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Relationships • Parenting

How Even Very ‘Nice’ Parents Can Mess Up Their Children

For almost a century now, societies have been very concerned with trying to give children better childhoods. And the way this mission has primarily been interpreted has been through a focus on the need for parents to be kinder to their children than they were back in the olden days; they should try never to smack them or lock them up in a cellar, beat them up when they scream or scold them violently if they break a household object.

As a result, two things have happened. There has been a huge improvement in the quality of parenting. And, as we may slowly be starting to realise, it’s not been enough.

This is extremely puzzling. How is it possible that children are still emerging from childhood substantially damaged – even though they may have been shown immense goodwill, Dad has read them stories before bed every night and Mum has carefully organised a succession of playdates?

Breakfast In Bed, Mary Cassatt, 1897, Wikimedia Commons

However, we should cease to expect that the riddle to good childhoods is going to be any less easy to crack than quantum physics or cancer. There appears to be another even stricter requirement for being a good parent than kindness: a parent must get on top of their own issues before the child comes on the scene: in particular, they must minimise the number of things that they are unduly frightened of or threatened by in other people – on account of difficult events in their pasts. The parent needs to have dealt with their unfinished business so that their child will not have to live their life through the narrow window of their parent’s projected neuroses and terrors.

Imagine a parent who, though immensely kind, also happens to be in the background (on account of childhood pains):

– afraid of men

– repulsed by women

– awkward about their potency

– scared of the success of others

– terrified of failure

– anxious around emotional vulnerability

– gnawingly jealous

– unsure of their intelligence

– worried about being found ‘dirty’

– struggling to accept their own sexuality

So long as they have a gentle manner and take their child to the park a lot, it might not look like this would be any of the child’s business. 

But a golden rule of intergenerational psychology dictates that a child grows up immensely sensitive to the parent’s needs; it has an acute feeling for whatever the parent wants it to be. It is wired to try very hard to avoid upsetting its parent, and out of an innate loyalty, will try to become whomever the parent needs it to become in order not to lose their psychic equilibrium.

The more easily the parent is rattled, the more they cannot tolerate certain possibilities in themselves and in others, the more the child will therefore need to be careful not to grow in particular directions – often at severe cost to their own authentic potential. The unexamined parent will unconsciously raise a child who is silently commanded not to frighten or undermine them. Their care will contain a coded command: ‘don’t remind me of my terror of incompetence’. Or: ‘don’t evoke my problems around success’. Or, ‘we cannot go anywhere near my fear of failure or masculinity or femininity….’ And as a result of this oversensitive legacy, the child will end up feeling – without knowing where the feeling has come from: ‘I am not allowed to be too powerful.’ Or, ‘I can’t be too pretty without causing some sort of upset.’ Or: ‘there’s something not quite right here about being a boy – or a girl.’ Or: ‘I’m not allowed to have success in sex.’ Or: ‘It doesn’t feel nice to make money.’ Or: ‘It’s simply not an option for me not to make a lot of money…’

The child won’t be able to see that the imperatives in their own minds derive from the mind of someone else. They will end up beset by a host of requirements that they cannot trace back anywhere beyond themselves. They will just fail every single exam (despite being by nature very intelligent); or feel guilty if ever they look nice, or grow acutely concerned about being sexual, or work every minute of the day or fail to take pleasure in any physical activity or never stop crying or think of themselves as chronically fragile. 

Classes for parents tend to focus overwhelmingly on the practical requirements for the first few months of a new life. In a better organised world, we would take new parents aside and put them through a much more arduous set of examinations about themselves. We’d say to them in effect: What threatens you most? And why? What is your unfinished business with your early life? What frightens you in yourself and in others on account of traumatic feelings that you’ve been in flight from in a childhood that you may not have understood as well as you should? There is nowhere to hide in the crucible of the parent-child relationship; no jagged edge in one generation will fail to make a cut in the next. We can strive to be the sweetest parent in the world, and bake the loveliest biscuits, but unless we have had the courage to understand our fears, we will be almost certain to bring up our children inside an invisible cage defined by all that we have failed to make sense of and overcome in ourselves.

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