In my post-divorce dating career (two years), I’ve met at least three women (well-educated and in their 40s) who are still bearing significant open wounds caused in childhood by their fathers (just my opinion, but it seems pretty clear). It makes me think several things: 1. the incredible influence and power that parents have over their kid’s entire lives; 2. why are these educated, high-functioning people still carrying these wounds at this point in their lives? 3. what wounds am I walking around with from childhood? 4. what wounds am I inflicting on my kids? 5. most important, how can I help my kids overcome these inevitable wounds so their adulthoods won’t have very much anguish?
— F.T., Las Vegas
Recently I’ve been noticing a particular phenomenon related, I think, to your question. There is, right now in America, a historically unprecedented glut of 40- to 65-year-olds who are dating and datable. A few of these have never been married. A larger number, widowed. But the vast majority of this number are divorced, one or multiple times.
The second thing I observe, then, about this population is that these people tend to be the “walking wounded.” Even if they do not, as you mention above, have significant psychological damage from childhood, the experience of divorce alone leaves most people with scars and assorted psychic adhesions, emotional abscesses and internal bleeding.
As I have said in this space before, modern people tend to greatly underestimate the consequences of divorce to the human heart. I’m saying that, compounding all I’ve described above, this population of dating and datable divorcees tend to be unaware of their injuries, the extent of those injuries, and just how much those injuries hold jurisdiction over their behavior in the new love forays.
Now, to these observations, you add yet another kind of wound: Many people (most people?) bring from childhood one form or another of negative consequence traceable to unhappy, incompetent, neglectful, disrespectful or flat egregiously abusive experiences at the hands of mother or father.
Yes! Parents wield incredible influence and power in shaping (or deforming) the psycho-emotional development of their children. And the fact that otherwise “high-functioning, well-educated people still carry these wounds (this late in life)” makes the point in spades. These wounds don’t necessarily heal of their own accord. They tend to abscess more often than heal.
What you’re noticing is not caused by divorce. It is more likely to have contributed to the divorce! It was a wound brought to the marriage.
I remember one of my first emerging views of dating again after my divorce went something like, “Wow — these women are divorced for a reason!” Then, an icy finger traced my spine as I added the obvious rejoinder: “Which means, Mr. Kalas, that you’re probably divorced for a reason, too.”
Which brings me to your third question. It’s a liberating question. I’m saying your question is the antidote to the pernicious oblivion with which most people live their entire lives. Or, as I say repeatedly to couples in my office, “When will you stop confronting each other and start confronting yourself?”
Said another way, one of the things a midlife single person should want in a prospective life partner is consciousness! Someone committed to living consciously! Funny to think about adding it to your online dating profile but: “Looking for man/woman who knows his/her neuroses, has working knowledge of how he/she contributed to the demise of their marriage, and has the ability and the willingness to see his/her parents as they really are!”
If I was writing an online dating profile, I’d add, “Must really like and desire to be a grownup.”
The goal isn’t to promise yourself only to date people never married and without childhood wounds. The people in your dating pool are mostly divorced and always in some way wounded. No, your goal is to pursue courtships only with people who demonstrate a regular willingness to live consciously and to live accepting radical responsibility for that about which they are willing to be conscious.
Your questions four and five are addressed below —
The moral of the story is this: Never underestimate the power you have as a mother or father rearing a child. Whatever power you think you have, I promise you that the child’s view of you is bigger and more powerful than that!
Paradoxically, then, the job of quality parents is, over time, to deploy parent-power in such a way as to empower the child! This is what the old saying means by “Good parents are always working themselves out of the job.” Bit by bit, I want my children to invest less in my opinion and to invest more in their opinion. Bit by bit, I want them to understand that what I think about them pales compared to what they want to think and believe about themselves.
It might be nice to procure the respect of your mother or father. But it’s ever-so-much more valuable, useful, liberating and necessary to nurture and procure self-respect.
A reader, then, wrote this in response:
“Is it possible to raise a kid in such a way that they won’t look back and think that their parent(s) didn’t botch some aspect of their upbringing (without a Ph.D. in child development)?”
See, that’s the problem in a post-Freudian world! It’s difficult to observe, examine, critically reflect upon and talk about quality child-rearing without provoking self-conscious anxiety in modern parents. In some cases, anxious parents, then, replace incompetent, neglectful or abusive child-rearing with paralyzed, permissive, walking-on-eggshells relationships with their kids.
So, Good Reader, to your question …
The way you phrase the question is fascinating. And the answer to your question is that tons of adults don’t “look back and think their parents” botched some aspect of their upbringing.
Sometimes this is because the adult in question has resolved the botched items within him/herself. Sometimes this is because the botched items seem like not a big deal to the adult in question. Other times the adult doesn’t look back because they are following a powerful, time-honored rule of Western civilization: Thou Shalt Protect Thy Parent’s Image At All Costs.
So, let’s answer a different question: Is it possible to raise a kid in such a way that you won’t botch some aspect of their upbringing?
No. “No” is the answer. No, it is not possible to raise a kid in such a way that you won’t botch some aspect of their upbringing. And “no” is still the answer even if you DO have a Ph.D. in child development!
