Ladies and gentlemen it has come to my attention, despite desperate attempts to ignore it, that I am getting older. In truth, I’ve known about this for a while. Time may heal all things but it does diddly squat for old age. I’m afraid time is so often mediated and perceived through a youthful filter. In the absence of debilitating illness or degradation, the mind, like some Dorian Gray imagining remains stubbornly unaged. It’s beat goes on, sounding out the capitulation of the body to time.
You see, I feel no different than I did twenty years ago. Sure, I’ve learnt a little more, changed a few opinions, fallen in and out of fashion and so on, but the hunger to live, love and seek out experience goes on unabated. I realise this every time I look at my parents. It is tempting to say they ‘have gotten old’, but they are the people they always were. Perhaps their characters are a little battered from the weight of so many years on this earth. The shape may look a little different here and there, but the core of who they are is unmistakably the same. It is much as it always was.
I suppose all of this sounds a little maudlin and perhaps unclear, but there is purpose in these ramblings. Parents are human beings, loaded with the same foibles, flaws and divots in character that we all have. They are not perfect. They never were. And this is important to remember, for if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past we must be mindful of it. We must be willing to learn from it.
As parents there is commonality in the mistakes we make. The greatest divergence comes with degree. The line between foible and toxicity is a narrow one, but if crossed it can do a great deal of damage indeed. Consider the following:
Some parents believe they have to prepare their kids for what they perceive to be a harsh world, one which is characterised by pragmatism and indifference to individual suffering. They achieve this through a no nonsense approach to achievement and well being. Affirmation is seen as an incidental thing, reserved for parents of weak and ineffectual children. Moving forward must be achieved at all costs. This simply put, is wrong. I’m not advocating the style of parenting that champions every passing of wind or every aborted attempt to do something new. However, the need to be seen…for those achievements that matter to oneself to be recognised… is of inestimable importance. For this to come from a parent is most important of all. We are born seeking parental approval, a powerful instinctive urge that never really goes away. Why we are so driven is harder to say. Perhaps it is something inside that yearns to show them that their efforts to procreate were not fruitless or perhaps there is some unconscious evolutionary drive to improve on what went before. Whatever it is, such recognition is the well spring of esteem. How we meet our failures, manage our successes and plot out our future endeavours is forged here. Without that recognition, security in oneself disappears. Lifetimes can be spent crumbling in the face of failure or in frantic pursuit of an achievement that we hope will one day mean something. The ability to be mindful and grateful is lost in negotiations with the past.
2. Overly Critical
This is to some extent the bedfellow of recognition. Over criticality comes from a variety of different places, but even when done for the best of reasons it can be devastating. Some parents may feel that being constantly vigilant and critical may be the most effective and efficient way of helping their child to avoid future mistakes, but the price paid for this can be much higher. This approach, like the former, is more likely to give birth to a harsh internal critic of their own whose presence will be a debilitating addition to their lives, leading not to success but procrastination and unhappiness.
3. Too needy
So often the product of number 1, can become number 3. The parent who has not had the recognition and affirmation in their childhood become determined to ‘do it right’ for their children, to shower them with as much attention as they can. This over compensation is unfortunately damaging too. The parent in question fails to realise that their ‘bonding time’ has become suffocating and the the attempt to ‘recognise’ their child has become about their relationship with their parents. The child becomes a proxy for this imperfect relationship. At the extreme it begins to consume the child, shifting the internal focus from themselves to the parent. The child may adopt a false self to cope and to please. Ultimately this robs them of the opportunity to fully become who they could be, of the time to learn skills and to simply be a kid.
4. There is a thin line between funny and mean
Being able to laugh at oneself is sign of healthy self-esteem. This can be nurtured in children to good effect, but there is a line. Children are sensitive and whilst this needs to be abraded over time, it also needs to be respected. Little things can be magnified greatly in little minds, sometimes with tragic consequences. Perhaps less clear is when comedy as a tool for laughter is conflated with comedy as a tool for criticality or improvement. Blurred boundaries are not so easy for a child to decipher. Constant jokes about weight, for example, is not likely to be met with hilarity. If there is a legitimate health related concern it is better done in an honest, straightforward and constructive way. A campaign of thinly veiled toxic jokes, is a sure fire way to erode self-esteem.
5. Passing on patterns of dysfunction
I’ve spoken before about epigenetics, the ability of environment to change the expression of your genes. This is a good metaphor for life. Physical or emotional abuse experienced in childhood is more often than not internalised and normalised. The patterns of abuse observed become the logical response to something an individual has done i.e. I did X therefore I logically deserve Y. This deductive reasoning is of course flawed, but it is nevertheless applied to all future instances where it now seems to apply. It continues to justify the terrible actions and injustice that others perpetrate against that individual. In the face of all of this rationalised dysfunction the child is left with two choices. They may conclude that the parent is wrong (damaged in some way) or accept it to. Given that our sense of early self and indeed our safety in the world, stems from the primary caregiver, the choice is often not a real one. A child will unconsciously, more often than not, have to keep the parent ‘good’ and themselves therefore ‘bad’ to make sense of the world. So, they choose the latter and the pattern goes on. Breaking this cycle is tough indeed. Like Ouroborus, it both devours and gives life to itself. Recognition is the first step forward.
