When the researchers who discovered children’s “mental leaps,” which eventually got put into the book, The Wonder Weeks, did so, they found them because they watched as female primates pushed male primates away when their young started to act up. The males were grumpy and irritable around the boisterous young, and the females simply pushed them away. What the researchers discovered is that at predictable age-related times, the young primates went through mental “leaps.” This is a time when a young primate falls apart for some time, but on the other side of this period of disarray, they have an astonishing new skill set. While the young were going through this, the females pushed the males away to allow the young to act out and “misbehave” all they wanted, without interference from the male, who was otherwise irritated by the behavior. The researchers thought that maybe human babies went through these same leaps, and it turns out: they did. Their work documents 10 mental leaps through the first 18 months of life.
I propose all of our parenting is authoritarian and despotic–and society is severely broken–because we don’t understand this. We don’t understand children’s developmental stages, for one. But worse, and perhaps the root of this, is that we decided that when it comes to parenting, “Father knows best.” We decided that instead of letting the female push the male away, which is an enormous act of power, that this Grumpy Gorilla is actually the wise one. And because this Grumpy Gorilla has no biological instinct about how children develop, he decided this “misbehavior” is wrong and thus the goal of parenting is to “discipline” children to be calm and behave.
I can already tell this will raise the ire of people. So I will say, first: I have met some excellent fathers. They are typically “highly sensitive” men, which is proven to correlate to quality parenting. Highly sensitive people make up 20% of the population. It is as described in Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Sensitivity is marked by processing events deeply. A sensitive parent responds to the cues of a young child, taking the child’s feedback into consideration. This is critical for quality parenting, although opposite of what current thought says is critical for parenting, which insists, indeed, on “discipline.” I have also met men who make pretty good fathers, even though they aren’t sensitive or naturals at it. I find they are ones who are willing to accept input from women on how to parent.
However, in that our society decided that men are better and should be in a position of power, this phenomena more than exists. Feminists have long written about it. We ubiquitously believe that men are wiser and that the natural path is for children to “break free” from otherwise smothering mothers. The issue is not that men are “bad.” I am perfectly willing to work around Grumpy Gorilla–or fully embrace Sensitive Gorilla–it’s that men, on a whole, have been blindly given power. The father runs the house. He commands the woman, who commands the children. This is completely backwards of what it needs to be. The older generation should act as servants to the younger ones, delicately handling them and nurturing them. And the issue isn’t entirely that men were given power. It’s that women were stripped of theirs.
I do age-related child development research. I also document these age-related times that children act up. My work starts at 18 months and currently goes up to 8 years. You can see it at the main page of this website. My work is used by tens of thousands every month, and, if notes to me and books sales are any indicator, this number is growing. I get several notes per week from mothers all over the world (it is, 100% of the time, mothers) who tell me how much it helps them. My book series on it is called, “Misbehavior is Growth.”
My argument is that these age-related stages are an instinctual call to adults. The child becomes outright demanding at these times. I say: go to them. They aren’t “being bad.” Don’t punish them. And don’t “ignore” them either. They need you. We are, after all, mammals. We are meant to be near our parents for some amount of time, in an attached relationship, as we learn necessary skills.
So, this interface is what matters. When children become irritating, it is in a woman’s instinct to go to the child. She sees it as something to console and deal with as she roots around to find out what’s going on. The Grumpy Gorilla, however, by biological instinct, does not see it this way. It just plain irritates him. He sees it as something to squash and repress. And this has been the advice for decades: “ignore” children’s stages. It is done not to bring calm to the situation but specifically so the child “learns.” Men, in general, want to conquer nature. They want to vanquish threats. This has its role in human survival. But not when it comes to child raising. This irritating behavior is something to lean into. Children are not manipulatively seeking “attention.” They are seeking rightful, sorely needed connection. Give it to them.
Molding the Breed
As Grumpy Gorilla is irritated by children, he invents this idea that children need to be “disciplined.” He feels entitled, by birthright, to a calm and pleasant environment. As he is in a fight with human nature, this has to be enacted through punishment. A distant relative in my family lineage, long ago, kept a belt in the front of his house. It was a constant reminder to everyone living there, including his wife. This “belt” is what gives Grumpy Gorilla his reign.
This view ultimately stems from our relationship to emotions. When children act out, they are highly “emotional.” All the emotions: anger, fear, sensitivity, silliness, and indeed cleverness, cheekiness, and joy. But, in the eyes of an authoritarian, these are things to dominate and control. Hence you have the idea, from virtually all patriarchal thinkers, that emotions are to be “programmed.” This stems from the idea that our emotions are willy nilly things not to be trusted. Emotions, to them, at the very least are given second class status. This is why I wrote Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Objectivism, a 20th century philosophy started by Ayn Rand, a woman who calls herself a “male chauvinist,” is based on this very idea that our whims are unreliable, that our emotions need to be “programmed” (the idea of tabula rasa, blank slate theory itself), and that we need a civilizing ethics, because, indeed, our emotions might guide us all wrong. I argue emotions are not programmable, and our emotions can guide us well, if we take care of ourselves. Emotions just are. They are prewired. They are in fact feedback; just as children’s highly demanding, highly emotional age-related stages are feedback. The only way to force emotions to do what you want them to is through some kind of abuse to your inner core -or- punishment to yourself or others.
This is why I write so passionately about this topic. I think deep views on emotions and human nature must be challenged in order for us to stop trying to “discipline” children. Children are already designed well. We nurture them and mentor them, but they do not fundamentally need altered into anything different. And it’s the exact view of tabula rasa that leads to this idea of transformation. This is Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s “intellectual heir,” stating exactly what tabula rasa (blank slate theory) does:
“The idea of education is to take a tabula rasa (someone born blank) and transform him, through a systematic process across years, into a being with the skills and aptitudes necessary to fit him for adult life. (2)”
It’s not in cultivating the best within a child that I take issue with: something that requires a lot of education, mentoring, story telling, experiences, challenges, etc. It’s in the altering, the “disciplining,” of a child that I take issue with: making them sit still, “behave,” don’t be so troublesome, “transforming” them into something else. Instead of this transformation, let’s start studying the actual timeline of child development, which my work is about. Let’s start talking more about educating, mentoring, actualizing, connecting, and having fun with children, and less about “boundaries,” “discipline,” “transforming,” and “making sure children hear ‘no.'”
The Effects of Grumpy Gorilla
Modern day Grumpy Gorillas no longer have that “belt.” But they do have many weapons. As Lundy Bancroft, a male abuse counselor, says, abuse is still with us, it’s just not talked about openly anymore in a “nyuk nyuk” way. Modern men still control women through shame. We are judged constantly. We are judged for how we look, act, how many friends we have, etc. We get scowls. We’re not supported in what we do. We’re denied any real community. It’s assumed we will follow the husband’s career and agenda. His forms of fun, such as football or the TV shows he watches, are somehow considered more superior and more “rational.” Husbands stomp off in anger when we just had babies and can’t have sex, moaning “the baby comes before me!” I tell men who do this: go have sex with another woman. Let’s put this in perspective of who’s going through what. Ultimately, sexual access to the female is what Grumpy Gorilla cares about.
The effect of Grumpy Gorilla unfortunately are that men lay down tyranny and punishment, but women have to enact it. Grumpy Gorilla expects the female to keep children in line. Instead of pushing him away temporarily, she is expected to push the children away–somehow–but you can’t, so children are expected to “be seen and not heard.” The woman is judged by how well she can do this. As such, the source of this tyranny is male, but the face is female.
Peikoff again: children should be “seen and not hear.” Why is it mostly men who dominate education?
As he is in a position of power, it’s difficult if not impossible to confront Grumpy Gorilla. As such, the female takes it out on others, including her children. I would venture to guess that the level to which a mother is irate and angry is the degree to which she is upset with, under supported, and judged by her husband. If there is one positive thing you can do, it is to not take out the politics of this out on children, even if you can’t escape your current Grumpy Gorilla. I know it is maddening. And you really can’t, nor shouldn’t have to, live like this.
When I talk to women about this, they describe how they have learned to be “smart” with their husband. They might have “learned to make him think things are his idea.” We really shouldn’t have to do this. I find it’s like the Leaning Tower of Pisa: it works for a bit. You shouldn’t have to be “smart” with your husband. We shouldn’t have to gently and cleverly handle him. All of that energy is wasted in what could have been doing much more and better for your children. Grumpy Gorilla needs confronted.
Confronting Grumpy Gorilla
So, I am going to be blunt: this is a power change, and power changes don’t go smoothly. In this inherent power structure, women are all but voiceless. To raise your voice, in and of itself, is a violation of the “rules.” Go ahead and confront Grumpy Gorilla in any of his forms, anywhere. Watch how quickly he pulls the “rules” card. You are, as always, in violation.
I’m pretty tired of people explaining “conflict resolution” tools in marriage. If you see any article telling you “5 Tips for Your Marriage,” or whatever (I made that up), you are sure to get every conflict resolution, highly emotionally intelligent tool in the book. Ok. These are all lovely. I’ve used many to my advantage many, many times. But all the Microsoft Excel sheets in the world about how to manage housework don’t matter if Grumpy Gorilla won’t look at them. And nor is he really designed to. Frankly, a 2-parent family is not the norm in human child raising. The norm looks more like a web of women with men coming around occasionally to playfully mentor children. We’re in compete defiance of the natural order of things.
And when Powerful Female Gorilla sees that males are becoming too irritated with children, she doesn’t appeal to their reason. She just pushes them away. No family meetings, no date nights, no counseling. Just sit over here for a while during this developmental stage. This simple act was an act of power and it wasn’t a big deal. But, now, doing any such thing would undoubtedly get you called a b—-.
But I propose this is how we have to be. It is a wordless, uncompromising act of power. During one of the riots during the lockdown/police brutality issues of 2020, a female cop approached a male cop, scolding him for pushing a protester, a black woman, down to her knees via her head. This is the female cop doing this. This is how we have to be. Krystle Smith:
Dealing with Shame
This should be a lot easier than it is. It should be just a matter of scolding the male or pushing him away occasionally; something of which I suspect most men would even find funny. As we are under the tyranny of patriarchal ideas, it will require a shift of power, and shifts of power never go well. It will involve offending Grumpy Gorilla and enduring the resulting shame that comes.
Women are held in place by an almost unspeakable veil of shame. It is indeed so unspeakable that it isn’t spoken of. But try to break it in the least. Watch how much shame comes your way. In my healing, from an emotionally abusive childhood, it was very enlightening to me to realize how much shame from my father affected me. You don’t think about it as a grown woman. But I lost most feeling in my belly as a result, and the only way I get feeling in my belly back is if I am in a flight or fight response to a male’s abuse or attempting to shame me. (It’s where I carry all my weight too.) When I was a teenager and this happened, I went to my room, opened the window, and forced myself to be cold, as a sort of punishment. Learning how to effectively endure this shame is something that has to happen to confront Grumpy Gorilla.
Once I noticed the shame I had, I started to deal with it. I now “Sleep off Shame.” Sincerely, this is the defining characteristic of a kind- or mean-spirited culture. When someone does something “bad,” do we punish and scold them, or do we lovingly guide them? Because I’ve certainly made hella many mistakes, and I don’t think I should live in shame over them. I now in fact have an inner well now that can never be shaken this way. This is one of the things I write about in Towards Liberalism. Happiness is not an “achievement,” as Rand writes, and so many believe. Happiness is primal; it’s core to who you are; it’s naturally given. It’s the very thing that gives your resilience when life gets stormy. It reminds you that you are worthy and you are worthy of TLC. This one quote blasts to hell all “achievement’ oriented paradigms, such as Rand’s, that say you don’t deserve love or happiness until you’ve “achieved moral perfection” (Rand’s words).
And TLC, and lots of it, is what you need if you are dealing with shame. That younger self of mine exposed herself to violent elements when in shame. I now do the exact opposite. First, as noted, I take a hard nap. If that doesn’t work, I take a hot bath. I wrap myself in the “womb,” the “mother,” I didn’t have. It helps.
The Talk about Shame
I think one of the most important things you can do if dealing with a Grumpy Gorilla is have a talk about shame itself.
