How We Grow Up — Confused


We grow up by inches. The pencil marks on the wall measure our lengthening.

Or perhaps we grow up by pinches: the painful squeeze some adults perform on us, unasked. They reach for a cheek, grab skin between thumb and curled index finger, then tug. They smile and say something complimentary. Confusion follows. The friendly face and the pain are at odds. What we make of the event informs our understanding of love.

Did anything similar happen to you? A young person can miss how language sometimes disguises the infliction of injury. The smiling words say, in effect, nothing is wrong. Stress results. Some children reduce their anxiety by ignoring the contradiction between words and deeds. A blind spot is thus born.

Too bad. The immediate relief of your worrisome thought (“He doesn’t love me”) sets you up for greater harm. You become unable to distinguish those who hurt you from others who are genuinely loving. You’ve been conditioned to accept that an excruciating squeeze signals something good, at least occasionally — even though your nerve endings tell you otherwise.

Life requires us to make sense of nonsense. Our youthful minds are confounded. Who and what are we to believe?

I was probably under 10-years-old when my dad first took me to a White Sox game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He found a space for our Chevrolet on a street near the stadium.

A small boy about my age rode up on his bicycle.

“Watch your car for a quarter, mister?”

“No, thanks,” answered dad.

We walked toward the giant steel and brick amphitheater.

“Why would we need our car watched?” I asked my father.

“Protection. He was selling ‘protection’ — that something would ‘happen’ to the car if we didn’t pay him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He or one of his buddies might damage the Chevy.”

“Are you afraid they will?”

“No. Don’t worry.”

The car survived unscathed. Remember, though, we lived in Chicago. I learned my town was a place where mobsters once sold shopkeepers an adult-sized version of protection: pay us every month or we will wreck your business, destroy your merchandise, break your legs. What I’d seen was a mini-version of an Al Capone universe, all disguised as a proper business deal: standing guard over dad’s property, providing him a service. A contradiction again. Like the squeeze your relative expects you to believe is a sign of love, the protection offered was no protection.

You wet your bed. The parent screams at you.

“You’re too old for this. Look at the mess you made. Now your mom has to wash the sheet and covers again!

Mom comforts you.

“Dad didn’t mean it. He was frustrated. He did it for your own good. Your father really loves you.”

Really? Love = screaming? Since the math doesn’t work, you choose one or the other. Love feels better. When you are yelled at again will you believe you are loved? The worse for you if you do. Especially later.

By adulthood, friends are puzzled.

“How can you let him do that to you? You’re too good for him. You’re beautiful and smart. Why do you stay with him?”

We are misled by those whose unkindness is hidden by smoke and mirrors. They can be understood only by a fog-piercing X-ray vision we don’t possess. If blinders to inconsistency are put on early, they turn invisible, but still restrict our sight. Incomprehension becomes automatic, unconscious.

No wonder we go to therapists. No wonder they say, “Tell me about your childhood.”

The top image is Scolding by José Ferraz de Almeida, Jr. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “How We Grow Up — Confused

  1. This is revealing, but how do we prevent it from happening. People don’t get certificates in child psychology before marriage.


    • Your question is excellent, but I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. I’d also say that education in child rearing would probably not improve the situation as much as one would hope. The job of being a parent has never been easy. Moreover, external stressors can take the life out of many of our fellow men and women. In these fraught times we seem to be going back to an attitude toward employees that robs them of their individuality. I’m speaking of labor practices at Walmart and Amazon, etc. When these parents return home — exhausted, dispirited, and worried about their finances — the frustration isn’t likely to make them better parents. You might be interested in reading “Mindlessness: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans” or this from today’s NY Times: I realize this probably isn’t the answer you expected, but the emotional health of parents and their ability to do a good job is dependent on many things. Thanks for commenting, George.


  2. Hi Gerald, it’s so hard to look at how much our parents can and have let us down. Depending on how serious the damage is the effects can be devastating for such a long time, for me its still a daily battle. Even though my father has been dead for five years His influence is still affecting every crevice and corner of my life. The trick that I’ve struggled with is living with pain and damage that was inflicted on me that was not of my own making and yet holding myself responsible for the effects as an adult and realising that I still have choices in my decisions and behavior. Its just not healthy to keep living by blaming your parents constantly. The only way Ive managed to get better is to take responsibility for something that wasn’t my fault. It brings up so much anger constantly and continues to be very painful but at least I’ve got a fairly settled and functioning life. I’m just thankful for having a really skilled therapist who is continually helping me to see my blind spots (they seem never ending). It seem so unfair though that it can take the rest of your life to get over those first few year and for some even that isnt enough time.


    • Agreed, Claire. We must get beyond the blaming, even though we must first understand what happened, grieve what happened, and free ourselves of the external indictment that has become an internal one. As Cheech and Chong used, to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Perhaps too much? Sounds like you are dedicated to putting things right in your life, which is much to be admired.


  3. As both child and parent, I see no way out of this conundrum. Perhaps this behavior stems from early human survival mechanisms for protecting our helpless and dependent offspring.


    • I think, over time, we have seen child rearing methods change. Not all the changes are good. While the harshness of a child’s life (children in factories) has been reduced, some other unfortunate elements remain. Some children see through their parents’ ambivalence, while others miss it entirely. I suppose growing up will never be easy, but then life is not easy. Still, most of us are pretty resilient and become independent. One hopes we learn from our experience. Thanks for your thoughts, Rosaliene.

      Liked by 1 person

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