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Raising Millennials

May 28, 2013 | by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

How to instill empathy and sensitivity in an age of narcissism and entitlement.

Waiting on line for a salad, I observe the two teens in front of me. They take their iced coffees but before they drink there is a ritual. They stick their straws into their mouths, stand cheek to cheek, and make identical exaggerated faces. They hold their iPhone a few inches away and click. As they check out their image they giggle together. Their picture is out in cyberspace.

Welcome to the iGeneration. We have iPhones, iPads, and iPods that accompany our kids throughout their waking hours. They fight sleep as their text messages ping through the night. Everyone is posting their parties, vacations and hourly location on Instagram; you need to be sure that you can keep up. Sometimes that means embellishing because FOMO (fear of missing out) is real. You are not really popular unless you have hundreds of facebook friends and maybe even a twitter following. You have grown up watching reality TV shows and are confident that you, too, can become a celebrity. You can turn yourself into a brand. All you need is a great You Tube clip and overnight you will become a sensation.

Age of Narcissism

Here is some shocking hard data Time magazine recently presented in their article, “The Me Me Me Generation” about millennials – those born between 1980—2000:

  • The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20’s as for the generation that’s now 65 and older.
  • 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.
  • One third of adults under 30, the highest percentage ever, are religiously unaffiliated.
  • Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years despite performance.
  • They are fame obsessed. They are convinced of their own greatness.
  • They are their own moral guides. 60% believe that they will always just feel what’s right in a situation.

When I read this I am reminded of the mother who raised her hand during class with a great parenting tip she hoped to share:

“A famous politician changed the way we bring up our son. He said that he believes that he became so successful because as a child his parents would always applaud him. So now every morning when our son comes down to the kitchen, my husband and I applaud. ‘Hooray for Noah!’ we say, and then we clap. We feel that we are really giving Noah the gift of self-esteem.”

I was floored. How can we applaud a child for simply waking up in the morning and walking into the kitchen? This is not the gift of self-esteem; it’s creating a monster.

From their earliest memories these kids have been told that they are ‘special’ and ‘amazing’. They have worn T-shirts that proclaim them to be princesses, stars and fashionistas. Parents and grandparents hang on to their every word and post their daily toilet training schedule on Facebook. Is it any wonder that they expect the world to be about them?

Along with narcissism, this generation has become famous for their sense of entitlement.

And what happens when these kids grow up and realize that relationships and careers are all about sweating and giving? When your baby wakes up crying at 3am, there is no one applauding you. When your child needs you to hold her hand and you are scared and frightened yourself, no one is telling you how awesome you are.

Arrogance and Entitlement

Along with narcissism, this generation has become famous for their sense of entitlement. Do not think for a moment that this is a challenge that only wealthier parents must grapple with. It is not a question of ‘rich-kid’ problems. Time reports that “poor millennials have even higher rates of narcissism, materialism and technology addiction.” No one is safe.

Think about it. When you need to figure something out on your new iPhone or need help with an app, whom do you turn to? Usually it is your kids. After a while, these sons and daughters start rolling their eyes at their parents whom they see as ignorant and ‘left behind’. It is difficult to respect somebody if you feel superior to them, especially if that somebody is your parent. This leads to incredible chutzpah and arrogance.

Our children are mostly interacting with their friends and peers. Parents are often shut out and have no idea what their children are up to. I have spoken to parents who were shocked when they discovered secret Facebook accounts, scandalizing pictures on Instagram, and parental blocks that were somehow bypassed. For some teens, it is a world devoid of adult wisdom. Imagine arriving to your 20’s and missing out on years of guidance and inspiration. There is simply a lack of communication. Screen time with peers has overtaken family time. Even when you are out in a restaurant or together on a family trip, your teen’s eyes are not on you. If he is skilled he can text and maintain eye contact at the same time. We are alone-together.

What Can We Do?

No Screen Zone: The first thing we must do is recognize the problem. When parents, themselves, sit at a breakfast or dinner table and keep half an eye on the screen, they are setting an awful example. We cannot expect more from our children than we do from ourselves. We need to establish a ‘no screen zone.’ This means that meal times at home and while in a restaurant be set aside as family time.

The same goes for picking up kids from school or while doing an activity with them. Even our toddlers sit in their strollers scrolling through an iPad. Older siblings are shocked when they realize how easily their younger brothers and sisters maneuver their devices. We are quickly becoming disconnected from the ones we are supposed to be sharing our lives with. When children see that we are more interested in the person on the other side of the screen, it will not take long for them to get the message that they are number 2. They will also infer that tuning out from family is totally acceptable behavior. It is not.

Nurture Empathy: Next, we should work on encouraging our children’s ability to feel empathy. We can counter the narcissism if we ignite the spark of sensitivity and compassion that lies within each child’s heart. Allow children to see that this world is not just about them.

The other week a group of teen girls and their moms who study with me came to my home. After doing a ‘spring cleaning’, they carried huge bags of winter coats that their families had outgrown. We joined with two women who send packages to Israel at this time of year, for children who have to share coats with their siblings that are often too large or too small. The girls were shocked to hear about other kids their age that must battle the freezing cold without warm coats and would cry tears of joy when they receive their packages. This coming winter at least they will be warm.

We can encourage our children to use their technology and connections to better this world.

We can encourage our children to use their technology and connections to better this world. We can pierce the bubble of self-pride and teach them to think beyond themselves. Imagine if instead of just snapping photos of their drinking iced coffees, they would share pictures of their joining together as they organize community bike drives, marathons, or bake sales for charity. This generation has the world at its fingertips. They can connect to hundreds of peers in an instant. They are driven when they want to be, empowered by their optimism and knowledge. Why not use these gifts to accomplish greatness?

Set Limits: There is no doubt that we are growing more addicted to our devices each day. (How many times did you check your emails while reading this article?) It is difficult to do any activity without our phones nearby. When kids do homework and try to study while constantly checking their messages, their school work becomes affected. When they stay up late through the night answering ‘just one more’ text, their ability to concentrate in class the next day is impeded. We need to firmly set limits. Phones cannot be used throughout the night. Nor can they become part of homework and studying time. This is about self-discipline and self-control. And for those who wonder how they can enforce these rules – we cannot fear setting limits in our homes. This is where effective discipline and natural consequences come in.

Taste of Shabbos: While trying to conquer this growing addiction, we have been blessed with a built in formula for success. Once a week we have been given an incredible gift to reconnect with our families. No phones, no iPads, no iPods. Only Shabbos candles dancing and precious family time. I know that each week I look around my Shabbos table and am so grateful that I have been given this opportunity to shut off all the stress and pressure of the past few days. We laugh, we speak, we bond and we rediscover the magic of our family.

We know that all this technology has introduced a new world to our children. It is a world where anything is possible. I am sure that this next generation will make life-changing discoveries. How they use their abilities to see beyond themselves and better our universe is our challenge.

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