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.
Of course there is nothing wrong with having special or different qualities, i.e., gifts or talents. But different is just that: different. Red is different from green but isn’t better than green. Just better in certain circumstances for certain uses, but not intrinsically better. The same thing with students. There isn’t one who is better than another. There is however, one who practices better than another or plays in tune better, but that doesn’t make him better, just the way he plays. You play better – either because you work harder or you are more talented than someone else – therefore you are better just doesn’t and, above all, shouldn’t follow. And we teachers can try to make sure of this.
Here are a few basic rules:
- No matter how tempting, don’t see a talented student as “better.” (And it can be really tempting!) See him as another type of teaching challenge, a huge responsibility with problems different from your less talented pupils.
- Praise your student ONLY for what he does well and only when he deserves it, ie., has made a special effort to improve some technical or musical point.
- Don’t tell your student how talented he is. Never praise him for being talented. You may say, as most students realize they have talent all by themselves and sometimes with help from the family, that talent is a responsibility and not something to be proud of. It’s what you do with your talent and how much you help other people with it that’s important.
- Make sure all your students, narcissist-tending or not, know what it means to play with a group and do what’s best for the group instead of themselves, even if that means playing third violin (because the group needs a more experienced violinist there) instead of first.
- Remind your students that playing music is not to show how great they are (although a bit of that is necessary to get up onto the stage), but to do something positive for others and for the universe in general. Those sound waves go all over the place and you never know where they wind up. That doing your best to play well is a responsibility that a musician has to others.
- Try not to send your young students to competitions. Winning isn’t the point of playing music. Developing intuition, empathy and learning to play with others is. I have been forced (by parents) to send some students to these competitions and I have never seen a positive result even when they win. Being better or even playing better than someone else is not what young children should be thinking about. It’s too easy for a student to make the leap from “I did well” to “Gosh I’m good!” And therein lies the danger.
- Make sure the parents are on the same page. Most parents want to do what’s right for their children and take their cue from you. If you make a big fuss about talent, they will too. If you explain that it’s important for talented children not to get a swelled head, I have found that they will listen.
Doing something for praise is fine – often that’s how we convince our small students to practice. It’s the conclusions our students draw from the praise we give and the value we give their talent that can be a problem. We have to help our students see their place in the world as part of it: that their talents and capacities are responsibilities and possibilities to do good for others and to value more what they do than what they are. We have to try anyway or we risk contributing to a growing lack of empathy that will have serious consequences for society in general.
Post author: Eloise Hellyer
*http://personality-testing.info/tests/NPI/ Take this test yourself. It can be illuminating. Also there are some graphs at the end and other resource information that show the statistics of increasing narcissistic tendencies.
**Peter Gray, PhD. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201401/why-is-narcissism-increasing-among-young-americans