This is a very, very difficult conversation to have. It will probably be several conversations. It means you are going up against a person you love and are possibly dependent on, possibly your own husband, and telling him what he is and is not allowed to bully you around about. It might mean telling him that he is not entitled to you sexually. It might mean telling him that his scowls, swearing, or other does in fact affect you personally and you see it as a personal attack on you. If truly this relationship is worth saving, he will listen and update his behavior. If so, you have a winner who was simply a bit clouded by past toxic influences. If there is no change … well, I have thoughts on that but I don’t know everyone’s situation to give out any advice. This is abuse, and it has all the problems that come with abuse. Victims can’t just magically leave. But one way or another, I think the most important thing to say to Grumpy Gorilla are these exact words:
“I am no longer accepting shame.”
Refusing to accept shame is the kindest thing you can do for yourself and the best thing you can do for your health. It deals directly with the politics of what is going on. When toxic men see they can no longer shame us, judge us, tell us we aren’t pretty, tell us how to manage children, etc., it will have a huge effect on the relationship. If many, many women start doing it, it will change the culture. And it’s the nicest thing you can do for yourself.
I’m sure I could go on, but I feel I should wrap this up. Grumpy Gorilla -> Children don’t need “civilized” -> No longer accept shame. If you know of any woman struggling who might benefit, please send her this. Or maybe if you know men open to hearing this. Please check out my book series, Misbehavior is Growth. More than anything, my work on child development has driven people to tell me how much it helps them stay patient with their children–and sometimes even their husbands, too. And please also check out Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics, a deep philosophical challenge to long standing views on human nature that I sincerely hope will clean up abuse, prompt people towards a caregiving ethics, and put people in touch with their natural strength. See my Facebook page, “The Observant Mom” too.
Amber is a former software test engineer who now stays at home to homeschool her 3 children. She is most known for her child development research on the age-related staged children go through. See her work at www.theobservantmom.com
I do work documenting the age-related stages that children go through. These are times that children fall apart for some time. But, per the theory of many, their brain is going “under construction.” While things get upgraded up above, children get a bit wonky. They get clumsy, whiny, more easily scared, perhaps even aggressive. But after this period of disarray, they have an astonishing new mental ability.
The most common comment I get about the work is that the timeline I offer lines up really well for children. I might say that at X years, Y month a child hits an irritable period, and it seems to be true for many, many children. However, the comment I also often get is that children vary much more widely in what skills are seen after this milestone is hit. Or some children are much more demanding and others are much more mild. What causes the variance among children? After doing this work for over 5 years now, I have some insights.
First, I have done some reading from child psychologists about what they think differentiates children. I disagree with most of what they say. First of all, most people, even “experts,” still fundamentally believe in authoritarianism. They still see themselves as “disciplining” a child and making them “behave” properly. Seeing as how I think this “misbehavior” is growth on the way (my book series about this is Misbehavior is Growth), I disagree in every possible way. I hope my work serves to shake up such authoritarian models. And when you have this approach, you see this “misbehavior” as “bad.” On a fundamental level, this affects how you classify children. You are less likely to see a difficult child as just being that way and more likely to blame it on something.
Second, many of the psychologists divide up children based on how easy it is for the adults. Children get divided up based on how easily they fall into a routine, how easily they sleep, how whiny or not whiny they are. The adult categorizes them through an adult’s lens, serving the adult’s interest. They aren’t truly looking at the child. I have virtually no expectation that my children will ever go to bed at a certain time, put their shoes on in a timely manner, always be up for school work, etc. I see it all as natural behavior, and behaviors that come and go. This work, which deals with their “misbehavior” head on serves to eliminate these old prejudices about children. I can look at the child with a much more objective lens.
So here are my thoughts on the different temperaments of children and what, based on their core traits, causes them to hit the milestones differently.
Thrill Seeking versus Sensitive
This is, in my opinion, the most dramatic and defining trait of a child. My two sons are on opposite ends and are very illustrative of this.
A sensitive child has a big reaction to external stimuli. This is a core personality trait, as defined in Dr. Elaine Aron’s book about being a Highly Sensitive Person. My firstborn is a sensitive child (and I am a sensitive person). We can’t let him be in the sun too long or stay at a party too long. He has a big reaction to seeing new movies. We provide a hat that he can put over his eyes when watching a new movie, in case it gets too overwhelming for him. Yes, lights coming in under their door and hearing the air conditioner at night greatly bothers them.
A thrill seeking child seeks out stimulation. My third is a thrill seeker. From the time he was born, he was put on my chest and absolutely loved it. He loves to rough house–and wears me out. I have to actively monitor to him, as he won’t leave a fun thing. I have found him before sitting, playing with water, freezing, but he won’t move, because he doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.
My daughter is in the middle of sensitive and thrill seeker. She seeks out people, not rough housing, as external stimuli that she enjoys. She sometimes withdraws and just plays with Legoes or colors. She goes towards things, but she also withdraws if she wants to do something different. When at a mud puddle once, my thrill seeker went stomping on in. My daughter cautiously put a foot in. My first figure out a way to get across it without having to touch the water. This illustrates the spectrum pretty well.
Children who are physically highly thrill seeking are typically seen as easier to deal with in many instances during the milestones. When my thrill seeker falls over he insists, “I’m fine!” They are more “rough and tumble,” and many parents appreciate this. Many parents, not understanding it, don’t like dealing with their sensitive children, as sensitive children can be more demanding. My first absolutely hated light coming under his door and some adults said to him, “Just a little bit of light!? Oh that shouldn’t matter.” Except it does. I can assure you, as a former 5 year old sensitive child, it matters. However, if you put minimum effort into handling it for the sensitive child, it really does go exceptionally well.
Internalizes versus Externalizes
When a child feels guilty or in distress, they either internalize or externalize. A child who runs into their room, screaming, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” internalizes. A child who becomes aggressive externalizes. In general, girls are more likely to internalize and boys to externalize, but I am positive many boys are higher in empathy than others and therefore internalize.
Both can be difficult to deal with during the stages. A child who becomes aggressive is obviously hard to deal with. But a child who internalizes can be difficult too. If they have a higher propensity towards internal shame (internalizing), they are much more concerned about others. If they feel a child might get hurt, they might get very vocal about it–annoyingly. They might not let their brother run off to far, etc.
My theory on the milestones is that every child is born with two things 1) A core brain architecture and 2) The timetable in which some kind of hormone washes over them at predictable age-related times to spur their mental development.
My theory is every child has a different brain architecture but roughly about the same timetable, at least up to a certain age, in which some kind of hormone washes over them at predictable times. I think girls and boys start to have a different timetable starting around 5. But that each child has a different brain architecture explains why they are affected so differently.
My first son’s brain architecture is highly mechanical in nature; my daughter’s is highly language oriented; and my third son’s is entirely its own thing. He is highly mechanical too, but he has remarkable athletic timing. He is highly “present” in any situation and seems to dissect the world in a millisecond by millimeter way, whereas my other two are less present but more pattern seeking.
When my first born went through some of the milestones, he would describe to me plainly that his brain had “many pistons pumping in it.” Whatever was growing was highly mechanical in nature. My daughter was exceptional at all things language. I don’t think it’s even fair to compare her growth to her brothers. She could read words at a young age, and I just plain don’t think her brothers had the brain architecture to allow them to do it as easily as she did at such young ages. My third goes through the milestones pretty effortlessly, except that he always wants to be right next to me. Being the highly extroverted, cuddly, thrill seeker, it’s how it works for him.
This is why I strongly encourage you to not compare your child to the abilities on the list. I try to identify the pattern of skills developing. I think the pattern is linked. When my son became interested in history, he wanted to hear about military battles and my daughter wanted to know how she could be a beautiful female warrior, but they both went through something similar. But, truly, your child has some unique skill set that may or may not fit in with what is conventionally considered to be “smart.” My third has incredible athletic and comedic timing and while he is much less interested in traditional school work than his older siblings, I see great value in his natural talents
Boys versus Girls
Well it cannot be denied that sex plays a role in child development. In general, girls tend to be a bit clumsier and whinier than boys. This makes them especially difficult in through 2 and 3 years old when their whole body seems to lose functioning. I have had some teachers insist that boys can get whiny too. So this doesn’t totally fall on gender lines. Boys when they hit huge testosterone surges seem to get aggressive, explaining why 4-5 years old and then again at 6-1/2 until nearly 8, boys can be quite difficult.
What else do you notice? Hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org
These thoughts will appear in my next Misbehavior is Growth book, about 3 year olds, to help you be put in better touch with your unique child!
When to give children chores can be a major parenting battle. Society seems to pressure us to raise “responsible” children. Parents start out on their journey vowing to make sure this happens. Then naturally rebellious, boisterous children are put in our arms. We may throw everything we have at it: education, role modeling, routines, proper coaching, charts, breaking it down into micro-steps. But children remain children. They defy our best intentions routinely. We gain some wins to realize the losses. Their “good” behavior comes and goes: because this is the natural state of childhood.
I propose a method that leans into their development instead of tries to fight it. Instead of getting them on our schedule, let’s get on theirs. Here is what I propose: follow their self-interest. In short, give them chores only in so far as they see the need to get the chores done.
For the most part, I don’t recommend chores until they are about 7 if not 8. I advocate you get them involved at younger ages. Show them how to put toys away. Let them help you do the dishes. My two older children once fought over who got to clean a toilet, as we were all cleaning the bathroom. Thankfully, we had more than one dirty toilet. However, in all this, before they are about 7-1/2, I don’t advocate you make them do any chores. Let them get hands-on practice and skills. But let them be happily oblivious children.
Around 7-1/2, children go through what I call “The Hulk” milestone. They grow in strength from their core out to their fingertips. Like the Hulk, they easily “take over” an entire situation. They become semi-reliable at doing things like turning in homework or showing up somewhere on time. They might ask to do something like learn a new instrument. They really grow in their responsibility and their ability to carry through.
Around this age, I recommend starting to give them some chores that you are rather hardnosed about. By this I simply mean it’s for them to do not you. It’s nothing to punish them about. But you are done doing X for them. A good start is letting them get their own drink. This is something in their self-interest: they want their drink. As they have much better dexterity and strength, they can do it and well.
I did this with my son starting around 7-1/2. He got a bit angry at me sometimes. You should know also that some abuse counselors say abuse doesn’t come down to trauma. It comes down to a sense of entitlement. I am not worried about my son becoming an “abuser.” But I am somewhat conscious about whether or not he develops a sense of entitlement. After pushing through some angry episodes, my son now gets his juice readily.
At the next milestone, closer to 7 years, 9 months, children become sort of Pre-Preteens. They have a certain adult-like swag to them. They can’t believe the babyish-ness of their younger siblings. One of the thing that comes with this is a strong desire to pick out their own clothes and often. They change their clothes every day, on their own, even when not prompted. They have strong ideas about what one wears to bed, during hot weather and cold weather, on Tuesdays, to restaurants, etc. This is a great time to get them doing their own laundry. It will pile up quickly and they want X shirt back for the next Monday. Help them, of course. But now the self-interest lies with them, not you. They want their laundry done.
I am sure this applies in many other areas. I offer these as a few examples of how to lean into their natural development rather than fight it.
See my book about these stages and cycles; Misbehavior is Growth! Admittedly the one for 7 year olds is a ways away. In the meantime, the summaries on my website are free.
I believe understanding the nitty, gritty details of child development may be the key to preventing and possibly even healing personality disorders.
I document the age related stages that children go through. My work is used by tens of thousands every month. During these stages, children fall apart for some time. They might whine, become aggressive, won’t back off, need to cuddle all day long, lie a lot, etc. But after this stage of disarray, they have some new skill or skills. It’s as if the brain routinely upgrades all throughout childhood. These upgrades are rocky and difficult.
As I write about, this might help us heal trauma. I think this unrelenting behavior of children might be one of the major sources of trauma. The thing about these stages is that children become very irritating–to a modern parent anyway. We tend to expect children to “behave.” We don’t live primarily outside where children can run around and try out their new skills. We’re in houses where we don’t want them to break our TVs, etc. We are in no way equipped to handle this behavior.