I make my living in part by educating parents about healthy child-rearing. I have learned what I teach in two educational settings. One such setting was in university classrooms and libraries, sitting at the feet of brilliant teachers. The other educational setting was my own childhood. I’m saying that my desire to help children and parents in therapy emerges in large part from my hope to redeem my own life as a child and as a father.
I’ve botched things, see. I regularly ask myself what my sons will someday complain to a therapist regarding “Things My Father Botched.” I want my children to feel the liberation of seeing me as I really am. I want them to abandon any responsibility for aiding and abetting my illusions of self.
Liberation is knowing your mother and father are flawed and making peace with that.
What is possible, with or without a Ph.D., is to decide in principle not to botch a couple of Big Ticket items. Here’s my list:
Don’t hit your children. It’s both wrong and unnecessary. Corporal punishment is just what it is: a cultural bias, doing significantly more damage than good.
Don’t demean, degrade or exploit them. You have no right to call your children names, to mock them, humiliate them or profane them.
It’s called CHILD-rearing. Not Parenting. Child-rearing is about children. Parenting is about you. And it’s not about you.
Be accountable. When you botch things, account for those things. Apologize. Morally surrender. Spell out in clear language that what just happened was about you and not about them. Let them know in no uncertain terms they did not deserve what just happened, and that you are committed to repairing the damage and changing your behavior immediately.
Make certain that every respect you demand from your child is exactly the same respect you are willing to offer.
My prayer is not to be a perfect parent. My prayer is, “God, please grant that today my sins as a father can be rather ordinary.”
This father just got his butt metaphorically kicked from here to Shanghai by his adult daughter. She just flat crawled him. A strafing run.
This father is perplexed. Sincerely incredulous. Dazed and confused. Hurt, too, but that seems unimportant to him for the moment, compared with his inability to grasp what just happened and why.
The daughter’s outburst is all over the map. But she does swirl back several times to one particular indictment: “I was never good enough for you!”
She doesn’t speak of spankings, cruel punishments, exploitation or verbal degradation. She doesn’t say her father was overly stern or rigid, quick to anger or over-reactive. Her anguish and torment in the relationship points to more of a Greek tragedy than actual crimes.
As I listen to the man’s story, if anything I’m tending toward the opinion that his parental style and disciplinary expectations leaned more permissive than rigid.
The man gapes, blinking like those unsuspecting participants on “reality” shows luring you into pranks and other theater of the absurd. Like any minute now Allen Funt is going to step into my office and say, “Smile! You’re on ‘Candid Camera’!”
“She says she was never good enough for me,” the man says, almost rehearsing it like an actor trying to gain ownership of a plotline. “Her grades weren’t good enough. She wasn’t a good enough athlete. She keeps saying she never measured up to my standards and expectations.”
This father doesn’t seem defensive. He doesn’t sound like so many parents who are in some combination of guilty denial and belligerent defiance in the wake of parental sins and shortcomings.
I see him as really stumped. And he’d like not to be stumped. He’d like to understand what happened between himself and his blood daughter.
And then, as it often does, it happens. A patient will say something in passing. But the passing remark unwittingly shines a light on a truth that cuts to the heart of the matter. The man speaks, and in speaking, simultaneously gets himself off the hook and puts himself squarely on the hook.
He cringes a bit. Looks sheepish. Self-conscious. Like, the thought he’s about to articulate might call later for some apology. He shrugs, “The truth is, I didn’t think about her and her performance in life nearly as often as she seems to think. My most pressing thought was never ‘I wonder if (she) will ever make the Olympics.’ Apparently she had way more investment in what I thought of her than I was invested in what I thought of her.”
Ah. There it is, then. He said it, but he didn’t hear it. Sometimes I think all I really do for a living is listen acutely to people and then say back to them what I heard — so they can hear themselves!
Somewhere in the Top Three Crucial Tasks of Child Rearing is this immutable truth and thus necessary admonition: Children cannot not idealize their mother and father. Children cannot not project onto parents near God-like attributes. And, typical of Stage One and Stage Two faith development (see James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, 1981), children cast themselves narcissistically into center stage. Their presumption is the only presumption they can make: I am the perpetual center of my parents’ world. They constantly think about me. I am the beginning and the end of how and why their life has meaning. Unless I meet (the standard of my parents’ expectations), I will never be loved.
The admonition? Never, ever forget that, whatever you think is transpiring between yourself and your child, always multiply it by 1,000. Then you’ll be close to “psychic weight” your son or daughter is giving the interaction.
Put more simply, never, ever forget that children need to be admired. Beheld. Seen. Noticed. As author/therapist James Redfield says, “Never have any more children than you can pay attention to.”
Ironically, the fastest way out of narcissistic stages of development is to behold your children in that stage. To give them the attention and encouragement they need to develop their views, standards and judgments about the human being THEY want to be.
Somewhere between their birth and adulthood, my job is to move my children from their exaggerated concerns about what I think, and on to the only concern that matters: “My child, what do you think? What do you think of you?
“I really want to know.”