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Ask a Buddhist: Kids and narcissism

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Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

I have studied Buddhism for over 10 years, and it has helped me beyond all measure, but I am not a teacher and I’d like some advice and maybe direction in dealing with a 13-year-old boy. It is the selfish, ego—the I, me, mine—totally absorbed in himself. Do you have any advice in how I can start to change this behavior?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131I parented a teen with similar behaviors to the one you described above, a female though. What I’d like us to consider in this essay are two themes 1) according to the Dharma, we can only liberate ourselves, we can’t transform another person (and if we take a moment to consider the intractability of our own unskillful sankharas—habit formations—it becomes clear that our very best efforts to change ourselves yields slow results); 2) it’s possible that we aren’t raising anyone, but that we are simply in relationship.

Very early on, my two children took on opposite roles, and I know that was no accident. First child: serene, a golden boy, kind and generous, wise beyond his years. So that niche in the family was taken. For his first two years, my husband and I felt quite smug. What’s all the fuss about parenthood? It’s easy. When our second child, our daughter, came along a few years later, she arrived with a totally different temperament, something akin to a force of nature. The first time I felt her move in the womb, she kicked me so hard that I almost fell off a chair. Her first word 12 months later was MORE! Jack Kornfield, a renowned Buddhist teacher, says we are born with a certain temperament— a personality like a set of clothes that we wear our whole life. (As an aside, startling varieties of temperaments are evident so early in infants it compels me to believe in karma—what has been carried forward from an earlier life. But that’s another story. )

A writer friend of mine who has published dozens of books for toddlers is asked parenting advice all the time. Her answer: “It’s the child that makes the parent. We make the mistake in thinking that we are in charge of shaping both the child and the parent-child relationship. It’s much more the other way around.” In the Buddha’s schema, she’s talking about conditionality and that nothing arises independently: if a is present, b will arise (substitute what you will in the parent-child relationship). Her words helped me keep perspicacity and sanity through the years.

Our daughter proved to be our true Dharma challenge and teacher—all our ideals about what great Buddhist parents we would be (calm, fair, loving, patient and never angry) vanished faster than you could say om mane padme om. Utterly humbled, we embarked on our parenting of her like a stubborn fix-it project.  The older she got, the more we felt frustrated: couldn’t she be a little more like her brother so we wouldn’t get so angry? The misplaced focus is obvious now.

In my children’s book on Buddhism, “Kindness,” I tell the story of Patrul Rinpoche, a famous Tibetan monk who often donned rags and wandered about in disguise in order to see people as they actually live their lives. In the story, he comes to a cave of a hermit who, meditating alone for 20 years, believes he has perfected patience. It didn’t take Patrul Rinpoche long to become so annoying to the hermit that his conceit of patience exploded. What if the people and situations that spark our anger, frustration and distress might be our best Dharma teachers? Right in those most painful moments, can we perhaps explore a primary cause of suffering: the delusion of a Self, the delusion of an Other? What’s the nature of our anger? An Other so objectified that she or he looks defective, a necessary repair assignment?

In retrospect, my son was the real anomaly—not even when a toddler did he exhibit selfish behavior, and I sometimes wonder if his suppression of these very human tendencies factored large in a mid-life crisis at 17 years old. My daughter was much more developmentally normal—a parade of all those behaviors mentioned above, especially as she ripened into a teen. Consequences did nothing to amend her behavior that we wanted to change. As all unskillful entanglements prove again and again, as you sow, so shall you reap.  A snarl with my daughter would reverberate for days in my mind. One of the very best aspects of meditation is to provide the inescapable mirror.

The Reader’s Digest version of the way out of our aching entanglement went like this: hubby and I, at our wit’s end, sat in a therapist’s office trying to find a solution to the vexations with our daughter. The therapist listed every consequence in the manual, but we’d already tried every last one. Finally, we realized the one thing we hadn’t tried was unconditional love and we instantly saw that we had just a single year, her senior year of high school, to repair our damaged relationship.

In large part, our shift elicited a 180-degree turn in her behavior. For the first time in many years, she didn’t have to push against the reproaches, implicit and explicit. Just being herself was enough, and enough to let her begin to be reflective, too. Because we were no longer the cause of her sufferings—she had to begin looking inside.  She’s an amazing young woman now—thoughtful,  generous, the most creative person I know, and more tolerant of other people’s foibles, including mine, than I am.

There’s a lot of faith involved in giving up the desire to change a teen’s obnoxious behavior. Other parents reported her polite manners when she visited them. We listened carefully and sighed with relief.  Our community of parents stepped in to hire her as a nanny and sang her praises—both to her and to us. While we floundered in the tough times, to have other adults involved helped incalculably.

But the real faith is that you are providing your teen with an example of an adult struggling to live your values—Buddhist or otherwise—as best you can. The faith has to be that your stepson is watching you and your wife closely. He’s looking to see if you acknowledge your missteps, if you can apologize, if you are ethical, if you are reflective.  I can tell you that when our daughter went off to college and heard other kids’ stories on a 3-week wilderness trip, the first thing she did when she returned to civilization was to call and apologize for being so difficult. She still apologizes. She was indeed watching all along, and even if, like her parents, she couldn’t bring herself to act on her best nature at times, she understood we made every effort.

I’ve interviewed many young adults for a book on the spiritual lives of teens, and the biggest surprise to me was the young men. Every last one of them went through an existential crisis in their teens. Some cut on themselves; many submerged the feelings in video games, sports and the like. Amongst my interviewees, most of the girls seemed able to distract themselves from the pith of the crisis with their social involvements (big generalization here I know), but the boys were in an unacknowledged thicket of deep puzzling. We don’t give teens enough credit for looking around and seeing enormous hypocrisy, injustice, environmental degradation, and adult failings (just to name a few) and wondering what they are about to launch into.  When faced head-on, the micro and macro messes of the world are truly scary and really, what role models of virtue do young adults see on TV, music, or movies? You are the role model he needs and already has. Your wife, your friends and hopefully some of his teachers, too.

My last bit of advice—from one of my interviewees, not me—when there are openings, start talking with him. Start talking ideas, not “what’d you do today? What did you learn?” Give him credit for being an observer and a thinker and a budding philosopher about the meaning of life and a meaningful life. What’s truly important? Even though he may be hiding it well right now with armor that looks a lot like selfishness and snarkiness, know that narcissism always comes from pain. Know that as long as he feels parental disapproval, he will not have to be reflective—in his mind, you will be the cause of every problem. Know that teens arrive at the cusp of adulthood with the same set of questions we spend the rest of our lives wrestling and investigating. When we focus just on behavior, everyone loses the real narratives, the truly important narratives bubbling just below the surface.

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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