'Me-First' Kids: Afraid to Fail

Gray is a free-lance writer who specializes in family issues

A 6-year-old from Santa Monica says that when he grows up, he wants to "make $100,000 a year. I don't know what I'll do, but that's what I'll have to make."

A 12-year-old Los Angeles boy says that his dad tells him "there are no good losers. If you don't win, you're a loser--and a loser is a loser." Call it individualism gone berserk.

A number of child psychologists and educators are seeing what they say is a new phenomenon: me-firstism.

According to Stanford psychologist Carl Thoresen, me-first kids don't necessarily scream, cry and have tantrums like regular spoiled children.

"They're highly competitive at very young ages," he says. "They can't work in groups, they're self-centered and selfish. And they tend to have the attitude that if you're not center stage, you're nothing."

Me-firstism isn't so much a well-defined condition as a syndrome with a wide variety of behavior. These manipulative children expect special favors from teachers and other children but they won't share unless there's a payoff for them. They disregard others, cutting into the front of the line without a concern that others may be hurt in the process. If they participate in a group activity without a designated leader, they will jockey for power or befriend the biggest or most skilled player.

Of course, children have always been me-firsters. In fact, self-centeredness up until a certain age is perfectly normal behavior. "It takes a long time before kids learn to wait a turn or work together," says Lyn Avins, a first-grade teacher at the Brentwood Science Magnet School for 30 years.

But Harold Hyman, principal at Los Angeles's University Elementary School, the laboratory school for the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, says that the self-centeredness he and his staff now see goes "beyond developmental selfishness."

The school has a full-time psychologist who works with "overly centered and selfish" children. "It was much easier to be a school teacher and a school principal 10 years ago," laments Hyman. "People are stressing and pushing to make it, and the extended family is not around for support."

Most experts say that these kids haven't learned these attitudes from each other. They learned them from their parents.

"Parents are far too pressured to sit back and assess their values and think about what they want to communicate to their children," says psychiatrist Barbara Ferguson, clinical director of the Child Study Center at St. John's Hospital. "What gets passed on is the competitiveness, the individualism and the lust for acquisition and status."

Even at the dinner table, parents teach their kids to think primarily of themselves.

"Parents used to tell their kids to finish their food because children were starving in India," says Norman Lavin, a San Fernando Valley pediatrician and associate professor at UCLA. "Now in this what-is-good-for-me society, parents are more likely to say, 'Try to eat more, it's good for you.' "

Parents, in turn, may have learned their what's-good-for-me behavior from psychologists, who, in the '70s, counseled patients to think of themselves first. "Now," says Thoresen, "they think it's healthy to teach their kids to think only of themselves."

But Norma Feshback, chairman of the department of education who has been researching the development of empathy in children for more than 20 years, thinks the culprits are smaller families and the increasing time spent sitting in front of a television.

"Watching TV is not an interactive process," Feshback says. "It creates a greater emphasis on one's own perspective and fewer chances to learn cooperation and give-and-take."

Even two-career parents who don't sit their kids in front of the TV may create a permissive, sometimes overly indulgent home for the children to help erase their own guilt. Not only are they reluctant to discipline their kids in their limited quality time, they lavish too much attention on them.

"When things are being done for you all the time," says Sherman Oaks Elementary fifth-grade teacher Ronnie Roth, "you do see yourself as the center of the universe."

The self-centered behavior learned at home shows up at school. In the last five years, Hyman notes there has been a marked increase in me-first behavior at the university elementary school, coinciding with the development of a curriculum based on cooperative team learning and parent conferences. So the school has had to institute extra friendship and cooperative learning groups to teach kids to work together.

And the school's psychologist, Gery LaGagnoux, often works with troubled kids to help them temper their self-focused behavior. Using role-playing, he pretends to approach a group of children and insists on running their game. Then he asks if what he did was obnoxious or ineffective. "The kids who may benefit from working with me are the ones who are distressed when they're ignored or only sought out when they have something the other children want," says LaGagnoux. "But if the kids are happy with the way they are, it's hard to change them."

The university elementary teachers encounter more me-first behavior in the youngest grades, as early as age 4, because the children are less inhibited about expressing it.

"The teachers see children who cannot share space, materials or friendships," says Hyman. "Children become frustrated not being able to get what they want so they play all by themselves. Or they try to dominate the activities."

At Sherman Oaks Elementary school, fifth-grade teacher Roth also sees me-firstism escalating. "I see a lot of kids with wonderful cooperation skills and a lot of desire to be helpful, but there are others who have difficulty cooperating, who are afraid of not succeeding constantly and who seem to get frustrated easily."

Thoresen says that many elementary school teachers report that parents seem so desperate for their children to succeed that the children question the value of group work.

At one private school in Palo Alto, a first grader told the teacher, "I don't want to work with the others. I want to do it myself." Even when the teacher explained that one of the ways you learn is by working with others, the child refused, saying that his mother told him that what's important is doing everything successfully by himself.

Parents, says Thoresen, don't spend the time with their children that it would take to catch the more subtle personal achievements in life so parents are dependent on measurable achievement like standard test scores and Little League batting averages. "Parents look for the quick assessments to assure them that their children are succeeding," says Thoresen.

"The more self-focused the parent," says Thoresen, "the more self-focused the child."

Already many of Thoresen's adult clients have little or no sense of belonging to a community, of being part of a group that shares basic values about what is good and meaningful in life.

But the social consequences of rampant me-firstism in the next generation are even more extensive. Thoresen predicts more psychosomatic illnesses, lower voter turnout, less volunteerism and public service.

Already UCLA's Feshback sees me-firstism in today's college students. "It's a kind of total disinterest in important social issues," says the expert on the development of empathy. "Growing up and making a contribution to social events and issues is less important than it has ever been to these students."

The approach for concerned parents about me-first characteristics is to reward internal values and to accept the child without demanding a particular level of performance.

"Parents," says Larry Scherwitz, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of California, San Francisco, "should instill the values of service, connection to something better and greater than themselves, and reward expressions of love and cooperation, instead of winning and being first."

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