Teaching Children to Worship Emotion

lost my balloonThe world is full of pointy things and sad situations. It is also a wonderful place. I was first exposed to that lesson as a toddler. It happened after my yellow balloon escaped while I was playing in the back yard.

I was devastated as I watched that balloon float away. I was afraid I would never see it again. My father, God rest his soul, assured me that I was right: it was gone forever. These things happen, I believe he said, and life would go on.

Nobody tried to repair that day’s tragedy. Nobody rushed to buy me a new balloon, nobody tried to distract me from my grief. They helped me put my devastation in perspective and, somehow, I recovered. The lesson that day was not simply that I should “deal with it.” The lost balloon was an object lesson in tolerating the world around me rather than catering to emotion.

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing the roots of narcissism. I’m sure you have met a narcissist or two. He is exploitative, haughty, and preoccupied with his own status. More than anything, the narcissist has a sense of entitlement. He expects to be revered and he demands that things go his way. When he is disappointed, he rages or pouts. The narcissist, my friend explained, never learned to tolerate disappointment. It is a crippling and lonely personality style.

One path to narcissism is an over-protective environment. Parents and educators sometimes prevent children from learning to tolerate disappointment. When the budding narcissist loses a balloon, adults trip over themselves to replace it. They want so much to insulate the child from unpleasant emotions that they teach a very different lesson: your feelings are more important than the world around you.

It seems that with increasing frequency, educational establishments are embracing that perverse lesson. It recently happened in my home state of Colorado when 20-year-old editor J. David McSwane published his infamous “Taser This… F*** Bush” editorial in the Colorado State University student newspaper.

A recent column in McSwane’s paper listed some of the consequences of his editorial: “… everyone will receive pay cuts, a few people’s jobs are on the line, and the paper lost some advertisers.”

Those are real-world, market-driven, costly results. Yet, McSwane will experience very little in the way of tangible consequences. While others are fretting over job security, McSwane will retain his position. According to an October 5th report in CSU’s Collegian, the Board of Student Communications will merely “admonish” McSwane by reminding him of his responsibilities and encouraging him to “modify his behavior.”

I am not suggesting that McSwane is narcissistic. I’ve never met him. I am suggesting that the Board of Student Communications has offered a cruel lesson to McSwane. College is meant to prepare a person for the real world, and the Board has done precisely the opposite. Like the narcissist’s parents, they have shown McSwane that he needn’t be troubled with real-world disappointments. Others will be forced to take the fall for him, and the kid’s all-important feelings will be spared.

His real-world employers, we can be sure, will be far less forgiving of such childish and expensive behavior. Pity that he has been denied the opportunity to experience consequences and disappointment while he still has a safety net.

Teaching a child to respond to emotions first, while neglecting the world and the people around him, sets the stage for emotional difficulties later in life. It is rare that the problem rises to the level of narcissism. More often, depression and anxiety are the result – clinical research suggests that these conditions often accompany an inward focus.

Each time I hear of a field day with blue ribbons for all, teachers insulating children from the “insensitivity” of a game of tag, or the tolerance of unacceptable behavior, I cringe at the recklessness of it. Worshiping at the shrine of emotion may be well-intentioned, but denying a child one of life’s most valuable lessons is cruel nonetheless.


Hedge, A. (October 5, 2007). Collegian editor will keep his job. The Rocky Mountain Collegian Online. Downloaded October 12, 2007 fromhttp://media.www.collegian.com/media/storage/paper864/news/2007/10/05

Nowell, R. (September 24, 2007). Editorial incites furor; Gavin Rossdale swears vengeance. The Rocky Mountain Collegian Online. Downloaded October 12, 2007 fromhttp://media.www.collegian.com/media/storage/paper864/