And yet, our biological designs march on in an industrialized world. And two things happen during each stage: 1) the child becomes irritating and 2) sensitive new skills are forming. In other words, the risk for violence against the child is high at a time that is highly critical for their development. It is a dangerous mix.
My argument in Misbehavior is Growth, my book series about these stages, is that this predestined biological behavior should be seen not as naughtiness, but as like a Bat Signal in the air that we come to children and nurture a new skill. I’m putting up a fight–the most passionate and radical fight I’ll ever put up–to fundamentally change the way we see parenting and child development. Our long view is to get children to be good or even “normalized” (as described by Maria Montessori). You’re fighting human nature. Stop. Lean into the behavior and actively manage it. You’ll never ever totally sanitize away this misbehavior, and each new milestone will bring something new. Don’t fight it; use it. You would be astonished by the results, because it’s exactly in children’s “misbehavior” where their potential lies.
My argument in how it can heal trauma is that if we go back in time and found out when violence occurred in a child’s life, we might look at what developmental milestone they were in. We could look at what skills should have grown, but didn’t.
For instance, I vividly remember being emotionally abused around 4/5 years old. I was told I told “boring stories” and that I was an insufferable dork. At 5, a child develops their “swag.” They just got out of the milestone where they realize they really can die–a horrifying thing to realize–but simultaneously it’s as if they “really exist” now. They can look around and realize, “Holy cow. Everything matters.” And they play around in this new “really real” world, with their personality and how it is perceived by others. At that exact time, my particular swag, my ability to tell stories, which I am sure was awkward and annoying at first, was crapped all over. I have suffered social anxiety most of my life. And true to the idea that misbehavior is growth, do you know what the most popular features of my Facebook Page, The Observant Mom, is? My stories. This is my “inner child,” my inner authentic strength, that should have grown, but didn’t. I believe most of our inner child’s were probably misunderstood, because it was likely couched in “misbehavior,” but I somewhat digress.
So, anyway, I offer that as an example of how understanding abuse/trauma at early ages can help us help affected adults. We can reparent that child who was hurt at that particular age. For instance, at those young ages, I recommend putting on lots of plays, reading history, and letting the child be a “star,” such as telling knock knock jokes to a receptive audience. All of these things still have relevance to healing trauma in an adult. Trauma therapy does have people acting in plays, to see that other people in the play are collaborative and kind and that you are seen. In other words, the things that should have been done for the child are now done for the adult. We reparent that young, wounded child. And you keep doing it and doing it until it has an effect.
I have long had an interest in understanding and healing both Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. They have affected me ok? I grew up with Borderline parents, and strangely I’ve managed to date many narcissistic men. (It’s a complicated triangle with the abusive Narcissist, the likes-to-be-abused Borderline, and the caretaker. I’m the caretaker.) You’ve likely been affected. You know how we all can’t stand each other? It’s probably NPD or (undiagnosed) BPD driving it. These things sincerely plague societies. Most political leaders suffer from one or the other. You’ll find a lot of narcissism among conservatives and borderline among the left, both of whom clamor for political power. The thoughts and behaviors of both of these disorders are often normalized as healthy. Or all psychological advice assumes people are plagued by them, when they are not.
Narcissism is marked by a child who was so hurt and abandoned in their youth that they suppressed their true self and develop a false self. They project a charismatic image to others constantly to receive their admiration and attention, which is known as “narcissistic supply.” They tend to be highly successful in some way, but they suffer with terrible self-esteem internally.
Borderline is marked by a child who experienced such violence and chaos in their young life that they have a constant fear of abandonment. They fall to pieces at the slightest criticism. They are prone to addictions and are not necessarily charismatic or successful; in fact they might take pride in how very ugly they are, which engenders comforting/mothering from others. And they really like to “huddle” with other people. And, though I find every Borderline swears it isn’t true, they can get really mean.
Both personality disorders are set in very young life, which is why I think my child development work, which offers such rich insight into a young person’s life, can help. This blog post will focus on narcissism.
In reading about narcissism, I have noticed for some time that the skills the narcissist lacks are the same ones that should have formed in young life. For instance, Sam Vaknin, who is a narcissist and studies narcissism extensively, writes in Malignant Self-Love.
“Serial vocations prevent the narcissist from having a clear career path and obviate the need to persevere. All the initiatives adopted by the narcissist are egocentric, sporadic and discrete (they focus on one skill or trait of the narcissist, are randomly distributed in space and in time, and do not form a thematic or other continuum – they are not goal or objective oriented).” Emotional Involvement Preventive Measures
When I read this, I instantly recognized these skills as ones that should have developed in the late threes. I call one of those milestones “Thematic Thinking.” The child starts to put together a massive amount of information into something, such as drawing out an elaborate picture showing they know how a roller coaster works. I consider the late threes in particular to be ones related to core personality integration, which I will discuss below.
I had thought with narcissism that one particularly violent episode here or there aimed at the child at an unfortunately sensitive time may have caused it. While that is undoubtedly part of it, the even more unfortunate conclusion I have come to is that a narcissist, as a child, experienced relentless abuse across all of early childhood. Virtually all skills that should have been developed in early life are missing in a narcissist. It is not just that the skills didn’t develop, it seems as if the abusive adult waged a concerted attack on the child’s inner self.
I assume here that a narcissist likely had a narcissistic parent. As such, the young child was seen as a threat to the narcissistic parent, who wants all attention on them and resents caregiving duties. A narcissist is incapable of love and continues to raise children without love. The child was only tended to when it met a need of the parent, creating a constant approach/discard cycle. It’s a vicious cycle. One wonders how they manage to breed at all. But the narcissist is incredibly charismatic and often successful and good-looking. We as a culture all but worship these skills which seem like “achievement” to us. Truly, this is a difficult epidemic to solve.
Here is a break down by age, based on my child development work and my understanding of narcissism, as to how eventual adult skills failed to form in a narcissist’s young life. I describe the skill that should have formed, the abuse possibly endured, and how to possibly heal it. Truly, there is no greater healing power than being put back in touch with your inner child, and the amount of detail I offer to do just this is unparalleled.
“The narcissist is typically born into a dysfunctional family. It is characterised by massive denial, both internal (“You do not have a real problem, you are only pretending”) and external (“You must never reveal the family’s secrets to anyone”). “
Massive denial. That is key. It is opposite of what I constantly advocate in parenting, which is an observant approach to parenting. It’s the very name of this blog, “The Observant Mom.” The goal is to observe and observe and understand and observe our children as we parent. It’s to validate their reality, thoughts, and feelings as hard we can. It’s to get into their world. I want to show how great of children we can raise when we take a tremendously deep dive into their inner world. Documenting the intricate details of this inner world is what I do.
The narcissist had the opposite as a child. They had nothing validated. They lived with constant fear. They experienced frequent degradation and humiliation. Misbehavior wasn’t Growth in their family; it was a massive threat to the parent’s huge, false, frail egos. They saw children as something to mold into something “higher” or better. They didn’t lean into natural child development. It was, unfortunately, a relentless attack on a young child’s soul. Likely being wealthy, unfortunately, they had the resources to do it.
I suspect this is slightly different than the house a Borderline grew up in. The house a Borderline grew up in is typically highly violent. But it seems to be more accidental. A terrible condition or an illness caused the family to not have the resources necessary to raise a child. Whereas, for the narcissist, they can easily grow up with a lot of resources and wealth and still have this concerted attack on their soul–in fact, even moreso due to the wealth.
This is my assumption about a narcissist’s upbringing: they experienced nearly constant gaslighting, denial, invalidation, degradation, humiliation, pressure to perform, and even physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. On purpose. Intentionally.
Although, it is actually worse than this: it was marked by some periods of seeming love, followed by a sharp, painful discard. And this cycle is arguably worse than constant abuse. Constant abuse would have allowed the child to develop emotional coping skills to deal with it. They would gather up all resources into one singular healthy goal: run away. It’s far easier to know the enemy is the enemy than to think the enemy might possibly be a friend. Poison delivered from someone you thought loved you is the worst kind. A young child stood no chance against this.
The Possible Cure
I believe going back, milestone by milestone, and seeing what skills should have developed, but didn’t, can help. I offer, as one therapy, doing things developmentally appropriate to the age where the wound occurred as to rehabilitate the now wounded adult.
I don’t want you to feel infantilized by this. I have found that in raising my children, I’ve rounded out many of the skills I didn’t have. For instance, in reading so many children’s stories, my writing has improved. I used to write very long sentences. In reading so many stories to my children, I am constantly around well-constructed sentences. I started writing shorter, more on-point sentences.
Consider also that even professional athletes go back and do some simple exercises. Even a pro who won the Superbowl undoubtedly likes to go outside and just play catch sometimes. Doing things a young child might like doesn’t make you a loser. It makes you entirely human.
Besides, you are currently reading this in the privacy of wherever you are at. You don’t need to tell a single soul that I am going back to your childhood, validating the shit out of you, and offering some simple exercises to help grow what you might lack. You’ve likely never met me. You’ll likely never meet me. You don’t need to impress me. I can never abandon you. Sincerely, I am here to help. I am on your team.
I like to also think of it that you are not a “narcissist.” You are living with narcissism. I know this is opposite of current thinking. Most who deal with narcissism say it’s no different than your race: it’s something you are. But if I can ever so gently needle this out to be something you are living with, not something you are, I think more healing can take place. You are not a narcissist. You are Justin. Or Jason. Or Dan. You are living with a disorder, in the same way some people live with endometriosis or autoimmune disorders. All of these things, including narcissism, are heavily influenced by how a human was treated in early life. They are not genetic conditions. They don’t need some magical “cure.” They need some fundamentally different ways of being. Narcissism itself is maladaptive. This means it is adaptive in its own weird way. It is a profound desire to live and function but within dysfunction. That means that spark, that desire to live, is there. I still call them “narcissists” in order to write with brevity. But a “narcissist” puts an unusual amount of energy into creating their false self. That means there is useful energy within them. If it can be redirected, perhaps healing can take place.
The goal with narcissism is to fundamentally make ugly, challenge, condemn, and ultimately kill the false self. Then, it is to see, validate, and nurture the true self. The true self is where your natural strength is. It shouldn’t take a Herculean effort to be strong and amazing. Strength and beauty are the natural state. It should be fun and boingy and present.
I also seek to wrestle away the idea that punishment is a growth measure or that anyone is deserving of punishment. A narcissist constantly feels worthy of punishment. That punishment should take no place in everyday life as to affect human behavior is the very point I make in my book Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. I discuss emotional management as well as issues about happiness, joy, guilt, pain, fear, shame, unease, and anxiety, extensively in this book. Maybe check it out. No one, including you, should have to walk around in constant shame and constant worry about what others will think of them if they “found out” anything.
Finally, if you don’t like any of my suggestions, then don’t do them. Trying to encourage acceptance is much harder than it seems. How do I tell a person to feel good inside themselves, and that is sincerely what I want for a person, but without turning it into a duty to feel good inside yourself? Your own internal compass is wiser than anything I write here. If I validate you, I’ve done my job. If I make you feel bad about yourself, I have not. Take from me what you want. Don’t feel obligated to do anything.
Now, an age-by-age breakdown of skills and how everything could have gone wrong. I make a lot of assumptions here. My goal is to spark an interest in this study so further research and work can be done.
Ages 0 – 1
My work doesn’t start until age 18 months, but the work of The Wonder Weeks famously starts from birth and goes until 18 months. There are 10 “mental leaps,” brain upgrades, in that time.
The very first brain upgrade that a child goes through is Mental Leap 1 at 5 weeks old. This is one of “Changing Sensations.” The child starts to realize the outer world is separate from them. Their world up to that time is described as not much different than being in the womb: everything is sort of soft and undifferentiated.
This is one of the skills, if not the skill, that a narcissist struggles with: they don’t know where they end and the world begins. A narcissist “only exists as a reflection on other’s eyes.” They are “walking scar tissue.” They don’t know who they are, so they make up who they are, and live off of the attention they receive from others. This is because of a failure to meet the most real need of humans, especially human babies: to be seen. We as humans have to be seen to know our worth. In its absence, it’s as if the child is on a never-ending quest.
