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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

The One Subject You Really Need to Study: Your Own Childhood

There is perhaps no greater priority in childhood than to acquire an education: it’s in the early years that we have to push ourselves with special vigour to learn the lessons, and acquire the experience, that will help us successfully manoeuvre around the pitfalls of adult life. By studying hard and intelligently, we’ll have the best chance of avoiding a middle-age of confusion and resignation, regret and sorrow. The clue to a successful adult life – we’re repeatedly told – lies in childhood education.

It’s for this reason that we send weary children out into the world on dark winter mornings with full rucksacks in order to spend the day studying coordinate geometry and indefinite articles, the social impact of religious and economic changes under Edward VI and the place of Aristotle’s philosophy in Dante’s Inferno.

But there is one very striking detail to note in our approach. The one subject that almost certainly has the most to teach us in terms of its capacity to help us skirt adult dangers and guide us to fulfilment, the subject that far more than any other has the decisive power to liberate us, this subject is not taught in any school or college anywhere on the planet. A further irony is that this unstudied subject is one that we nevertheless live through every day of our early years, it is part of our palpable experience, unfolding all around us, as invisible as air and as hard to touch as time. The missing subject is, of course, our childhood itself. 

We can sum up its importance like this: our chances of leading a fulfilled adult life depend overwhelmingly on our knowledge of, and engagement with, the nature of our own childhoods, for it is in this period that the dominant share of our adult identity is moulded and our characteristic expectations and responses set. We will spend some 25,000 hours in the company of our parents by the age of eighteen, a span which ends up determining how we think of relationships and of sex, how we approach work, ambition and success, what we think of ourselves (especially whether we can like or must abhor who we are), what we should assume of strangers and friends and how much happiness we believe we deserve and could plausibly attain.

More tragically, and without anyone necessarily having meant ill, our childhoods will have been, to put it nicely, complicated. The expectations that will have formed in those years about who we are, what relationships can be like and what the world might want to give us will have been marked by a range of what could be termed ‘distortions’ – departures from reality and an ideal of mental health and maturity. Something or indeed many things will have gone slightly wrong or developed in questionable directions – leaving us in areas less than we might have been and more scared and cowed than is practical. We may, for example, have picked up a sense that being sexual was incompatible with being a good person; or that we had to lie about our interests in order to be loved. We could have acquired an impression that succeeding would incite the rivalry of a parent. Or that we would need always to be funny and lighthearted so as to buoy up a depressive adult we adored but feared for.

From our experiences, we will then acquire expectations, internal ‘scripts’ and patterns of behaviour that we play out unknowingly across adulthood. Certain key people didn’t take us seriously back then: now we tend to believe (but don’t notice ourselves believing) that no one can. We needed to try to fix an adult on whom we depended: now we are drawn (but don’t realise we are drawn) to rescuing all those we love. We admired a parent who didn’t care much for us: now we repeatedly (but unconsciously) throw ourselves at distant and indifferent candidates. 

One of the problems of our childhoods is that they are usually surrounded by a misleading implication that they might have been sane. What goes on in the kitchen and in the car, on holidays and in the bedroom can seem beyond remark or reflection. For a long time, we have nothing to compare our life against. It’s just reality in our eyes, rather than a very peculiar desperately harmful version of it filled with unique slants and outright dangers. For many years, it can seem almost normal that dad lies slumped in his chair in quiet despair, that mum is often crying or that we’ve been labelled the unworthy one. It can seem normal that every challenge is a catastrophe or that every hope is destroyed by cynicism. There’s nothing to alert us to the oddity of a seven year old having to cheer up a parent because of the difficulties of her relationship with the other parent. Unfortunately, the last thing that the oddest parents will ever tell you is that they are odd; the most bizzare adults are most heavily invested in thinking of themselves, and being known to others as normal. It’s in the nature of madness to strive very hard not to be thought about.

This drift towards unthinking normalisation is compounded by children’s natural urge to think well of their parents, even at the cost of looking after their own interests. It is always – strangely – preferable for a child to think of themselves as unworthy and deficient than to acknowledge their parent as unstable and unfair.

The legacy of a difficult childhood – by which one really means a typical childhood – spreads into every corner of adult life. For decades, it can seem as though unhappiness and grief are the norm. It may take until a person is deep into adulthood, and might have messed up their career substantially or gone through a string of frustrating relationships, that they may become able to think about the connection between what happened to them in the past and how they are living as grown ups. Slowly, they may see the debt that their habit of trying fix their adult lovers owes to a dynamic with an alcoholic mother. Over many hours of discussion, they may realise that there need be no conflict between being successful and being a good person – contrary to what a disappointed father had once imputed.

It may have to take the presence of a kindly and intelligent therapist to hold a mirror to this childhood and so bring it to life as a subject that can be reflected upon. ‘That must have been very hard…’ or ‘There could have been another way of doing that…’ the therapist might venture as we tell them – and it might the first time we’ve ever done so with anyone – of conversations and events that unfolded decades before.

The focus of present education lies in understanding the outer world. The system tells us that we will finally and optimally have succeeded when we grasp the laws of the universe and the history of humanity. But in order properly to thrive, we will also need to know something far closer to home. Without a proper understanding of childhood, it won’t matter how many fortunes we have made, how stellar our reputation or outwardly cheerful our families, we will be doomed to founder on the rocks of our own psychological complexities; we will probably be sunk by anxiety, lack of trust, dread, paranoia, rage and self-loathing, those widespread legacies of distorted and misunderstood pasts. 

Well meaning people sometimes wonder, with considerable hope, if Freud has not after all by now been proved ‘wrong’. The tricky and humiliating answer is that he never will be, in the substance of his insight. His eternal contribution has been to alert us to the many ways in which adult emotional lives sit on top of childhood experiences – and how we are made sick by not knowing our own histories. In a saner world, we would be left in no doubt – and even partially alerted while we were living through them – that our childhoods held the secrets to our identities. We would know that the one subject we need to excel at above all is one not yet flagged up by the school system called ‘My Childhood’, and the sign that we have graduated in the topic with honours is when at last we can know and think non-defensively about how we are (in small ways and large) a little mad, and what exactly in the distant past might have made us so.

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