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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Taking Childhood Seriously

We know how it can sound to put blame on our childhoods. We didn’t starve. No one was beaten. Next to climate change, the depletion of the water table or extreme poverty, our childhood issues may come across as nothing more than the sob stories of the comfortable.

Painting of a mother embracing a faceless child by Picasso, from his blue period.
Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1901

We may be divided between a desire to explore the past and a guilt at the thought of doing so. This may feel like a personal dilemma but it sits on top of a larger debate about the place of psychotherapy in human priorities, for therapy – more than any other discipline – is a field interested in people’s childhoods and in how dynamics with parents and caregivers can shape us and – often, in complex ways – damage us. It’s extremely interested in how someone may have spoken to us over supper when we were five and in how we might have been evaluated beside a sibling. And it sees nothing trivial at all in spending hours on a guilty feeling transmitted by a parent or in tracing back a sense of worthlessness to the way our work was evaluated at primary school.

It says, in its every fibre, that the most important thing in the world is that children can grow up feeling safe, supported and cared for – and that almost every problem facing humanity can in the end be traced back to instances where some of them were not..

And yet, when we look back in history, there is strikingly little evidence of the sort of sufferings to which therapy nowadays draw our attention – which adds to a feeling that we must be exaggerating, making something up, and that we may have lost our hold on reason and proportion in an especially contemporary and decadent way.

Did an Ancient Greek or Roman ever complain about their mother the way we do? Are there any documentary sources of an Ancient Egyptian feeling that their father didn’t respect them enough and that as a result, they are only half a person? Did an Assyrian from the sixth century BC ever express the view that, because of the way their sibling was favoured, they have had decades of trouble with confidence around the opposite gender?

Across the centuries, we simply don’t see our concerns in any historical sources – which lends credence to the notion that we may have – collectively – lost our minds.

But let’s hazard a suggestion. Every psychological problem related to childhood development and maladjustment has always existed. It existed in the time of Nebuchadnezzar and Ramses II, it unfolded in the middle class districts of ancient Tenochtitlan and in the long houses of mediaeval Papua New Guinea. 

There was cholera in Rome long before anyone knew the term; they just chose to blame an angry Ceres or a vengeful Pluto. There were viruses we only learnt to see and understand in the late 19th century that devastated ancient Babylon and Biblical-era Jericho. Our mediaeval ancestors had no idea that their drinking water was contaminated with microbes that it has taken early twentieth century instruments to be able to spot. We are still in the infancy of human kind; we are still cottoning onto basic things that have destroyed lives silently since our earliest days. It should no more surprise us that it has taken us till now to understand the role of parental love on a child’s mental condition than it should surprise us that we didn’t understand the movement of blood in the body until the late 18th century or the presence of airborne pathogens in food until the 1910s. 

We can take pride that we have finally got here. There is no need to tell ourselves that we have exaggerated and ‘made up’ things that our ancestors were braver or more intelligent to ignore. They were just more muddled and therefore less able to pinpoint the sources of their woes. They were carrying similar wounds but lacked the wherewithal to interpret them. And in the absence of a proper vocabulary, they read their dynamics through misleading theories of religion and legend. They resorted to thinking about embittered gods and murderous deities when it might have been so much more helpful to reflect on the behaviour of their uncle and the appalling incident that happened to them in the old house after the harvest.

We should take pride. We’re among the first people who have been able to take our childhoods as seriously as they need to be taken – and to have had the intellectual strength to locate most of our adult ills in them. This isn’t self-indulgent and it certainly isn’t naive. It gives us an unparalleled opportunity to grow into the sort of people who can alter the course of history.

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