126 Parent and child: beginning in joy or ending in disownment?
[13 Jul 2021]
Setting the pattern
Is there any more powerful image of contentment, peace, and serenity than a lovingly held newborn child, the very pinnacle of carefree repose? Humans are regarded as the most dependent of infants. We attach our highest regard to the moment of birth, determined to provide perfectly for every need. The new tabula rasa ("blank slate") deserves the best possible start in the new environment.
Of course, there has been a lot of preparation. Prenatal care aims to provide the child with the best possible launch. Parental unselfishness is at a peak. Possibilities appear endless.
Our language has absorbed this metaphor for our best attention. A worker expresses ultimate support by saying, "This project is my baby."
Then the complications
The infant is not really a blank slate. Every new child is idiosyncratic, needing customized nurture. Even before birth, parents and child have been adjusting to each other. However pliable personality might appear, it is always unique. The postnatal path is adventurous discovery and invention, never conforming to rigid planning. It tries the learning ability of all parties.
Sooner or later, every parent encounters some unexpected facet of an offspring's character. The need to adapt might be more important here than in any other relationship because this one can never be set aside or denied. As it blossoms, it is worth every conceivable cost. Commitment is inherently total and permanent.
In the context of this most beautiful of all beginnings, the above paragraph puts parents on notice to prepare for the unexpected. Fulfillment of dreams cannot come from one side alone. Many factors of personality and circumstance impact the development and the outcomes. Dreams need to be realistic to be realized. The parties and their environment must remain in balance.
Departures from patterns
Our sublime happiness must account for the dark side also. Naively idealized expectations precede and invite frustration and disappointment. It is easy to list a myriad of things that can go wrong.
- Prenatal parental sickness at the time of birth, pre-existing flaws that are revealed by the test of time
- unwanted pregnancy
- stress overload, parents unprepared for responsibility
- greed for dominion over the child
- craving for recognition, economic benefit, or status through parenting
- Postnatal frustration of good intentions, hopes that looked good but went awry
- family separation
- economic downturn
- unrealistic ambitions
- conditions that internalize as guilt in the child
- Jealousy, parents clinging to artificial superiority
- Child is required to survive the same deprivations that faced the parents.
- Parents reject valid outside learning by children.
- The child must be broken like a horse to be useful.
- To be ambitious is overreaching. Child is no better than parents.
- Parents mistakenly treat originality as rebellion.
- Parents fear being looked down on by their more educated/advantaged children.
Strengthen the weak
Does the above list seem biased against parents? The article begins by reviewing the helplessness of the child. Insightful preparation is a responsibility of the parents. We set aside the notion that infants can be born with instinctive desire to destroy the parents. Studies of child rebellion likely uncover combined factors from which so-called rebellious children are trying to escape. Parents in conflict with their offspring do well to begin by inspecting themselves to learn what the children are trying to be distant from. There might well be something in parents' expectations that pains the children. In such cases, rebellion is defense, not attack. Let us posit that newborn children are not inherently destructive of the sustenance on which they depend.
Yes, children start helpless and parents, the ones with experience, start with responsibility. Parents in trouble reveal that they are weak relative to their responsibility. They heal themselves to the extent that they can grow along with the needs of their children. The hope for reconciling problematic relationships is reciprocal learning by both sides. Perhaps the fairest stance is to hold parents and children responsible for growing within their respective roles.
The extreme child-parent relationship breakdown is disownment of children by parents. The act inflicts severe pain and suffering on both sides. It deprives both parties of strength without improving outcomes. Disowning a child does not change the child's identity; instead, it leaves the child even more invested in that identity. The thoughtless infliction of pain burns the very bridge over which persuasion and reconciliation should occur.
An analogy detour
Throughout this writing, my mind has been brooding on the relationship between people and government. When I was in university, the school avoided the role of in loco parentis, meaning the institution was not going to govern its students the way parents might legally govern their children. The university expected to receive students who were functionally (if not financially) self-sustaining rational thinkers. Our analogy is that government should not expect to exercise the same control over citizens that parents have over infants.
Some ask whether the egg or the chicken came first. In the government and citizens analogy, the question is which side corresponds to parents and which corresponds to children. Dictators obviously attempt in loco parentis-they try to be the parents in the relationship. Democracy, on the other hand, places the populace in the role of the parents. Our ideal is that government exists at the pleasure of the governed. This principle is our way of claiming to govern ourselves.
In today's analogy, if citizens are the parents who have given birth to a government, who are we to reject our child? Can we decide after the fact that we were wrong to create the government? Before we finalize our answer, I note that parents diminish with age and turn over control to their children.
In the analogy, both parties are institutions that carry on over unspecified time. The populace, unlike human parents, is not expected to weaken and die off. We describe a persistent condition: the populace and the government are both expected to be enduring actors. The long-term question becomes, when the populace spawned the government, how much control did it surrender? Unlike the parent-child condition, neither the populace nor the government dies off or attains dominant control. Like the parent-child condition, the relationship between the population and the government requires continuous "growing within their respective roles." Suggesting a balancing between parents and children is analogous to suggesting a balancing between the permanent institutions of citizens and government. Neither side can disown the other. Preserving our institutions requires growing in cooperation.
The nuclear family can be an enduring joy as we apply our passions and accommodations constructively over time. In the analogy, applying the same principles unselfishly to each other is the price we pay to have enduring joy living in a country that has had a new birth of freedom.