6. Just get over it.
This is in some way related to number 1. It has to do with negative emotion. So often we say to our children when they are crying or upset about something apparently trivial that they should ‘pull themselves together’. We diminish their display because we fail to see it’s value . This is not always the best approach. Whilst pandering to every single tear is likely to do them a disservice, valuing all tears equally is a mistake. Children must be allowed to express negative emotion. There is nothing wrong in helping them explore what they are feeling or even perhaps trying to see a positive in it, but they must be allowed to own their feelings. Fencing off all negativity is a dangerous thing. It leaves them vulnerable and ill equipped to face it in later life. These individuals are much more prone to developing depression. The tools that get us through life are acquired in childhood.
7. Spare the rod spoil the child.
In every generation it seems people talk about a slide in values, a culture of disrespect. I won’t debate the general truth of that sentiment save to say that if there is truth in it, it does not stem from an abandonment of an antiquated parenting style. Good old fashioned fear does not engender respect. Using fear, violence or an abusive tongue to control a child creates exactly what common sense dictates it should…a child that fears you. In later life this is so often a source of regret, a fact seen in the mellowing of parents who have become grandparents. ‘Who is this person?’ parents up and down the country find themselves whispering. That bond or connectedness that might have come from love and support is replaced with obligation. This obligation recognises the attempt that was made to ‘do their best’, but it is tainted by an undercurrent of fear and disconnectedness. Phone calls are not relished, but endured. Gatherings are not eagerly anticipated but pencilled in like an appointment to be met.
8. The chicken or the egg?
Okay the title is a little facetious, but it makes a valid point. When it comes to feelings one must remember seniority does not count. Sure parents have all the tough decisions to make and financial obligations to meet, but diminishing the importance of the way a child feels is likely to consolidate the problems of number seven. The child, even as they become an adult, feel as if their primary goal is to appease their parents. This enervating relationship is unlikely to be a positive one.
9. There is no deal
This point, feels to me, particularity important to emphasise. When it comes to being a parent there is no deal. You give, you give and then when you’re nearly done giving.. you give some more. If you’re trying to co-opt your child into doing something through guilt or gifts they never wanted, then you didn’t understand the deal. You brought them into the world and your obligation is absolute. Threatening to list everything you’ve done for them or sacrificed in an effort to control everything they do is a misunderstanding of the covenant that was made. Perhaps this sounds a little bleak, but it need not be for although they are individuals, created in love to eventually stand alone they are, all being well, bonded to you in respect and affection. Their function cannot be to fill all the gaps in our lives. A child is not responsible for their parent’s happiness.To suggest otherwise is an act of onerous cruelty. A child cannot be held accountable for the sacrifices a parent has made by the simple act of being. To ask them to shoulder such resentment is a perverse act of logic. Likewise, asking a child to atone for its existence by ensuring the future happiness of a parent is likewise an inequitable and intolerable burden. There is no balance sheet to settle because no agreement was entered into. They cannot repay something they never took. Forcing them into this arrangement robs them of the ability to see that we are all ultimately responsible for our own happiness.
10. Silence is not golden.
I will say this again and again. The tools for adulthood are acquired in childhood. How we interact with a child sets the tone for their lives. It is paramount to resist some of our more childish urges and aspire to be better than we are. Being angry with our child is okay, but we should always endeavour to represent this in the best way we can. We should temper our initial instincts, perhaps even remove ourselves from the source of irritation until we are able to conduct ourselves in a rational manner. Passive aggression and silent treatments are the tools of the adult workplace and children’s playground. They should have no place in our interactions with our children. Such actions are never productive. The lack of clarity and resolution they bring can lead to feelings of guilt and foster a compulsion to ‘fix’ even the situations in which they are guilty of doing nothing wrong.
11 Blurred lines
As children grow and eventually become independent adults recognition of this status needs to be built in to the parent—child dynamic. Inserting oneself into every aspect of their lives can have a damaging effect on a child’s sense of self. Snooping on a child’s activities, failing to respect the privacy of their bedroom (not knocking etc) are important things. It may feel like there is justification for such vigilance in the increasing digitalised and connected world we find ourselves in, but ask yourself, ‘ If you do not allow a child to naturally demarcate the boundary between them and you, how will they able to recognise the boundaries between themselves and others in later life?’ This ability to connect but also to step back and allow the other to flourish is the bedrock of all healthy relationships.
There is no silver bullet to mitigate or prevent all of this. But the first step is recognition. By doing this we can begin to remove those toxic parts of ourselves and those around us.