It is only through the touch of loving, attentive parents that a person individuates. Without touch, us humans are prone to feel we are lost at sea. When sailors are lost at sea, much like a person in a desert who sees a mirage of water, they sometimes get so lost mentally that they jump off of their boat. They thought they had found land. This is how mentally desolate a person who doesn’t have the loving touch of another can feel. We humans cannot bear this much loneliness, let alone a young child, let alone one whose reality is being actively denied and criticized. From their loved ones.
If you think taking such a hard look at narcissism means reprimanding these people, who indeed tend to be so exploitive and abusive, think again. As young as 5 weeks old, what should have blossomed in them didn’t. I am going to take this analysis up to 6 years old. And it isn’t even until 5 that a child has any sense of conscious choice over their personality. Everything until then is wildly fantastical in the child’s mind. This abuse–this murder–happened before a child truly had any kind of autonomy. It is truly one of the worst sins. I can but hope that some of the abuse didn’t quite set in this young for any individual. I can but hope there are some positive experiences for the child before the age of 5 to draw upon.
The rest of 0-1 is marked by an organization of the child internally, and largely physical. The most dramatic physical change in a human’s life is between 0 and 1. The child learns to sit up, crawl, walk. They learn to watch things that slowly move by them, then judge distance. They start to categorize the world into concepts. They then, with the ability to sit up, grasp things, etc., start in on a lot of trial and error to make things do what they want. This age is filled with a lot of trying to grab things, stacking things, playing with blocks, and splashing in bathtubs.
Age 0 – 1 Reparenting
The adult needs to be held up in love. They need to feel the adoration of a motherly figure, who loves them even if they have flaws and struggles. This will sound insane to an abused person. It’s like drinking spoiled milk all of your life, and then being told milk itself is the elixir of life. A narcissist otherwise learned they can only depend on themselves and does not see the need for such love. Which, given their life experience, is fair. If you don’t want the love of another or see its value, I get that. But it itself might free you of that constant, nagging desire to be “seen” by any random person you meet: the otherwise core conflict of a narcissist.
This requires another committed person. How does one get that? This is the million dollar question in trauma therapy. There is no prescription for this. And the inherent problem is narcissists so fear abandonment that they draw people close, then discard them. They fear humiliation so much that they’d rather do the humiliating before being humiliated.
I am aware that I have the personality that can push through this. I can look at them and say “Stop. Stop this. Don’t push me away.” But should I act as this sacrificial animal? That is the question that burns on my mind. I otherwise do tend to enjoy the company of narcissists more than others. I have my own issues ok?
If you don’t want or don’t have this highly friendly figure in your life, at the very least know this: you had every right to experience rage and hate towards your tormentor, likely your mother. You even had a right to wish her dead. You would be amazed how much of a difference it would make to estrange an abusive person.
I find children who grew up with narcissistic parents, unlike those who grew up with borderline parents (something current thought doesn’t understand), tend to forever crave their mother’s love. They have it in their head that they could get that love “if …” If they were loveable enough. The narcissistic parent projects the image that they are the loving parent. They may be beloved in their community. And yet they don’t extend love to their own child. So the child knows what it looks like, but never received it. This is different for a child of a borderline, whose parents never even attempted any such show. A child of a borderline parent probably just wanted to run away. So the narcissist, I find, tends to not estrange their parents.
But if you can do this if but mentally, accepting the grief that your mother is dead in a way, it might kick off the healing process. You have to see and feel a new way of being, one that you currently probably don’t even know is possible. Getting out from under the abuse really is the first step. And then just trust that something better does really exist.
Ages 1 – 2
The first half of the ones is still covered by The Wonder Weeks and is marked mostly by tinkering with objects in progressively more complicated ways.
My work starts at 18 months: Toddler Milestone 1. This is the chart of the milestones from 18 months to 2 years.
It is at 18 months that a child’s will really kicks in and just continues to grow over the next several months. Some pediatricians describe that it is at this age that parents start to worry about “discipline” and start to enact traditional punishments. For the very first time ever, a child doesn’t just get into the carseat as asked. And you can’t just pick them up without a fight (like you can an infant). This is when my work kicks in and I offer tips to deal with it at each milestone, such as using Distraction to help make situations go smoothly.
It is actually this issue of distraction that I run into arguments with parents. I get told that distraction means you “aren’t dealing with the issue.” Yes you are. As I write, “Distraction isn’t distraction.” You ARE satisfying the need of the child: you are giving them time with you, by, say, singing a song, while getting your need satisfied to get them into the car seat. Virtually all competent caregivers do this as they go about their day. They lovingly make situations easier for a child. That’s what “distraction” is.
But some mothers are so convinced that their children are super smart and can understand that they need to do what they need to do. The parents want to force the issue via highly rational communication with but an 18 month old child. I have to gently tell them, without bruising their ego, that they are grossly over estimating the rational capability of their young child.
Truthfully, one is greatly overestimating the “rational” capability of an adult if you think you can just tell them to do something and they willingly comply. This isn’t how people work, and definitely not a child, who at this age is 100% ego with yet no intellectual capacity for the perspective of other people. You have to make the environment pleasant for the child. The child still needs to go through early life as if they are in a sort of “womb.” I suspect narcissistic mothers did not do this for their children. And it is these very same women that I often have problems with, in which they gaslight my experiences, by constantly telling me to see bad situations “more positively.”
So this is what they do: they pathologize healthy caregiving forms of distraction as being avoidance, but then they themselves engage in gaslighting behavior itself, which is malicious avoidance. If they pathologize you, the light isn’t on them. I write about it here: It’s not Distraction. It’s Gaslighting. And, Yes, Stop. If we define our terms properly, we can’t wiggle out of bad behavior.
Age 1 – 2 Reparenting
Virtually every narcissist I know thinks the world is a dangerous, unfair place. How many have I heard snarl, “Life isn’t fair!” The irony is that the narcissist themselves are incapable of handling a bruising reality. They can’t handle the shame. They can’t take a simple life failure and just learn from it. That harsh way of handling “life” is the maladaptive way they had to adapt to, and they sincerely think everyone else is like them and has to learn this too.
Perhaps the treatment where a parent never thought to make transitioning through life, such as going to get your diaper changed or getting in the bath, pleasant for a child is to blame. I don’t doubt the child was seen as simply being difficult just to be difficult, as “attention seeking,” or “manipulating” the caregiver. Which is of course what the narcissistic parent was doing. These ideas, that children are just manipulatively seeking attention, are alive and well even in parenting today. Many authors directly take these idea to task in their writing. Children are looking for connection from adults, not “attention.” Give it to them.
As you go about life, perhaps be kind to yourself. Ask yourself if are feeling any unease right now. If the unease is unnecessary, can you let it go? Learn the difference between guilt and shame, which is the difference between primary and secondary emotions. Guilt is healthy. It is warranted, temporary, and drives positive action. Shame is not healthy. It never deserves a permanent place in your mind, gets lodged there, and drives negative action. It is toxic. Many books are on the market now that deal with releasing shame. E-readers make it possible to read them in total privacy.
And, of course, many parents start using punitive means with children at this age. I work night and day to show people that punitive means on virtually everyone are counterproductive.
Age 2 – 3 Milestones
It is actually in these milestones where I think the potential for inflicting narcissism starts to really escalate (it is at its most vulnerable in the late threes, I think). A child grows in their emotions, empathy, and sense of right and wrong between 2 and 3. These are things the narcissist struggles with. Here is the chart of the milestones,
If I had to describe the difference between a child of 2 and 3, it is that the child at 2 is stubborn and the child at 3 can put away their own “whim” to adhere to a principle. A child at 2 wants to wear a pair of pants currently in the laundry and only that pair. A child at 3 can be asked to not jump into a pool and will probably comply. This grows in steps over the year. They grow greatly in impulse control, understand basic short term plans, and in general understand what is going on (in the short term). Hence Toddler Milestone 12, which is just shy of 3, is “Adheres to Principles,” while Toddler Milestone 5, which is just after 2, is “Persistence and Insistence.” (But that persistence has a purpose: they dog at new activities until they get them right.)
Some time in the early 2s, somewhere around 2 years, 1 months or a bit after, the child experiences their first big emotions. For the first time ever, the emotion penetrates them deeply, more than just a silly “uh oh” because something dropped. This assuredly brings a sense of fear of something, say of a thunderstorm. A parent can respond in one of two ways. They can admonish the child about their emotion, “It’s thunder! It’s nothing to be afraid of!” Or they can validate the child’s emotion, “You’re scared of thunder? Here, we are here for you when you feel scared.” The child’s first big emotions are starting to develop. And how is it handled? What happens if they experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse?
They grow in their empathy at these ages. What is amazing is that their first big emotion has to happen first, and only until after this do they have empathy for others. It’s actually not long from their first big emotion that they acknowledge other’s emotions (empathy). They likely experience their first big emotions around 2.1. They start experiencing empathy at Toddler Milestone 8, around 2 years, 6 months. I called this milestone “Inference,” and it proves that empathy is indeed a cognitive skill. Inference means they can draw a plausible conclusion with limited evidence. The garage door opens: dad must be home. Their brother’s door is closed: he must be sleeping. Similarly: their baby brother is crying, maybe they could use a kiss. Before, their “empathy” was largely mimicry. They may have pretended to take care of a baby doll. Now their empathy is deliberate and directed. They can make a deliberate decision of how to solve this “problem.” It is 1:1 matching of event:conclusion or problem:solution at first. But it is beginning empathy, and it’s rooted in this new cognitive ability of inference.
Can I state that again it is not until 2-1/2 that a child is even capable of empathy? There may be variability in human development, but it is not until they intellectually develop this ability can you expect it of a child.
They grow, after this, in their complexity to do this. They might soon start to think “The baby needs a bottle.” This is slightly more educated than their previous solution to most emotional problems: that others just need a hug or a kiss. This is why Toddler Milestone 9, 2 years, 8 months, is “Creative On-the-Spot Problem Solving.”
If a child lives in panicked fear for their own safety, are they going to entertain thoughts of how to help their baby brother? Or perhaps will they resent another child for also having needs, when no one’s needs are being taken care of, and now there is just more to deal with? Enter: the narcissist’s utter disgust at the “neediness” of others. At just 2-1/2 years old.
Further, learning has an emotional component to it. At a minimum, a child has to feel safe to learn effectively. But research tells us one has to have an emotional investment to learn something. We learn stuff that will help us. We especially learn when something negative happens to us. If a narcissists emotions are shut down, learning becomes all but impossible. In the late ones, children develop symbolic thought. So they have the intellectual capability to hold on to symbols but no emotional investment to get up close with objects. This may be why narcissists learn only by generalizing. See, again, Vaknin’s work for more on how narcissists do this.
In the late twos, they really start to develop a sense of right and wrong. As noted, at Inference, they can start to draw some intellectual conclusions. Part of it is also, “At the road, I have to stop and look.” You can finally let them play on the driveway without being so fearful that they’ll run away or into the road. They are starting to follow some rules. It is a relief to most mothers.
This grows greatly in their late twos. Their ability to understand rules/plans over a short amount of time increases. In Toddler Milestone 11, 2 years, 10 months, “Short Term Plans,” they may be told when on vacation that they can’t have candy, because you are about to go on a tour. But then when the tour is done, they know to ask for candy, as it is a more appropriate time. They can realize that the rule is “you take turns” and they can put aside their immediate impulse and adhere to the rule. Their emotional maturity really grows. I don’t doubt that many hormonal changes take place at this time. It’s not that they deny their emotional needs, but they have better regulation over them as their cognitive brain starts to “take over.”
Narcissists struggle with such impulse control. The ones I know seem to constantly feel robbed of joy, and as such all but exploit whatever joy they do see. You can do nothing but get an interesting toy for your kid while out on vacation with one, and they are jealous they didn’t get it. They don’t wait until the tour is done to get candy. They grab it now. Given they learned that adults will never remember to get the candy, it is an understandable if maladaptive response.
A child also learns how to handle mistakes at these ages. They are highly mistake prone during these developmental stages. And just shy of 3, they really, really want to try their hand at complicated things, like making a smoothie on their own, which they are naturally awful at at first. This is why Toddler Milestone 12 is about Principles with “Many Variables.” A nurturing parent will look at a shattered glass of smoothie on the floor, calm themselves down, and say, “It’s Ok. We can try again.” This is no easy thing to do, even for a highly healthy parent, let alone a narcissistic one, who will see this inconvenience as an all out attack on them.
