can't wait to get that kid out of the house. And then when they are 21 or so and are sweet again, you'd like to get them back but it's too late. They're already gone for good.

Again, this is evolutionary tuning at work. Way back when sweet kids never left home. They never went off and had kids in their own caves. Instead they remained dutiful sons and daughters until their parents' dying days. But the rotten ones were different. They went off - "good riddance to bad rubbish!" - during their child bearing years and made babies. Then when they needed help caring for those babies, they got sweet again. The grandparents helped out of course because they were so thankful their kid was nice again. And then those babies eventually smiled. And then they laughed. The cycle kept repeating.

We are the product of behaviors that are optimally timed to allow for the successful propagation of our species. I'm sure there is a crackpot paper in this theory somewhere. And I'm sure that such a crackpot paper has already been written.


Claire said...

Aww. Does this mean you're pining for my return?

fortyquestions said...

Yeah, but mom long ago took over your room with a bunch of sewing stuff,'s not gonna happen. sob sob sob

Angyl said...

The new book "Nurture Shock" discusses some of the studies around the esteem-building programs and such, but I'm not sure yet if it'll reach much audience.