I recently saw a question on a teaching forum from a music teacher saying that she has a student who is a genius and has a narcissistic personality. She fears he plays his instrument to get praise and wonders if she should feed into his narcissism by praising him.
I don’t know how this teacher decided her student is narcissistic, but even if he isn’t, any teacher is absolutely right to be concerned about this growing trend among our youth. Yes, research is documenting that narcissistic tendencies are constantly on the rise in our culture.* In an excellent article in “Psychology Today,” Dr. Peter Gray defines narcissism as “…an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others. People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so: often think they are above the law and therefore violate it; and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the “top,” which is where they think they belong.” Dr. Gray goes on to say that: “The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy. Empathy refers to a capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one’s own point of view but also from that of others, to feel others’ joy and sorrow, and to care about others’ wellbeing. Specialists in moral development consider empathy to be the foundation for human compassion and morality.”**
Wow! Does this sound like someone you’d like to live next door to? And yet research tells us that narcissistic tendencies are ever increasing in our young people. Why is this? While I haven’t found any documentation to back this up, one therapist mentioned to me once that people with high IQ’s have more narcissistic tendencies. Is this true? Thus are we all getting smarter and more talented? Or is it that families tend increasingly to encourage highly intelligent or talented children to believe they are better than everyone else, and therefore should feel entitled, because they believe it, too? In an interesting article, Poncie Rutsch*** refers to research that links parental overvaluation of their offsprings’ talents and accomplishments to increased narcissistic tendencies in those children, whether or not the parents were narcissistic themselves. The article also talked vaguely about environment being an influence. Aren’t music teachers an important part of our students’ environment?
So what can we music teachers do to stem this tide – or least not make the situation worse?
First we have to see if we are helping feed into this phenomenon. Ask yourself a few questions:
- Do you feel that some students are better than others?
- Do you feel that some students are worth teaching more than others?
- Do you get excited when a talented or gifted student comes to you for lessons?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be helping your students on the path to increasing their narcissistic tendencies. After all, if YOU think a student is “better” than another and prize talent above all, what are you transmitting to your student AND his parents? Do you think his parents won’t pick up on what you think and reinforce it? Notice the use of the word “think.” You, a teacher, are a transmitter and if you think something, even without saying it, your student and others (even your other students) will get it on some level. If you assign more intrinsic worth to one student over another, you can expect him to do that for himself. So, yes, you have to be careful about what you think.