Parents sometimes call them “The Terrible Twos.” To a competent parent, of course, they just see it as natural child development to deal with. To an entitled ass of a parent (the narcissist), they see it as a wild inconvenience. The child lives under the tyranny of being called a “bad boy” during these ages when caring, empathy, and a sense of right and wrong should have bloomed.
Age 2 – 3 Reparenting
How do you teach empathy to someone who failed to develop it in childhood? You would make a lot of money if you could learn to do this.
I find parenting your own children can, possibly, teach this. You have to, however, welcome in some new insight into healthy parenting. All of that stuff that you thought was just a bunch of hippy dippy “progressive” nonsense. Yeah. All of that.
I find some people are benefited just by hearing healthy parenting stories. See one of the ones I tell here, The Power of ‘Let’s Try Again‘. I’ve had people tell me I’ve helped heal them in the stories I tell. Reading parenting books can help too. I really liked Siblings Without Rivalry for these issues. I was in literal pain as I thought of how much the stories written resonated with my youth and how unfairly I was treated–but that better ways exist.
I don’t know of any non-parenting books that can truly give you these emotional tools needed. I try in writing Towards Liberalism, although I find my impact tends to be minimal (as it tends to be when trying to turnaround abusive tendencies or deep personality disorders). Maybe that’s because parenting is where these skills are needed, learned, and imparted. If you read through some parenting books, even if you are not a parent, you might learn how you were failed as a child, which may help release that pain, and help learn what some healthier emotional mechanisms are. You could also read mine, Misbehavior is Growth. 🙂 I offer the introduction (linked) for free.
Age 3 – 4 Milestones
The ages of 3 – 4 is another high risk age in the way of developing narcissism, if not the highest. These are the major milestones at this age (void of the “mini-milestones”):
The child in their early 3s really starts to test principles of moving systems (i.e., all of life). And I consider the late 3s in particular (although all the 3s really) to be core personality integration. Hence their relevance to if a personality disorder sets in.
In the early threes, children test basic things like “Red means stop and green means go.” Then they grow in their flexibility of this. They realize that “Red means stop but sometimes Mom can turn right on red.” They experiment with this too. They purposely do things in unconventional and often difficult ways. This is Preschool Milestone 3, Flexible Application of Principles, one I am particularly fond of. They truly start to show, rather flex (their personality is there at birth), their personality here in what boundaries they push. See Preschool Milestone 3: A Coming of 3-Year-Old Age Milestone. This is my son (my third) cheekily trying to put two legs in one pant leg and walk around:
They grow and grow in their realization of how things move and operate. They constantly evaluate what is being said and compare it to reality. They notice mismatches between these things too. If you make a “3 waffle sandwich,” it better have 3 waffles. This is the essence of Preschool Milestone 4, 3 years, 3 months, “Persistent Application of Principles.”
In the next milestones, they then grow in this persistence of application of principles, noticing things from yesterday–the relevance of them–and projecting thoughts into the future. They do this without any prompting from you do to do it.
Interestingly, in this time, around 3 years, 4 months, the child has wildly fantastical thoughts. They see dogs on the ceiling and sharks in the rug. They think you can pick up entire rooms and bring them to them. They think cars can be picked up and thrown so you can get out of traffic. They have completely irrational thoughts–but they develop control over these thoughts, in increasingly powerful ways over the course of months. They hand you nothing at all and say it’s their favorite character. Eventually they develop elaborate stories about fighting dragons and monsters.
The entire essence of trauma is disassociation. The body is under attack and the inner world takes on a life of its own, constantly on vigilant guard against a possible attack. What happens to a traumatized child whose natural, unstoppable development causes him to see dogs in the ceiling? What kind of world does he see it as? A child in healthy circumstances is shocked by these new things they see, but which are temporary. They likely want their mother more, which is the essence of any one of these developmental stages. But they then learn to control these fantastical things they see. What does the traumatized child learn? How can they not develop a view of constant paranoia? Every single object they see, a ceiling, the floor, is a potential threat.
It is in the mid to late threes that I see as the most high risk time for narcissism to set in. They really, really start to compare everything in the late threes. It starts with simple intellectual associations, such as “Bats sleep just like we do!” This is Preschool Milestone 8, “Integrates Principles.” And they love to race two different cars down a track, etc. They notice they learned about a pig in a video and they have learned about pigs in a book. They mentally hold onto an enormous amount of information, integrate, compare it, and use it.
But they thing they MOST love to compare is THEMSELVES to others. In a race to the van, do they win? Are they the prettiest, smartest, most amazing creature ever? They collect actual data now to determine that. The late 3s can be considered “final organization of the core personality.” And they put themselves into relationships with others. They might decide they are indeed the fastest and need to be the leader. Or their brother is pretty smart and they can learn from him. Or it’s fun to cheer on their sister as she plays a game.
In normal development, a child learns to individuate through this. It might be bruising to lose a race, but loving parents saw them through it. They saw things they were good at. They saw other children as also good at certain things.
But how will a child put in an abusive, gaslighting home deal with this? They’ve lived with constant degradation as being a “bad boy” and a nuisance. To add insult, in the absence of any descriptive praise from their parents, they are now at the mercy of the opinion of their three year old peers. What can set in except a permanent feeling of shame, envy, and being constantly in submission to other’s opinion? This truly is the stuff of horror stories.
In the late threes, children develop “thematic thinking,” which is Preschool Milestone 12, 3 years, 8 months. They can organize objects into a theme. They might start organizing the pepperoni on their pizza into a pattern. Their art starts to take a distinct form. Instead of putting perl beads randomly on boards, they might start to take a pattern. And, as I understand it, narcissists are solely lacking this. One, my ex, in a highly vulnerable confession to me, said, “I’m a one trick pony.” Narcissists cannot organize their actions or lives into a cohesive plan. They hop from job to job. They are easily bored. They maintain one “island of stability” and that’s it. As noted, Sam Vaknin writes about it,
“All the initiatives adopted by the narcissist are egocentric, sporadic and discrete (they focus on one skill or trait of the narcissist, are randomly distributed in space and in time, and do not form a thematic or other continuum – they are not goal or objective oriented).”
This ability to organize up large amounts of data starts in the late 3s. The mid 4s is where they develop the ability to understand ideas across large spans of time.
The very late 3s shows an increase in understanding the exact rules of something. They start to learn to get around those rules. If you tell them not to hit someone, and they hit you with a baseball bat, they tell you they didn’t hit you. The bat did. This is Preschool Milestone 13, 3 years, 10 months, “Test and Evaluates Complex Systems.” Truly, they can hold on to every single little variable as they compare systems of thought. In a healthy environment, this “rules bending” is temporary and even healthy, as they flex their power and ability to solve problems creatively. This age is often a relief for parents, because if you fully explain to a child why they need to stay quiet in a library, they usually do.
In a narcissistic home, this stage of “rules bending” doesn’t develop their creative problem skills. What it exactly does, I am not sure, but perhaps it just perfects the child’s manipulation skills. And we’re talking about a child who isn’t even 4 yet. But look at all, as I just previously described, that they’ve been through. This is a child who was left abandoned when they desperately needed cuddled in infancy. They were bluntly moved around in the world, without any songs or fun to make it pleasant. Their deep emotions were never validated. How could they have anything but resentment for the needs of others when theirs were never satisfied? At the ages when they wonder what their character is and if they are good, they were consistently told they were bad–if not outright annoying. The delightful imagination that should mark childhood instead took on the form of scary ghosts and monsters lurking in every object they encountered. In comparison to others, what their minds are preoccupied with in the mid to late threes, they consistently came up short. And now they are learning how to use and bend rules to their advantage. Where creativity and mutual problem solving could have blossomed, how could anything except cunning and manipulation develop?
Note also that the very early 3s is marked by a child who deliberately picks a “role” to adopt. They might carry on as if they are their older brother. Or they pretend to be a crane. It is different than the twos because the realize they aren’t these things but are choosing to role play. Whereas at 2-1/2, they seem to think they are Snow White or Thomas the Train. This ability to try on a new character has obvious relevance to narcissism, in which the narcissist creates a “false self.” So, really, all of 3 to 4 is core personality integration.
So this is 3 to 4. It is distinctly marked by cognitive growth. They start by bouncing around abstract ideas, in which they make much better and more patterned abstract conclusions, e.g., putting letters into alphabetical order, as is distinct of the early 3s. They grow in their understanding of principles as applied to moving things and over time. They get really smart in their strategic thinking. They start to hold on to an enormous amount of information that they test and compare. They finalize the integration of their very core personality as they gather data about what is and who they are, as compared to others. Throughout all of this, they have wild imaginations that they gradually develop more control over. It ends with what I think of as a “lawyer”: a child who adorably uses their understanding of rules to their advantage.
Core personality integration. This is 3-4. It then launches into 4: a child ready to go out and “take on the world,” so to speak.
Reparenting 3 – 4
It’s here where I think some child-like games and activities might help. Simply playing around with something like perl beads can work this skill of putting things into patterns and plans. I find the activity fun as an adult. It is just plastic beads that you put wherever you want on a peg board, thus creating a sort of mosaic. Or, art in general can help, if you are already skilled at it.
Beginning card and board games are fun at this age. At this age, a child learns games at about the level of Go Fish. Some more advanced games may of course be better for the adult. A game with fair rules makes you feel safe, like the world is fair, and you have control over your destiny. Playing them with others, in a non-gambling way, increases a sense of connection too. I don’t know, however, that a narcissist could handle such “boredom.”
Most narcissists I know gamble in some way. If they don’t hit the casinos, they love, say, flying an airplane or the like. This likely deeply validates them. They constantly wonder if they are a mega-winner or a total loser, which they amount to pure luck. When they gamble, their inner world is made an actual reality. Either fate is acceptable to them. Mega winning makes them feel, well, like a narcissist: all knowing, strong, amazing. Losing confirms their worst fears and acts as a sort of relief. It’s better to get your sentence than be in limbo, not knowing what punishment a judge might deliver. Perhaps dealing directly with gambling addiction can help. I am sure books exist for this exact thing. I don’t want to take the fun of life away from you. I want you to feel more stable day in and day out, such that your moral worth doesn’t feel like it constantly needs put to the test. What can replace gambling? What is fun without constantly risking something that is as high stakes as your own moral worth?
I advocate a lot of descriptive praise for children starting shy of 3, really. As they try their hand at solving problems, they feel profoundly good when you notice what they did. If a parent never did this for you, try it for yourself. When you feel like you are failing, get out a pen and paper and list all the things you are good at. When I feel like a failure in life, I intuitively do this. Many successful people do this. It doesn’t make you a weakling dependent on “mummy’s support,” which is how I see narcissists describe giving such praise to a child. It is an entirely healthy, entirely human thing to do.
Age 4 – 5 Milestones
Hello, 4! In healthy child development, you now have a “superhero”! They know who they are, and they are ready to take on big challenges in the world.
Some child psychologists say children go through stages of being “in” then “out” in about 6-12 month cycles. This is certainly true of 3 into 4. Three is marked by core personality integration. They were “in,” working on their inner life. At 4, they undoubtedly go “out.”
From 3 to 4, you likely had to put on the child’s shoes and coats. This isn’t because they couldn’t. It’s because they still liked and needed your presence. Now they are likely to belligerently demand they do it on their own. They might trot off to their room and slam the door, as they value their privacy and want to try things on their own. This is a picture of my daughter right before her 4th birthday. We went around most places as Wonder Woman:
In the interest of brevity, I am going to make 4-5 and 5-6 shorter than the other descriptions. I also think the damage has mostly been done by 4. But highly relevant things still happen 4-5 and 5-6. Here are the 4-5 milestones:
A healthy child at 4 projects out. It’s as if, to any parent, that any house is too small to contain a 4-year-old child. They learn what is possible versus impossible: they can’t take their head off and put it on yours, but they can carry this heavy basket at the grocery store. Four year olds love to turbo charge what they can do, e.g., skip counting lets you count faster. They can run the full gamut of humor. They are just plain getting all sorts of practice at all sorts of things. A child who isn’t projecting out gets no such practice. They withdraw in. Put simply , how is the narcissist perfecting their skills at this time? Are they learning to care for others and trust? Or are they honing their skills of deception in a turbo charged way?
