When a six-year-old boy announced a few years ago to me and the other children in my home daycare, "I'm the most special kid here because the moon follows me wherever I go!" I immediately returned the serve, "Actually, it follows all of us. It just looks like it follows everyone because it's so big in the sky that we all can see it wherever we go."
Why, you may wonder, did I have to pop the poor kid's charming little bubble? Well, I knew this child, and I knew he already believed he was king of the world (So there, Leonardo DiCaprio!) and that the world revolved around him. I also knew that he was lonely and unhappy because he didn't get along with anyone other than me and the kids he grew up with in my daycare.
By the time he was eight years old, and no longer in my daycare, he spent all of his time either at school or at home. At school the teachers disliked him, and the other children wouldn't play with him. At home, the older siblings who were held responsible for him, but who were expected to cater to his imperial whims and were given no authority over him, couldn't stand him because he had made a career out of lording it over them and tattling on them (usually falsely) whenever he wanted to get them into trouble. Naturally, they avoided him as much as they could.
And then there was his high-pitched, nasal whine, the voice of perpetually outraged entitlement.
Even at age six he was a self-centered little tyrant, and so his latest claim to superiority over all other children did not sit well with me at all. I lost no time in pulling the plug on his delusions.
Funny thing, though. This boy really is special. I raised over thirty children during the eighteen years that I ran a home daycare, and I never encountered another as intelligent, talented, and creative as he. But this child--let's call him Jimmy--did not feel special for being so smart and talented. He felt special because he had been told repeatedly how very special (i.e., better than everyone else) he was by parents who were always too busy to take him to a park or a movie or otherwise spend time with him.
You see, it's far more time-efficient to tell a child he's special than it is to actually interact with him in a way that shows how much you like him and delight in his company. If his parents had had more of a relationship with Jimmy, they might have enjoyed real conversations with him. (When he wasn't bragging, whining, or tattling, he was actually a great little conversationalist!) But instead, their verbal interactions with him were on the fly (e.g., while driving him to the daycare or to school), and there was only time for a dose of Aren't you wonderful!" blather during those brief periods of parent-child contact. How could his parents have known how special he really was? They hardly knew him at all.
But I don't think the way Jimmy's parents interacted with their son was all that unusual. Most of the adults in our society seem to think that the only way to interact with children is by ladling on praise in unctuous tones (in modern parlance, "sucking up"). Any adult who is firm or objective (or, God forbid, even a bit critical when the occasion warrants it) is considered unkind, unloving, or unenlightened.
But all these petted and praised youngsters are being set up for a fall, because the rest of the world is not going to feel obligated to continue bolstering their self-esteem in the absence of character traits or accomplishments that evoke genuine admiration and respect. Just thinking of oneself as special and deserving of love is no way to persuade anyone else to adopt the same assessment of one's worth, after all!
So am I suggesting an end to "positive reinforcement"--even a return to psychological and verbal browbeating and belittling? Nope. We've been there, done that--and that is why we as a society over-reacted in the 60's and 70's to the point of treating the individual and the fulfillment of his potential as the primary, even the sole, purpose of existence.
But we are not isolates. Even as individuals we are situated in a social context, for we are, after all, a social species. Political and social philosophers from Aristotle on have insisted that a human being reaches his full potential only in a social and political context.
I am inclined to agree. In the movie Antz, we are meant to laugh when the psychiatrist tells Z, who complains about feeling so insignificant, that he's reached a breakthrough: He really is insignificant. In a sense, of course, you don't want a child to believe that about himself--and yet, in another sense, it is actually true, and he might be better off facing that reality than deluding himself that the world revolves around him. In fact, one of the shortest and most direct paths to misery is the one marked by self-absorption.
One of my favorite sayings is that maturity is achieved on the day when all of one's mirrors turn into windows. My fear for Jimmy and the other self-centered, spoiled (yet, paradoxically, lonely and neglected) children that I see everywhere these days is that they will spend the rest of their lives in a prison-house of mirrors--and that can't be good, either for them or for the society comprised of such individuals.