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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
How We Should Have Been Loved
We hear so much about how difficult childhoods can damage people that we sometimes fail to consider the fascinating and telling obverse: what happens in emotionally-nurturing families, what does it mean to be properly loved and looked after – and how do people tend to turn out differently when they have been?
In the course of a childhood that can count as properly loving, we might expect some of the following to unfold…
– In the early days and months, a beloved young child is placed at the very centre of the parental universe. They are – for a time – the one around whom everything else revolves. When they scream for milk, others come quickly; when they pull their first smile, others are amazed; if they have something to say, others listen. Such focus is not a recipe for limitless egoism; we can only hope to become properly modest and able to take care of others when we have had an early taste of total omnipotence. A fulsome experience of infantile egoism is what underpins the selflessness of the future adult.
– In a loving childhood, an offspring can expect to be a granted a sense that it truly pleases its own parents – not by anything it does, but by its sheer existence. It experiences the full force of Primal Parental Delight, with its arrival being a much anticipated and fulsomely positive act in the parents’ lives. This impression is built up from the most minor, everyday moments: the parents light up when it comes into the room, there are warm kisses in the morning and the evening, its pictures are pinned to the fridge, its concerns are registered and its joys remembered. From this, the child acquires a basic trust in itself and in its right to be. It won’t feel meek and cowed. It won’t have to apologise for its appetites or hold back on expressing its wishes. It won’t get stuck with sadistic or inconsiderate people; it will know how to exit bad relationships quickly. Without any sense of entitlement, it will believe it has a place in the world – and if things were ever to go seriously wrong, it will know how to take its own side against fate with necessary compassion and tolerance.
– In a loving childhood, an offspring benefits from sympathetic interpretations of its behaviour and motives. If it spills something in the kitchen, it isn’t a ‘clumsy idiot,’ it’s just very easy to spill things from those new sorts of cartons. When it doesn’t want to share its toys with another child, it isn’t a ‘selfish rascal’, it is expressing a legitimate attachment to its property, no different from what an adult would experience if it had to give up its car or spouse to a random stranger. The loving parent knows not to make the child the villain of the mishaps that come its way.
– A loving parent knows that a certain amount of awkward behaviour belongs to every life and it doesn’t shame the child for slipping up or for being sometimes in a tricky temper and fed up with everything for a while. The parent has the confidence to know that sunnier seasons will return and that the child cannot feel real unless it has been given plenty of opportunities to display its full rage and disappointment with the state of things, including school, its siblings, the end of films, bedtimes – and the many faults of its own sometimes profoundly annoying parents.
– A loving parent gives the child the sense that it is capable of interesting discoveries and ideas of its own. Rather than rush to the park as though there were an immovable appointment with the swings or climbing frame, the parent allows themselves to be taken off course by the child’s curiosity. Perhaps there is a mesmerising brick wall which needs to be investigated and stroked, with its variety of ever so slightly different bricks, some of which are very smooth to the touch, others far rougher – and one or two of which harbour little tufts of miraculously soft moss. Maybe there is an extremely beautiful small flower growing by a wall which calls for a song be sung in its honour. There might be a puddle that is asking to be crossed and splashed through or for small leaves to be scattered across its intriguing silvery surface. And of course, there may well be a snail that is dragging itself out on the pavement that throws the whole afternoon in a new direction, because this creature needs to be thoroughly discussed, researched and perhaps even brought home to the garden on a leaf. Charles Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt surely never stumbled upon anything more exciting in their far-flung journeys of exploration.
– In a loving childhood, the offspring isn’t incited to admire its parent or caregiver more than would be good for its own confidence. The grown up may have a few strengths, but the child is gently inducted to know that they are in the end only human, with everything this bathetic term entails. Sometimes they are silly, occasionally they are lazy, they can be extremely greedy for chocolate after supper and addicted to certain daft programmes on TV. Through close-up acquaintance with such flaws, a child can in time outgrow the adult and feel able to take their place alongside them in the grown-up realm. They can in addition come to terms with their own frailties, for if the adult whom they most revere is far from consummate, then their own imperfections can also be faced up to and accepted without shame. One can slip up, be an idiot – and still prove worthy enough.
If these emotional ingredients are transmitted in the course of an upbringing, then their recipient can in their adult future be counted upon to know how to be straightforward about their needs, sympathetic to their errors, ready to escape the clutches of unkind people, able to love others and, most crucially, free to direct compassion towards themselves for their own less than perfect but always still adequate lives.