Four year olds are also prone to exaggerations: “We’ll NEVER get Christmas again,” when the holiday is over. How will an abused child handle this? Are they assured that holidays, like life events, come and go? Healthy four year olds say things like “It’s Ok to make mistakes. We can try again.” Does a narcissistic child learn that he can safely make mistakes without immediate reprimand?
Children absolutely love to hear that someone will ALWAYS love them at around 4-1/2. When they’re bad? Yup. When they spill something? Yup. In the spring? Yup. In the winter? Yup. What conclusion does a child put in a home where he cannot trust anyone come to? Likely that the only one he can truly rely on is himself.
At 4 years, 6 months, children (can) get really good at emotional restraint. They can get really, super angry, but calm down before acting. They might even move to solve a conflict among siblings. They also, interestingly, develop imaginary friends. They also all of a sudden kick up past memories. My theory on childhood memory is that they can remember things younger than 4-1/2, but only if they actively remembered it at 4-1/2. If so, it stays with them. If not, they drop it. They truly develop long term memory now. I bet your earliest memories are around 5 or, sporadically, somewhat younger. Use all of this to think of how it affects a child in a narcissistic home.
But what is really notable about 4 is that at nearly 5, or shortly after 5, they realize they really can die. Vampires and Freddy Kruger are fake, and that’s a relief. But tornadoes, fires, and robbers are really real and could really happen. This is a nightmare at first for children. This explains why they want you in their room late at night. I call this, which might start around 4, years, 10 months, “Loss of Fantastical Thinking.”
I actually asked a narcissist I know if he remembers this milestone. I ask people this, because I think most people can likely remember it. I vividly remember it. I’m trying to encourage empathy in people for what the child is going through. The narcissist became squeamish, coy, and nearly upset I asked. The impression I got is he had no such differentiation across all of childhood. In his mind, perhaps, at any time he could have died. Narcissists do not experience a middle age crisis. That is because their whole life is a mid life crisis: they constantly feel robbed of a better life. Similarly, I wonder if the narcissistic child does not endure this milestone like others do. To him, it’s just another day.
4 – 5 Reparenting
I mean, what can you do this late in the game?
Between 4 and 5, the child loves a lot of reassurance that you love them no matter what. I expect this is why so many love religion after suffering from such personality disorders: it promises unconditional love. But, unfortunately, most religions have no mature, useful ways to deal with abuse (see: their constant sex scandals). A narcissist has a very thwarted view of unconditional love. To him it doesn’t mean, “love me, flaws and all.” It means, “never leave me, abuse and all.” They want to insult and abuse with wanton abandon, but their victim is to take it and never fight back. It proves to them that their “true” self is also lovable. This is not–I repeat not–what unconditional love should be about.
Truly, I think you have to stand up to the narcissist, but specifically their false self. I think they want people to do this. I think they can’t understand why people take their abuse. They want to be kept in line. If you can do this while simultaneously loving their actual core self, you might see healing.
When a child is experiencing such fear about fires, etc., a parent can show them they have an emergency plan. You gather at a place and leave the house. You act. You move. We can conquer threats to us. They are very unlikely to happen to us. And if they do, we as a whole family will help.
Most narcissists I know are conspiracy theorists. They see hit men and murder where there isn’t any. A more realistic view of threats may help, along with some tools of how to deal with it. I’m not sure. Someone else has to be there with them to do it. I strongly advocate we have such a mentorship culture to help each other in every book I write.
Otherwise, 4-5 is a lot of tinkering with big problems and if it has positive effect. What can replace this at the adult level except actual life experience, except not done through the narcissistic lens? This means done through a lens different than one that sees every single life act as a trial of one’s moral worth.
So these are really important, because it truly is the first time a child has conscious control over his fate.
Up until 5, a child is incredibly fantastical. They sincerely see a superhero and a villain in the van, and they create an imaginative story about it. Everything sort of happens to the child before 5. It’s not until “Loss of Fantastical Thinking” do they think they are “really real.” And then, and only then, do they walk around thinking, “Holy. Cow. Everything matters now.” They can walk into a building, and people might like them–or they might not. And they have control over it. It’s scary yet exhilarating, depending on how it goes. And this is the first time ever they have such awareness. And the damage has already thoroughly been done.
Here are the milestones:
We’re somewhat back to “in” at 5, although as within their environment. A child perfects their personality in 5-6. They take the time to bow like a prince, perfecting every single part of their body when they do it. They might pose like a fashion model. They play around with lying big time and realize, fully, around 5-1/2 that people can really be wrong. Their sense of drama grows. Truly, I love this age. Early fives is indeed marked by a child who won’t back off. They needle and harass other children. But I always have a receptive learner in through 5. They can truly be a delight.
One thing about 5 is they start to think about the future. They wonder who they’ll marry and how many kids they’ll have. My daughter, raised in a healthy home, already has worries. She worries that a man will ever marry her. Our society itself is narcissistic. It says, “You will not receive lifelong unconditional love, security, or sex until you get married.” Or, “You are nothing unless you get a college degree.” And as young as 5, a child already worries about such fates. I think our expectations of humans are too much. Marriage, for instance, should be seen as a more natural state that happens when a couple finally wants to have children. It is not the end all, be all of romance, as it is presented in every story, fairy tale, magazine, and movie. We lack a certain flow in Western culture. And it affects our children.
One final note about five. An Oedpius Complex is found sometimes in narcissists. They lust after their mother. I find children start to “seduce” adults around 5-1/2. At least some kind of romantic feelings develop, which coincides largely with the “Drama and Passion” milestone listed. Some think narcissism is a product of not giving up self love in favor of loving another. I think this is overly simplistic. At what age do children “love others”? Because at 2-1/2, they start to develop empathy, which then develops in complexity. They more go “in” and “out” throughout all of development.
But if there is one age where they learn to “love” others, it’s around 5-1/2. My son showed romantic interest in me at this age. I believe I was the symbolic object for other desires, e.g., he had other girls or women in his head, but I was the handy female around to try out the new fantasies with. I encouraged him to direct it yet elsewhere: at characters in books, perhaps, after validating for him that it was ok and “women sure are pretty.” I don’t even want to think of how this was handled for a narcissist. A child coming on to their parent, which is entirely normal, likely did not go well at all in an abusive home.
Their personality is mostly set by 5 (if not 4). They are learning many skills at 5, obviously. They can take bits of information and project it long term. They can learn to read a map and use the map, from memory, later. They can help plan a vacation. But what if it’s all being done through the narcissistic lens? Reparenting may mean unlearning what they learned.
So, now that the damage is done, all future milestones are done from a dysfunctional personality. And if I wrote out all the skills that develop, it would be sobering–unfathomable–to think of how much damage is being done at each one.
Some brief thoughts about 6+. First, I think the child is highly vulnerable to sexual abuse. And I want to state unequivocally: you deserved not one ounce of it. You did not ask for it. You were not too sexy. You were not too annoying. Nothing about you “marked” you. Adults failed you. Period.
Otherwise, what more can be said? The child is going to withdraw in instead of project out. They’ll develop their skills as within a fantasy world, not the real world. They might find their home in art or otherwise learning to charm and manipulate others.
I do think certain personalities are more prone to narcissism than others. Contrary to popular thinking, I think sensitive children are less likely to develop narcissism and thrill seeking children are more likely.
At this point, anyone who uses the word “sensitive” without explaining what they mean is being lazy. It has a specific definition now, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. A sensitive person doesn’t like too much stimuli. They process things so much that they are more easily overwhelmed. They withdraw.
I have one sensitive boy and one thrill seeking boy. My first, the sensitive one, if he doesn’t like a situation, will leave. That’s what sensitive people do. My third, my thrill seeker, stays. He wants more and more stimulation. He falls over quite a bit but gets back up. The fun of what he is doing outweighs the pain of it for him.
As such, I believe my third is more vulnerable to trauma. He is more willing to stick around with an uncomfortable situation. My first son’s sensitivity helps to protect his inner world, which is so precious to highly sensitive people.
My third, the thrill seeker, is also naturally more charming. He has more natural resources to put into the development of a “false self.” Narcissists tend to be thrill seeking, charming people junkies. This does not at all describe a highly sensitive person, who tends to be thoughtful, reserved, and often quiet. Both may want to be alone for long periods of time, but it’s not for the same reasons.
I think the sensitive child is more likely to develop codependency, in which they take on more responsibility than they need to (ahem), than narcissism.
Misbehavior is Growth
If my work can heal narcissism, I don’t know. But it certainly can prevent it.
The thing about these stages is I believe they get wired in a child’s mind. The stages are very predictable. You went through a loss of fantastical thinking around 5, and your child will too. How your parents handled it got etched into your mind. When your child goes through it, it is likely to kick up some deep, latent memories in you. Everything will feel a bit like de ja vu. You are likely to start “acting like your mother” or father. Unless you know to expect the behavior and consciously choose to respond differently.
I have received hundreds of notes at this point that I help parents stay patient during these maddening stages. I help ground them. And many of them said they came from a toxic background and understanding these milestones was a game changer for them as a parent.
My book series is called Misbehavior is Growth. There are periods of disarray (“misbehavior”) followed by new abilities (“growth”). My guess is the narcissistic parent loved their child during the growth periods but not the misbehavior periods. I wonder if it causes narcissism itself. Narcissism is a product of being abandoned by caregivers, emotionally. Why do caregivers do this? Perhaps because children are difficult.
Further, narcissists want to project an ideal. So they boast when their child is in the “growth” period. But what about the natural “misbehavior” period? It’s a source of embarrassment. Perhaps this itself sets in the highly familiar narcissistic cycles of idealization followed by discard. And narcissists tend to be wealthy. They have a lot to throw at the child if the child “misbehaves.” They may put into place excessive measures to try to contain the misbehavior. Sending a child for psychological help, for instance, is such a measure. And it sends the child a clear message: there is something wrong with you. Much current advice nearly brags about winning the stand off between parent and child when the child acts up. We so often hear to “ignore” the stages. Adults puff up with pride that they can act as a stalwart against the behavior. You know … Unruffled.
I advocate you go to children during the stages. Children become all but “narcissistic” during every single stage. I reject roundly the idea that parenting is a “gentle” effort in which we primarily contain the beast within the child by teaching them calming techniques. Parenting is outright messy. At every stage, the child becomes aggressive, ravenous, and relentlessly demanding in getting their intellectual, physical, and emotional needs met. Some calming tools imparted are cool, but it shouldn’t be the primary goal, i.e., the primary goal is not to simply make them not angry. The goal is to meet the developmental need. The quicker and better you are at meeting these needs, whatever they are and they change at every milestone, the quicker you tame the beast. Narcissistic parents, who so proudly announce they are “ignoring” these stages or pathologize them as a child seeking “attention” can only wildly frustrate the child. What can the child do except get their needs met through one and only one way: violence.
By understanding the cycles of misbehavior and growth, perhaps we can finally break the cycle.
I don’t think any wife/mom who has had to deal with this situation will have anything but a rather negative reaction to this article. When you look through the comments on Facebook, most said that the resentful partner, not the caregiver, needs to deal with this. Here were just a few of the (totally justified and on point) comments:
“.. instead of the non birth partner feeling slighted couldnt they speak up & offer help with the babies needs? You know help with the load & allow the birth parent sometime? “
” way to give the birth parent yet even MORE pressure to keep it all together. “
” a new mom is in no way responsible for helping a parenting parter manage their big feelings “
You see, here’s the thing. Our society is woefully uneducated and unprepared to deal with abuse. And dealing with a partner who isn’t pitching in after you just had a baby, and is causing you to yet further tend to their emotional needs, is being emotionally abusive. That is one of the ways we aren’t prepared for abuse: a woman has to have physical bruises to prove abuse–and even then, our culture is likely to blame her, if not fine her. Having resentment looming in the air is awful when you are trying to tend to a family, let alone a highly demanding new baby. It’s hard to do things with a grumpy pants around. It would sincerely be better for the caregiver to be totally alone in this situation.
