Being Strong is not Narcissism

school cricket

As an educator, I’ve long held certain beliefs that underpin my approach and decision making – particularly the direction that i seek to bring to the schools under my care. One of the strongest of those beliefs is that it was always a mistake for people to suggest that somehow there was a polar choice between an academically oriented education for children or a ‘holistic development’ approach. Rather, I believe that when children are given the appropriate support and guidance they develop the ability to take their strength in one aspect of their life (maybe sport) and turn it in to strength in other areas – e.g. academics, personal relations etc.

In my youth, my favoured sport was rugby. For many years i was tall and willowy and that wasn’t the best build for the game. However, with some good coaches I worked at it, bulked out and eventually reached a reasonable level of performance. Rugby culture has long held a strong orientation around selflessness and orientation around the team. It’s changed a bit these days, but in my day, when a player scored a try he (or she, though girls in the game were rare then) got a brief pat on the back from the nearest colleagues and everyone got in place quickly to get on with the game. There were no fancy celebrations or glorification of the individual. Today, the media wants to make a big issue of the person who dots the ball down at the end, ignoring all that has gone before.

In Delhi, there are a couple of occasions that come to mind when I felt the need to intervene, believing it was important that children be learning the right lessons, not just for sport, but for life. On the first occasion one of our schools was hosting an inter-school cricket tournament. When the final came around, our home team hadn’t got through. As the two teams took to the field, I heard some bad-mannered booing from students beside the field. After a short while, I saw some of them walking around the perimeter of the field, behind the bowler’s arm. This is very off-putting for batsmen. I needed to take them to one side to inform them that they were being very selfish and not treating the finalists with the respect deserved (for beating them to get there!) After some time, I saw a bowler take the wicket of the opposing batsmen. What I then saw was shocking. He ran down the wicket and leered and celebrated right in the face of the disappointed batsman. The two umpires on the field did nothing to stop this disgusting and atrocious behaviour. This might be something these children had seen an idol do on TV, but had no place in school sport. I was probably more shocked by the failure to act on the part of the umpires (school PE teachers). At the change of overs when they came off the field I took them to task, having seen similar behaviour played out a few more times. The umpires seemed surprised at my concern.

To my mind, this is at the very root of the issue between self-belief and narcissism. To be proud that you’re a good cricket bowler is healthy. To be motivated to hone your skills, to work to be the best bowler you can be is all positive and bi-products of grit and a growth mindset. However, reveling in the downfall of the batsmen, belittling them and taunting them is to fall in to negative and unhealthy narcissism. The sad fact here was that the adults, educators couldn’t tell the difference and didn’t see the need to do anything about it.

On another occasion there was a basketball game. As the game got in to the last few minutes the teams were neck and neck. The lead kept changing hands. There was tension and supporters of both teams were shouting encouragement from the sidelines. In the last couple of minutes, one team opened out and maintained a small gap – enough to win. As the final whistle blew the team were ecstatic. They jumped, they whooped, they hugged each other. Except for one boy. I was standing close to the scorer’s table. Instead of joining the huddle with his team mates, he ran towards the table shouting, “How many points did I score?” Before he had the chance to receive an answer, I swiftly took him by the shoulders, turned him around one hundred and eighty degrees, pointed him towards the huddle – “Go and celebrate. The TEAM won!” He got it, smiled sheepishly and ran off excitedly.

When I went to Sharjah to take up a new job our first responsibilities were all about creating a brand new school. In the rushed first weeks i was asked to come up with a ‘strap line’. It was needed very quickly for a document that was going to the printers. We were at a very early stage in the project, so there wasn’t really a big team to consult. I sat down to play with ideas, trying to get to the core of what i saw as most important in terms of core messages I wanted the new school to convey. I slept on the ideas for one night, not convinced that I yet had what I was looking for. I was back on the case next morning. I came up with a lot of ideas, before the one I knew was right came in to my head – “I am me, I am unique.” To me, it was about emphasising personalisation in education and learning to respond to the individual needs of each student. I wanted each student to know their own strengths, leverage those strengths whilst acknowledging those things that were still to work on. When we launched brochures and other materials with this phrase on, it really resonated with parents and students. Teachers also saw what was expected of them in supporting the uniqueness. I clearly remember conversations about how this was not a matter of simply giving them platitudes, telling them they were wonderful etc.

