No impulses run more counter to the scriptural admonition to love our neighbor as we love ourselves than the twin cultural idols of individualism and instant gratification. Christian parents, if you’re searching for a simple way to be countercultural, here it is: Train your children toward shared identity and self-sacrifice.
Individualism says that I can and should do what’s best for me regardless of what’s best for others. Instant gratification assures me waiting is not a discipline to embrace but rather an enemy to eliminate.
At every turn, I am told that I can and should have what I want when I want it. I’m offered goods and services customized not just to my own preferences but to my values and beliefs as well.
Not surprisingly, our twin idols account for a sharp rise in narcissism, one that psychologist Jean Twenge has dubbed “the Narcissism Epidemic.”
Earlier this year, my husband and I spent two weeks with an apparent narcissist named Charlotte. From the moment we stepped into her space, it was all about her. She demanded our full attention day and night. Forget rational arguments or the needs of others; it was The Charlotte Show 24/7.
She thought only of herself and demanded loudly and often that her needs be met. Our schedules bowed to her every whim. She uttered not a word of gratitude during the entire 14 days.
And we didn’t mind one bit. Because all 7 pounds and 15 ounces of her was doing exactly what she should. Our newest grandchild’s age-appropriate focus is to declare, Me, right now! any time she is tired, hungry, or needs a clean diaper. And our age-appropriate focus as her adult caregivers is to embody the virtues of “others, not yet.”
An infant demands what it wants when it wants it, and rightly so. Babies self-advocate as a survival instinct. They understand only the immediate need. But what is appropriate in an infant is appalling in an adult. Mature adulthood is placing the needs of others before my own and delaying personal gratification because I know eventually it will come.
An adult who demands what he wants when he wants it is a costly presence in any community, prioritizing his own needs above those of others and of the group. He has not learned to “put away childish things,” as the Bible says (1 Cor. 13:11, KJV); he has managed to grow physically from a baby to an adult without shedding the childish mantra of “me, right now.”
It is our job as Christian parents to move our children from the immaturity of individualism and instant gratification to the maturity of sacrificial service and delayed gratification.
This is what it means to transition from childhood to adulthood. After all, what is maturity if not the ability to think of others before ourselves and to delay personal gratification on their behalf? Maturity is movement from me to us and from right now to not yet.
In its obsession with “me, right now,” our culture doesn’t just worship youthfulness; it worships childishness, legitimizing it into adulthood. And if we’re not vigilant, the twin idols of individualism and instant gratification may become enshrined in our homes.
Thus, Christian parents strive to model and train children in the virtue of awareness of the needs of others and our duty to meet those needs. And they strive to model and train children in the virtue of waiting. The first and most influential place where children learn these lessons is the home.
As parents, our first challenge is to meet the needs of babies crying out, Me, right now. But our greater task over the years is to train our children to mature and outgrow their entitlement, to resist the narcissistic norms of our age.
This doesn’t come naturally. We must govern our family calendars and budgets to prioritize shared identity over individualized pursuits. We must leverage opportunities for delayed gratification as our children grow.
And we must renew our own commitment to shared identity and self-denial. More than our verbal instructions, our very lives will teach our children what it means to be an adult who follows Christ.
Want to be countercultural? Train up your children to mature adulthood. Build a family identity around the Great Commandment as a strong antidote to the narcissistic spirit of the age.
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