But we can’t go after the abusive person. We as a culture find that too aggressive, too unkind, too … what do you want to call it? So because we can’t just directly go after ugly behavior, we have a million other different ways of saying and dealing with things, all of which end up being unhelpful in some way. We will say others need to “learn to set their boundaries,” but we won’t go after the person repeatedly violating boundaries. The effect is that you are lecturing someone who HAS been setting their boundaries over and over again–you are blaming them.
In this case, we are now asking the caregiver to add yet more to her duties, to deal with a grumpy partner, so she can soothe him, so she can get the help she needs. Do you see how rugged individualism in fact fails us? This is why I wrote Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Rugged individualism, with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism driving so much of it, fails us in so many ways. We proudly announce, “only we can do anything about our situation!” How about this: we challenge people’s thought patterns and ethics that engender this bad behavior. We need to start putting pressure on people behaving badly, not put yet more pressure and give yet more “guidance” to the people on the receiving end of people behaving badly.
I propose when it comes to this kind of thing that we validate feelings but not behavior. So validating feelings looks like this, “I see how exhausted you are after just giving birth.” It may also look like this, “It can be hard to not have sex after your wife just had birth.” But we still take people to task about their errant thinking and behavior. “You need to pitch in when your wife just had a baby and just deal with the fact that you cannot currently have sex.”
Setting boundaries, by the way, ends up looking a lot like making other people seem really resentful and grumpy. It’s kind of sort of what boundaries do.
I do age-related child developmental research. I document the “stages” children go through, where they fall apart for a period of time then have a burst of new ability. See the main page of this site: The Observant Mom! See Misbehavior is Growth.
I’ve long been confused that people so often condemn the positive parenting tool of distraction. “Distracting” a child can play a healthy role in parenting. I write about it here: Distraction is Not Distraction. It applies in a specific context. If you want to get the child to do something they don’t want to do or are afraid to do, you can distract them. If your child had to have a scary medical procedure, you would probably distract them with a pleasant song or story. If you have to get a shirt on a toddler who is unwilling, you would probably distract them with a silly song or maybe by playfully throwing a sock at them. Every single caregiver does these things at times. These things are much better than getting annoyed, pleading, begging, or punishing a child. You are right there, in the throes of things, offering your comforting presence to a child, to keep things moving along. These are are highly normal and effective ways to get children into diapers, into the bath, through dentist appointments, etc.
When people are opposed to “distraction” in an unhealthy way, it’s usually because the child’s needs are being purposely ignored, if not purposely manipulated. This isn’t “distraction.” This is gaslighting. And, yes, stop.
Gaslighting is a known abuse tactic. Anyone who lives in the world of survivors of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is probably familiar with it. It’s when an abuser makes a victim doubt their reality. The term comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight in which a devious husband tries to convince his wife that she is going crazy by doing things like making gas lights flicker and then telling her she is crazy for thinking she saw them. Have you ever lost your keys or wallet and could have sworn you put them in a particular spot? This is totally crazy making, isn’t it? Being made to doubt your own reality via your own mind is one of the worst cruelties a person can endure.
Let’s say a child knows they put their leftovers from last night’s dinner in the refrigerator. But, little do they know, a parent ate them. As the child goes to look for the leftovers, they can’t find them. They keep looking and looking for the leftovers, becoming more and more distraught. The offending parent, however, doesn’t fess up to eating the leftovers. Instead, they try to get the child to eat something else, watch their favorite show, or do anything except deal with the reality at hand. This isn’t “distraction.” This is gaslighting. A child will spin into mental craziness. They know the leftovers were put there yesterday, but no one will tell them what happened to the food. Their own memory and sanity are under question. To add insult, the parent yells at them for getting angry. A child’s intellect and emotions have now just been invalidated. There is little worse for any person than this double whammy.
If you are attempting to get the child through something difficult by singing a silly song, you’re distracting the child, but you are leaning into their need. It’s entirely healthy. If you are avoiding the child’s very need because you don’t want to respond to the child’s need or don’t want to fess up to your own bad behavior, you are gaslighting them. If the child is fully aware of all facts of a situation but just having difficulty and you try to avoid the pain of the reality, this is distraction. If any part of reality is being denied to the child, it is gaslighting. One stems from a highly attentive and loving caregiver. The other stems from a highly entitled jerk of a caregiver who doesn’t want to deal with the situation.
I watch gaslighting behavior more than I like. I watch caregivers say to their child something like “It’s time to get your rain coat on today! We called the sun and he didn’t want to come out so you need your rain coat!” A person should not be surprised when they use such a nonsensical argument that it goes nowhere with a child. It’s very invalidating of the child’s intellect.
I can’t think of any situation in which a child is fully aware of a situation but simply scared that some amount of emotional comfort isn’t warranted. You would easily do it for a friend. If a child is under extreme duress, it is not “teaching resilience” to let them languish without any “distraction” or other technique. The best parents are sensitive ones (blog to come, by the way). They actively monitor a child. If the child is under duress, a parent responds. That’s what sensitivity is. The child straight up needs emotional support, just like any adult would. We humans help each other in such times of uncertainty. It’s what we do. We need this. “Distraction” can play a role in this. I see no situation in which distracting someone from a known painful situation is a bad thing. I intuitively do it in many situations. When I had to have an MRI, in which I was in an enclosed space that feels like a coffin, I strongly reminded myself that I was not in fact in a coffin. I distracted myself mentally. I got so comfortable, I fell asleep. This is distinctly unlike what many other people tell me how their MRIs went, in which they were terrified the whole time. A few mental and emotional tools go a long way. Stop denying them to children. There is nothing wrong with distraction.
I know “gaslighting” is a strong word, and I intend it to be. I just wrote a book in which I propose that we start taking moral aim at abuse itself. Not at laziness. Not at selfishness. Not at evasion. Abuse. Gaslighting is abuse. As a culture, we are shy to call out abuse as such. We call men who fail their wives in some big way “knuckle heads.” When someone is the victim of abuse, we ask the victim to get louder and stronger in “setting their boundaries,” even though they have been, repeatedly. We almost never ask the abuser to stop being abusive. When I call out inter-personal behavior as abusive, people get all over me about using such a strong word. But, I propose, as a culture, we are terrible at standing up to actual abuse. Our moral paradigms don’t allow for it. This is why I wrote Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics.
At the very least in reading this, I hope you are more aware of gaslighting behavior. And when you see it, yes. Please call it out.
With the work I do on the age-related stages that children go through, I’ve learned that our deep views on human nature matter profoundly. Our entire thought paradigms on how to raise a child into an adult are heavily influenced by what we think of human nature itself. It tends to influence and be influenced by our thoughts on ethics. I’ve found in doing this work that in order to push the agenda I am pushing, which is to lean into child development fully, long standing views on human nature need challenged. This means that longstanding views on ethics need challenged. As I’ve more than learned: this will be no small feat.
The longstanding view on human nature is that the inner world, if left alone, is uncivilized. It is either outright bad itself or at least in need of a taming, civilizing ethics. This is exactly what I am challenging.
The view on human nature for the past century is that we are born, as some call it “tabula rasa”–with a “blank slate.” The best way I’ve been able to describe tabula rasa is that we are born with an internal emotional mechanism, but that this mechanism is like a wild horse that we have to tame. Sure, everyone agrees we’re born with emotions–but the longstanding view is that we can tell these emotions what to do for us. Without strong thoughts and strong ethics, this internal mechanism, this “horse” will do terrible things and cause damage.
This idea of a blank slate dominated the 20th century. It gives rise to the idea of a “self made” man, but not self made as in accomplished but as in stylizing your own soul. The only real question was who tames this horse and how. Should we program that inner world to be altruistic such as to blend into the bigger community? Or should it be programmed to value rationality and productivity? Whether the thinker was B.F. Skinner or Ayn Rand, they all operated on this blank slate theory.
With this work I do on child development, I unequivocally reject this idea of a blank slate. I as such reject the need to “civilize” a child. This is the heart and soul of my main challenge in all of my work, whether its child development or philosophical. We do not need to restrain, control, or tame the inner world. We can liberalize it and let it do its thing. That “horse” is already designed astonishing well.
I say this so forcefully because of the child development work I do. I document the age-related “stages” children go through. These are times when a child falls apart for some time, at highly predictable age-related times, but then show an astonishing burst of new ability. Children might become whiny, aggressive, clumsy, uncoordinated, confused, they might purposely lie, etc. But on the other side of this is a calm child with an astonishing new ability.
I find these stages are dual natured. A child who enters a stage in which they playfully blame others for what they do is soon to take on an astonishing amount of personal responsibility. The child who plays around with lying is soon to be a child who can call others out on their lying. A child who won’t back off when upset is a child who will seen follow through on the projects they start.
This is why I do not punish nor correct any of it. I sit back and watch the behavior, usually over the course of weeks, to see what is going on. I provide safety to everyone in the house, but I do not seek to fundamentally alter the child. Each time, I have found the behavior dissipates and what was in store was amazing. This is the idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth.
You might see how counter this view is to any modern thought on parenting. A child who is hitting or lying or blaming others is seen by most adults as something to correct or even punish. Even “positive parenting” doesn’t see the misbehavior as something to watch with wonder. It sees misbehavior as perhaps likely temporary but as something to correct “positively.” It’s still seen as a child’s inner world is like clay for us to mold.
I am saying it is not. Their growth is prewired and that “horse” inside of them, while indeed wild and who bucks around a lot, is doing incredible, miraculous work.
The results of my parenting approach have been pretty jaw dropping. My argument is that, if that “misbehavior” is indeed brain growth, we should lean into it. We should learn what skill is forming and nurture it. I proudly, unapologetically advocate we nurture their forming intellectual skills. Nurturing these skills is not usually on people’s radar. Education is seen as something you do at school. It is seen as a cumbersome, burdensome task that we should put off as long as possible in the name of “play.” And it is often “the latest research in brain science” that advocates putting off any amount of education, which really enrages me. I propose education isn’t bad, but the insensitive, traditional, dry form of education we all know as “school” is what is bad. It’s not that; it’s how. We need to be observant and sensitive to children.
As I’ve watched the new forming intellectual skills in my children, I find they happily receiver whatever highly customized lesson I make for them. At 5, for instance, because I noticed my son understood how things change over a variable, I taught him angles. At 5-1/2, as children love heroic stories, I started reading history. In the early 2s, as children show they understand symbols, I taught letters. The list goes on. As I write this, my son, at 7, can do advanced math in his head, such as 82X7. At 6, he could figure out what plus -6 equal 119,114. He can recite more history and more science than most adults. He is going to be featured in a math book, still being written, by Denise Gaskins for prealgebra students for a math game he invented. My daughter could read by the time she was 3. She builds Legoes endlessly at 5 and can recite just about any plot line from the stories she loves to read.
I did not squash any part of my children’s internal or emotional development to do this, as is the usual argument against education at young ages. If they didn’t like a lesson, we stopped. I’m not trying to brag, but I want to impress upon you how much potential we can unleash by leaning in to children’s brain development.
I have found that this is an ethical battle. The direct view of some philosophers is to take a child born “tabula rasa” and “transform” them into X. You see, this is profoundly opposite of what I am saying. You don’t need to “transform” children into anything. The amazing part of them is already there. There is this amazing apparatus that works in the background to build a child’s mind. That apparatus is exactly what I document with these age-related milestones. The “horse,” the background processes of the mind, does not need tamed. We should not mold it. We should understand it, respect it, and lean into it. Tabula rasa is directly in the way of this.
Blank slate theory assumes a child is like a piece of clay to be molded. When things go bad, the thought is to fix it. The expectation thus becomes that a child is mostly calm and anything else is wrong. Tabula rasa quite simply engenders a very authoritarian approach. Hands off! Get your hands off the very soul of a child. Let it flourish. Liberalize the inner world. They do not any civilizing ethics put on them. My argument is that the irritating behavior during each stage is a bid for connection. They certainly need us to come to them to help them, but in a benevolent, responsive mentoring role. Not a molding one.
