Nancy Reagan is often quoted for her “Just Say NO” campaign. This was a campaign aimed at encouraging young people to not flirt with drug usage. I want to steal her words, and take them completely out of context. This is article is not about drug use except in the most indirect way. It is about parental responsibility. It is about strategies that are necessary to do our job as parents. So with apologies to Ms. Reagan, I will say that it is important for parents to say no to their children. Sometimes randomly, sometimes deliberately, but sometimes it is necessary for parents to challenge the grandiose narcissism of the infant.
When children are born they have a primitive personality. They are oriented towards openness and warm to others, or they are placid and slow to respond to others. They can be cooperative and willing to please, they can be stubborn and willful and they are all totally self absorbed in the universe which consists of themselves and their servants. They live in a world of “I.” They exist in a symbiotic and dependent state where their “object,” usually the mother, is supposed to intuitively know what they want and need and satisfy their needs and desires. Their mothers are an enslaved extension of the ego of the narcissistic child.
As children grow and develop, they gradually learn that the world is not an extension of their own reality which they can manipulate to satisfy all their desires. Part of the challenge of parenting is to facilitate this burgeoning awareness, help the child defeat his own internal grandiosity and learn to face the world as it really is. This process is called socialization. It is the job of the parent to socialize the child, to help them learn how to control their basic personality and layer on adaptive skill sets of impulse control, anger management, self discipline and the ability to delay gratification. Children who do not learn these essential critical skills will always struggle in life and be unhappy and aggrieved. They will not understand why the world beats them down and does not satisfy their cravings and desires. They will be angry and depressed because it is not working the way it is supposed to work. These children will not know how to fight back and make their way.
I once had a client who told me that he had always needed a force to push against. He needed goals to strive for and the discipline to challenge himself against those obstacles and conqueror them. He was articulating a worldview that I strongly embrace and endorse. Life is a challenge and an adventure. The only way through it is through it. We will all lose, we will all get hurt. We cannot escape unscathed. It is how we handle these losses and adjust ourselves that makes the difference. It matters what our orientation towards challenge and survival is. Do we endure life? Do we suffer and wait patiently for it to take us wherever it takes? Do we have any choice or option that allows us to manipulate or change the course of our path through life or can we only live in a deterministic and predetermined way? The question that each of us must answer for ourselves is; are we victims of life or are we players? Will we push against the tide and try to swim in a direction of our choosing or will we just float with the current and be witnesses to our own unfolding?
Parents have a responsibility to frustrate the narcissism of the infant in graduated, limited ways. The reason for this is to put the infant into a situation where their desires are not gratified and they become agitated and frustrated. It is through the adaptation they make to deal with their frustration that children learn to control their impulses and to manage their anger in more productive ways. Anger is original issue equipment. We all have it, we all experience it. It is impossible for us to never experience anger. The challenge for us is to learn how to manage our experience of and reaction to the anger that we feel. If we do not find socially acceptable and productive ways to express and or use our anger, our anger will destroy us and sink our opportunities. If we learn to harness the energy of anger and direct it through self -disciplined and skillful use of our will we can accomplish much. We improve our odds and our chance of ultimate success. If we do not master this elemental emotion (not fully, not always, but generally) we will always be a “victim of circumstances.”
One of the skills we learn when parents frustrate our grandiosity by saying “NO” to us is the development of the skill of a self-soothing behavior and strategy. We all need self-soothing skills. When our ego and our sense of self is wounded, when we are hurt, angry, or upset, we need ways to help us absorb the agitated energy and dissipate it in ways that ultimately allow us to adapt and bend so that we can find another path towards our goals. We have to learn to adapt. We have to learn to change, we must be able to redirect and pursue our goals with determination, energy, and skill.
So essentially, the message is that loving responsible parents must say no to their children. They must frustrate the grandiose narcissism of the infant in controlled, tolerable, limited ways so that the child is not overwhelmed or destroyed. I am not advocating a fascist highly disciplined dark environment that beats the child into defeat and submission. I am talking about an energized, supportive, embracing family life where children are told no in deliberate, limited, directed ways as a teaching tool that helps them learn to ride the waves of their emotions, utilize the intelligence of their intellect and develop skill sets that help them harness their energy in productive, growth oriented directions that will lead them to a path of happiness and empowerment. We will equip them to face the challenges of life and roll the dice every day. We want them to do what my client said, to get up and push against the forces of life to try to mold it into a sculpture of our making and not ever settle for just enduring and being a passenger in the back seat of our own lives. We want them to learn to drive. We help them get into the drivers seat by starting when they are very young to say no to them and to frustrate them with love and support, and then help them learn self-soothing strategies and skills. We need to model for them how we manage our anger and our impulsivity. We need to demonstrate visibly how we delay gratification in order to achieve larger goals. We need to let them know when we are in pain and fail. Because when they know this they see us get up again and push forward. We all hurt, we all lose, we all fail. By modeling the reality of this, and teaching our children by example how to overcome failure, how to embrace the joy and challenge of life and ride the waves in an adaptive way, we help them get ready for their own race. Our job is to prepare them to run the race, and then step back and let them run it while we cheer our hearts out.
So, just say no.