Here is an article that relates to a book putting across the same point. Self awareness and self belief are important attributes for youngsters today. There is, indeed, a narcissism problem largely caused by polar and simplistic thinking. There is a world of difference between growing up understanding that I’m unique or believing that i’m special, entitled and expecting to have everything come my way.

The Guardian – Self-entitled, moi? Teens, narcissism and why ‘special’ and ‘unique’ are different things

The Narcissism of Selfies

I think most of us intuitively know that the near obsessive selfie-taking habits of many youngsters today is far from healthy. However, here’s a writer who sums up the problems with it very neatly;

New York Times Blogs – Well – Is Selfie Culture Making Our Kids Selfish?

Dr Michele Borba has just published her 23rd book, this one particularly exploring the unintended aspects of the selfie culture and what it’s doing to children. In this interview promoting the book she makes some excellent points about the impairment of emotional signal reading when children are having an increasing proportion of their human interaction online where they don’t get to see, read and interpret body language and other non-verbal cues.

She highlights the loss of empathy and caring for others when things become ‘all about me’, when narcissism and the desire to be centre of attention is at the forefront of a child’s actions and their thinking.

Finally, she makes a very strong case for emphasizing kindness and, maybe more important – building the child’s belief that – “I’m a kind person.”

Disconnecting – Not Just for Kids

Do people realise how much their smart phone and other technology has intruded into every part of how they live their lives? Are people acknowledging that for many this has become essentially an addiction, or at least a dependency. What’s more, there are very negative aspects to that dependence. For young people, especially teenagers, they can barely remember a time when technology didn’t have this intrusive, dominating role in their lives. Can they imagine how life would be without it?

This is a fascinating article about a group of students and teachers in a US school who deliberately chose to go ‘cold turkey’ for three days:

KQED Mindshift Article – Teens Disconnect for Three Days

The comments of the students (both those who stuck to the challenge for three days and those who didn’t) are very interesting. firstly, the challenge appeared far greater for some of them than they had anticipated. Some seemed almost surprised at the pleasures that came from engaging properly with the friends, relatives and the world around them instead of burying themselves in their self-absorbed online world.

Tal Ben Shahar (formerly of harvard University) in his books and courses on happiness reinforces repeatedly that the number one predictor of well-being is relationships. Regrettably, what is apparent is that youngsters are mistaking what’s going on online as a form of relationships. However, it’s built on artificiality and people presenting themselves in less than whole manner and engaging with each other in ways that are also not whole. These children who had disconnected found themselves giving more importance to their real, full blown relationships. To cultivate meaningful and successful relationships, we have to open up fully, to invest in them, to give time to them.

When we actually look at the amount of information we’re exposing ourselves to online, the data is shocking and phenomenal. Worse, if we’re really honest with ourselves how much of it was NEEDED? How much of it was really important or of value? How much does it really contribute to our quality of life? If we took that volume of data and put it in to the form of a book, wouldn’t most people immediately claim there’s no way they could find the time in a day to read it, absorb it, engage with it. Yet, millions do, every day.

Here’s another article that shares hard data and research. Firstly, it looks at quantifying those volumes of data. Then it moves on to fascinating studies of what all that exposure means to our brains and the effects of what we’re doing;

Attn – The Impact of Technology on Your Brain

When the article turns to the implications, the first thing made very clear is that there hasn’t yet been enough research – and that it’s needed urgently. However, what there has been is very worrying and we need to take note. Narcissism and reduced empathy have potentially devastating implications, both at the level of the individual but also for the wider society.

Reading the article, I was reminded of earlier things I’d read about Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley company heads and the restrictions they placed on their children’s use of technology. These people work closely enough with the technology to know and understand its potential for harm and the need for balance.

Ultimately, the part of the ‘always on’ life that worries me the most is the way in which it has overridden everything that people already knew about living a healthy and rewarding life. This includes the need to compartmentalise certain parts of the day, to have structure and focused periods of time when we engage in certain activities. If we keep online activity within certain times, it doesn’t need to be half as damaging. It becomes vitally important that we help children to learn and implement these habits and become good role models ourselves.

There’s enough to worry any tech dependant person in these two articles, or those who have such a person they care about. However, I believe the good news is it’s never too late to take control, to do something about it and to prioritise those activities that lead to a productive and meaningful life. Effective organisation of time, the development of self-discipline and continual questioning of our technology use are the best ways to ensure that it becomes our tool and we don’t become enslaved by it.

With that – I’m logging off now for some scheduled tech-free time. back later!

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