This is why I wrote Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Our ethical views need to change, and I’ve found there is nothing so stubborn as a person’s adopted ethical framework. The challenge gets even more complicated than what is presented here. Rugged individualism typically puts children into a classroom setting and expects them to rise or fall with how studious they are. Instead, adults should adopt a much more responsible role to guarantee the success of the child by actively monitoring a child’s development, which is what anyone who follows my work does. Children should have a rich environment in which they can play, grow, and experiment. We need an ethical framework of caregiving, to nurture, not rugged individualism. It really comes down to a basic resource issue. Monitoring a child’s development is unpaid labor, typically, and the kind of resources we put towards it are just abysmal. Moms, and 99.9% of my followers are moms, are not supported to do this work that the typically wish they could do more of. I could barely get this post written, in between constant demands from a 3 year old. I have to organize myself, politically and personally, for advocacy, in between constant demands for drinks and changing diapers.
People outside of mothers need to understand how important this is and fully uphold it. We need to stop throwing scraps at children, generation after generation, then telling them repeatedly to “get over” their bad childhood. Truly, the only question is: do we give a shit or not? Sorry for swearing, but this battle is so difficult that some rattling needs done.
If we do (give a shit), it is in these age-related milestones that you can see how important child development it is, how much work it is–and how worth it it is.
I document the age-related stages children go through. It is times where they become very difficult to deal with, but then they grow in an astonishing way. I think understanding these stages may be the key to finally understanding, healing, and fundamentally respecting child development and its enormous importance. How we handle children can go really well or really poorly.
These age-related milestones create an explosive mix. During a developmental stage, a child becomes difficult. It is typical of boys, for instance, in the late fours to become aggressive. They might kick, hit, and pummel other people, often adult men. Girls can get very, very whiny. This is all but exasperating for a lot of parents. There is overlap in the sexes and everything, but I offer these as highly relatable examples of how these stages affect a typical family.
And here’s the issue: during these times of highly irritating behavior, some highly important brain growth is occurring. My argument in my Misbehavior is Growth book series is that these irritating behaviors are bids for connection. The child is all but demanding that their intellectual growth needs be met.
So you have here a highly explosive mix: the child is highly irritating but during a highly sensitive developmental period. In other words, the risk for abuse is high and the damage inflicted would be serious. This is what I want to impress on people.
Our culture is not tolerant of hearing that developmental trauma actually affects us. Read through the work of trauma therapists and see how exasperated they are when they try to show that developmental trauma (which is in childhood) is just as horrific as blunt or other life traumas. The research shows emotional and verbal abuse is just as bad as physical abuse as well. You can start with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s work, The Body Keeps the Score. He tried to make developmental trauma recognized as a condition but was turned down by those declaring it was mere prejudice.
If I can show people how important handling these developmental stages are, maybe a dent can be made in this.
Take for instance the late fours and early fives. You can easily explore this site to see these age-related milestones. In this time, the child realizes they really can die. That’s big heavy stuff for a 4 year old. I bet you remember it from your youth. Sure, Dracula is fake, but fires are real–and you really can get hurt now. Similarly, you can also be rejected by a friend. You might not be the fastest kid in the class. I describe it in my book on 3 and 4 year olds (not released yet) as a child who realizes they “really exist” now. They lose their fantastical thinking but gain realism–and this is both a great new growth and a scary reality.
Starting at 5, children start to project out. They are really real and so is their environment. They become actors in that environment. Children at 5 love to play parts. They might pretend to be a magician, a comedian, a prince, a princess. My daughter liked to strut down shopping aisles describing herself as “famous.”
Now I want to imagine a child who was abused in this time. How will this affect their feeling of social likability?
I bet if you could identify when a child had trauma, you could find the milestone they likely were going through and find what skill they may be lacking. For instance, I was emotionally abused during this 5 year old time. I do not remember ever feeling like I was “famous” or taking pride in acting like a princess or magician. I vividly remember feeling I was intensely unlikable and told “boring stories.” I remember that to this day. This part of me never grew.
I wonder if you similarly asked traumatized victims of skills that should have grown during a particular milestone if you see that skill is missing. It is known that most personality disorders get set before the age of 6 and some well before the age of 6. In the 2s, children grow in their memory, a sense of right and wrong, and empathy. It is known narcissistic personality disorder sets somewhere between the ages of 2 and 3. What if a person’s very first experiences with these things, empathy and a sense of right and wrong, were harsh, cold, cruel, and unpredictable? This is big, heavy stuff. If you studied a child at these ages and what they do and felt and ask an suffering adult if they felt these things, I be the results would be astonishing.
Perhaps you could look at the milestones and see what kind of skills should have grown and design therapies for those very things. For instance, for the early 5s, I recommend having the child tell Knock Knock jokes while everyone laughs heartily to increase their self-confidence. Similar “trauma drama” therapies are used for adults. Being able to be in a play while others adore you is powerful therapy.
If you share my passion to see people respect and understand child development and its enormous impact, please share this article. Please see my page about Future Research to help add to and spread the work.
I think people take it as a given that Ayn Rand supported a person’s right to self-defense. Certainly, if my social media feeds are any indication, most people who really like Ayn Rand tend to favor gun rights and for self-defense, although there are certainly exceptions. Or, others wish she had been more “clear” about her stance. But her stance was clear: Ayn Rand did not favor gun rights for use of self-defense.
When it comes to guns themselves, she agrees you might own one, but only because you might use it to hunt. When it comes to self-defense, she agrees this is the only rightful use of force. But here’s the kicker: she does not grant that you personally can defend yourself. You have a right to self-defense, but it is up to the government to carry it out. Anything else, according to Rand, would result in total anarchy.
Rand famously writes that a government has a “legal monopoly on the use of physical force.” This phrase “legal monopoly” plain never sat well with me. What does that mean? Certainly it seems to mean that only those in government are allowed the use of force.
In explaining her view on the use of force, in typical Randian style, she first validates the reader’s concerns. In “Man’s Rights” she writes, “Potentially government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed citizens” (115).
Yup, I couldn’t agree more. But what is her stance on self-defense? And why did she just describe me as someone who should be “legally disarmed”?
In “The Nature of Government” she again validates the reader’s concern about an obtrusive government. But then she writes,
“…the use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens” (127).
The use of force. Even its retaliatory use. Cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.
Before I go on, let me ask you this: what would you do if you were missing your wallet? Go on a psychopathic rampage? This is Rand’s explanation for why an individual citizen cannot be trusted with “the retaliatory use” of physical force, i.e., self-defense. She asks us to visualize:
“…what would happen if a man missed his wallet, concluded that he had been robbed, broke into every house in the neighborhood to search it, and shot the first man who gave him a dirty look, taking the look to be a proof of guilt.”
This is what you would do if you were missing your wallet right?
Rand does what she does here: she directs your mind where she wants. In Towards Liberalism, my book challenging Objectivism, the challenge I give to the reader constantly is to see the unseen. Rand is an expert at taking your mind and leading it where she wants. Don’t let her do this. She confuses the entire issue by immediately jumping to a person who will go on a rampage, becoming judge and jury, i.e., enacts their version of justice, over a missing wallet. But what if a person’s life is immediately under threat? This is the issue and she skims right over it. That she directs your mind elsewhere and doesn’t address immediate life threats makes this Objectivist Blindspot #4.
Some point out that in Galt’s speech she says if you met a highway robber, you would kill them. But her point in this is much more abstract. She’s explaining why Galt is on strike against society, not following the rules. I take her explicit non-fiction as the authoritative source on her political views. And she makes her stance explicitly clear here in “The Nature of Government”:
“There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. Or, to put it another way, he must accept the separation of force and whim (any whim, including his own) (129). “
She doesn’t say you have to delegate justice to the government. She says you have to delegate out physical self-defense. To be clear, her position isn’t that you don’t have a right to self-defense. It’s that you have to delegate this right to the government to carry it out. Yes, she intends the populace to be legally disarmed.
As very few believe me that she does not support your right to personal self-defense, i.e., YOUR right to ENACT self-defense, I made a meme with the relevant quote again. Please read it slowly:
I get it this doesn’t make sense to YOU, and not what YOU believe. But we’ve long been berated that Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. You need to put aside what YOU think and look at what SHE wrote. I get it that she makes a fancy, long argument about you don’t have the right to kill anyone you feel like because your wallet went missing. This is Rand’s word salad. She is manipulating you. She takes your mind where she wants it to go. How does Rand just totally skim over the topic of what would happen if your life is immediate danger? Has Ayn Rand ever shied away from any topic or left her stance vague? No, she hasn’t. Read the quote above and read through her work. She says you must “delgat[e] to the government [your] right of physical self-defense.” Not retaliatory force. Physical self defense. It’s actually far more than just this. Her entire philosophy also turns off your “whims,” which is your instincts, which are so important in such a high stress situation when your life is in danger. And she legally disarms you–her words. Hear this: your guru is a predator. This is what predators do. They turn off the instinctual spidey senses in their victims, the stuff that makes your hair stand on its back when needed. She slanders your ability to act appropriately or responsibly with force itself. Narcissists are known to absolutely hate gun rights–they know such guns would be used against them in their darkest moments. See more about how this narcissistic pyschopath praised a child murderer. Read through her fiction. Read how Howard Roark smiled the slow smile of “executioner.” Read how Kira’s eyes in We the Living are “dark with ecstasy” as she watches a master whip his slaves. Ayn Rand is not who you think she is.
Here is Rand on gun rights themselves:
Q: What’s your attitude toward gun control?
A: It is a complex, technical issue in the philosophy of law. Handguns are instruments for killing people — they are not carried for hunting animals — and you have no right to kill people. You do have the right to self-defense, however. I don’t know how the issue is going to be resolved to protect you without giving you the privilege to kill people at whim. (Ayn Rand, Ford Hall Forum, 1973)
One way or the other, I contend: Ayn Rand did not support gun rights for the purpose of self defense. Did she support martial arts or picking up a bat to fight back at a robber? One way or the other she says, “you have no right to kill people.” So you have no right to kill the other person if your life is in danger. Which effectively neuters you. And one way or the other, I don’t see how you actually, in practical reality, have a right to immediate self-defense without the right to gun ownership. Let alone the means to fight government tyranny.
For decades, I’ve seen on blogs, forums, and now social media that Rand was not clear in her position on gun rights or self-defense. Yes she was. She was very clear. I wonder sometimes if people just don’t want to hear it. Or maybe she is so validating of their concerns about big government that they cannot possibly contemplate what her view actually was. People so strongly believe that Rand is a heroic voice standing up to dictatorship and oppression. In truth, in this instance, if your life was immediately threatened, you would be left exposed, helpless, and vulnerable.
I propose that her view on self-defense stems, like all bad ideologies stem, from an errant view of human nature. As quoted above, she comes to this conclusion about self-defense after asking us to visualize a psychopath going around murdering people over a missing wallet. This is exactly the issue: one’s views on human nature. And this was Rand’s view. Her view was that our inner world, by nature, at birth, is a bunch of chaotic whims prone to murder unless there is some civilizing ethics put on a person. This is what Objectivism does. It takes a man born “tabula rasa” and turns them into a rational producer, the Objectivist ideal. Rand has elaborate ideas on morality, emotions, the subconscious, etc., to go in and “program” (her word) a person to be this ideal. There is a molding process is Objectivism.
I propose that all bad ideas are based on the errant view of tabula rasa. All dictatorships had a very thwarted view on the nature of human nature itself. They all saw a person as essentially moldable. With enough conditioning and pressure, a person could live in the blissful harmony of a communist Utopia. I propose Objectivism is based on the same errant principle of tabula rasa, which also says that a person is programmable–Rand’s word. The best way I can explain tabula rasa is the idea that a person’s emotional mechanism is like a wild horse that, unless tamed, does terrible things. This idea of a wild inner world that needs tamed–controlled–is what I take to task so hard in Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Our inner world is not a bunch of uncivilized chaotic whims. It is a fully alive, trustworthy world that simply needs tended to properly from birth on. If handled this way, it is our greatest ally towards our health and prosperity.
And, with this view, a person could be trusted with gun rights for the use of self-defense.
Please bookmark this post and use it when the issue inevitably comes up! And take to task anyone who thinks Rand supports gun rights for self-defense. She did not. As I ask the reader in Towards Liberalism: Please look at Objectivism for what it is.