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Relationships • Parenting

The Fragile Parent

Because there is such an obvious power imbalance between little children and their parents, and because pride and concerns for dignity get in the way self-awareness, we’re apt to miss the curious way in which certain parents rely on their children’s approval in order to feel good about themselves – and may easily lose confidence in their abilities if such support is not forthcoming. We may think that an adult couldn’t possibly need a small child to buttress their sense of worth, but many fragile parents seem covertly to require that their child be thrilled and delighted by their efforts – and will severely punish and shame those who can’t be. 

Imagine a parent who sets out to make an apricot tart for their child for teatime. As they assemble the ingredients, they imagine the pleasure in their offspring’s eyes once this complicated creation appears from the oven, smelling of moist fruit and sweet pastry. But also imagine the psychic blow when the tart is ready and, far from putting on a scenario of grateful beneficence, the three year old child starts bawling mysteriously, says it hates the cake, throws its cup on the floor and shouts that it wants the other parent – the one who is at work or has been watching TV all afternoon – for company.

Photo of a child smashing a cake
Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

No one would be delighted but there are parents for whom this kind of rejection, and others like it, end up being far too much. No humour is possible; the offence to their sense of integrity is momentous. They need – in order to keep going – a child who will give them a stream of active signs of admiration, a child who will be able to tell jokes, sing to them, do handstands for them and think them heroic and miraculous.

Yet there are children who – for a range of their own reasons – don’t emerge from the womb able to deliver this kind of ego reinforcement. Perhaps, as newborns, they don’t take well to the breast. They might have colic an infection of some kind. Later on, they might by nature be a little introverted or aloof and wary of a stern demanding parent. They might take more time than most to learn to read or speak and not look as immediately adorable as some youngsters.

The fragile parent who isn’t ready for such blows will turn against the child for reminding them of insufficiencies they are secretly in flight from in themselves. Oppressed by the sense that there may be something amiss with them (both in their role as carer and as a human more broadly), the adult pushes the sense of condemnation back onto the child. In a bid to expel their sense of wrongness, they weave a narrative that this child has no manners, this child is envious, this child is not too clever, this child is strange… 

Tarred by such a story, the unfortunate offspring then grows up with a pervasive sense of self-hatred. They can’t put their finger on why exactly; they just know they somehow haven’t measured up.

To free ourselves from this perilous self-hatred, we may have to accept the initially very odd sounding idea that a parent several times our size once felt intensely threatened by us, that we managed – without having any such intention – to wound their pride and attack their delicate self-confidence. There was never anything wrong with us, the parent was – beneath their outward bluster and show of importance – more infantile than we were. We might feel sorry for them when we can manage it – and along the way vow never to have a child of our own until we are resolved enough about our own merits not to have any urgent need for them to adore us back.

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