Betrayal

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While betrayal comes in many forms, certainly among the very worst is the betrayal of a child by a parent. As a therapist, one hears perhaps too many of these stories for comfort. There are generic ones, where parents steal money or credit cards from their offspring; use up the college fund that a grandparent left the child; and perpetrate (or allow) verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Then there are the very particular and peculiar ones that require some amount of invention, but still break the heart.

A few stories then, followed by an attempt to answer the question “Why?”

Take a set of parents who invested themselves in “surface” things — how they looked to others. They needed the right car, the right house in the right neighborhood, the right clothes, and the right friends. And so, when one of their children had a less than attractive nose, they required this youngster to have a “nose job.” The youth was OK with the nose that nature had delivered, but this wasn’t satisfactory to the parents.

You might say that the surgery benefited the youngster, but only on the surface. It delivered the message that the child’s opinion (the desire not to have the surgery) didn’t matter, that a frightening and unnecessary operation would be inflicted, and that the offspring was not good enough without a cosmetic overhaul. All of this negated whatever benefit accrued to looking more pleasing to the eye.

Another example. Two sisters. The younger was very bright, but not particularly attractive. The older one was gorgeous, but not so bright. What did the parents do? They referred to them in public as “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” Both compliments, it’s true, but so ingeniously fashioned and used that the real message to the younger one was “You are ugly” and to the older one “You are stupid.” Devastating.

Or the parents whose oldest child committed suicide by using a handgun that had been given him by his father. After the funeral the father gave the gun to the brother next-in-line. Next-in-line for what? What was the unspoken message here?

How about the young man, a college student, disliked by his abusive father? This was back in the days before the voluntary army, back in the time of Vietnam and the draft. The father knew that his son needed to manage a full-time course load in order to keep his student deferment.

So what did the father do?

He required that his offspring pay rent to stay in the family home knowing that his kid couldn’t afford it, even though the money wasn’t essential to the upkeep of the residence. Ultimately the young man couldn’t manage his studies because of the job. He had to quit school and was drafted, then sent to S.E. Asia. His father never wrote him letters in those days before email and, in fact, sold all the son’s possessions including his car while he was overseas.

What was the message from father to son? I don’t want you to succeed? I don’t want you home? I don’t expect you to survive? I don’t want you to survive? Or all of the above?

Why do they do it? The parents, I mean. First off, we know that if you have been abused by your parents, you are more likely to abuse your children than those people who have not had this awful experience. In effect, you are at risk of becoming the thing that you hate, perhaps even rationalizing the brutal behavior of your dad or mom. “They did the best they could” is a common theme that adult children use as they reflect back on their parents’ approach to child rearing and try to minimize and normalize the mistreatment they received. Similarly, the words spoken by the abusive parent, “I’m only doing this for your own good,” often serve as a “cover” for less than benign intentions.

Children who are being abused have little recourse but to put a good face on their parents’ behavior. To realize that one’s parents are vicious or frankly deranged leaves a child desperate and hopeless. If, on the other hand, the young one can find some reason to continue to admire the parent, he may find his home life at least slightly less terrifying.

Kids in this situation are desperate to find any signal of hope about the future. If they see their predicament for what it is, hope is dead. They are stuck and there is no place to go. It is therefore (in some sense) more comforting to believe that the reason for the mistreatment is their own fault, than to think that their elders are simply evil. If mom and dad are believed to be crazy or vicious, the child can only despair. On the other hand, if the young one believes that his behavior is somehow deserved, then by working to change himself he can at least imagine that he will win better treatment from his folks.

With no alternative family to which to compare his situation, the child has no model of parenting that is different, no clear standard that tells him that his parents are corrupt, at least until many years into the abuse at a time when he is older. If, in his effort to normalize the situation, the child does find something admirable about the parent, and perhaps even something good about that person’s behavior, he is more likely to emulate it later. Furthermore, in trying to obtain a sense of mastery over his life, kids will often experiment with the very behavior that has been perpetrated on them. That is, they may obtain satisfaction (as well as an outlet for their anger) by being brutal with others, who might be their siblings or their school mates.

One could go on about this subject for quite some time, but if you’d like a place to start exploring it, you might want to read For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller looks at case histories of abuse, including some very controversial speculation about Adolph Hitler and what childhood experiences might have contributed to his sociopathy.

It is definitely worth your time and attention.

The image comes from the MGM movie, Julius Caesar. Casca, about to stab Caesar, is played by Edmond O’Brien and Caesar by Louis Calhern. The movie features Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and James Mason as Brutus.

The Price of Humility

Humility is generally thought to be a positive characteristic. Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

From the centuries-old teachings of the Catholic Church, one reads that there are “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Even without such a list, however, young people are often taught to be humble and not boastful.

They are instructed not to call too much attention to themselves, not to be full of themselves or too proud. Arrogance, excessive self-love (narcissism), hubris — all are viewed negatively and point to the notion that you are not as good as you think you are and therefore should not become “too big for your britches.” In effect, the message is, be modest and you will be fine.

But.

Yes, I know, there is always a but.

An example illustrates why I am a hesitant endorser of humility in all things. My seventh grade Chicago Public School home room teacher gave us an interesting assignment. In one of the marking periods (there were four per semester) each of us was to write down the grades that we believed we should receive for the term — what marks we felt we deserved. Up until that time I was something of a humility addict. Whether from home or elsewhere, I’d learned not to toot my own horn, not to draw attention to myself, and certainly not to overstate my accomplishments.

The strategy had worked pretty well up to that time. But, I did not see that it created the potential for trouble ahead.

I dutifully delivered the grades, having understated most, if not all of them. What difference did it make, I thought? The teacher would assign the bona-fide grades, of course, based on the work we had completed, our test scores, and so forth.

Some time later, we received our real marks. And, wouldn’t you know it, my instructor had given me exactly the evaluation I assigned to myself. Since I was enormously invested in my school performance, I was crushed. I seem to recall that each kid had a mini-conference with her up at her front desk. I don’t remember what she said to me, but the grades stood, at least until the next marking period, when she would not be influenced by any external opinions. Nevertheless, I’m sure that I was mad at myself for having understated my worth.

As miserable as she made me feel, this woman did me a great favor. In fact, there probably was no better way to deliver the message: don’t diminish yourself, don’t minimize your accomplishments, don’t be self-effacing. If you cannot be your own best advocate, why should you expect anyone else to advocate for you? While you needn’t trumpet your attainments to the farthest reaches of the earth, neither should you hide them under a rock.

There is a price to excess humility, just as there is a price to the extreme of any human characteristic, not just the seven deadly sins: too much confidence or too little, too much risk-taking or not enough, a naive excess of trust or a cynical absence of confidence and faith in others, and so forth.

My teacher is almost certainly deceased. But, if I could, I would thank her for her instruction in the price of a surfeit of humility.

Ironically enough, her name was Miss Price — my seventh grade teacher at Jamieson School.

The image above is Kandinsky’s Composition V.

Earning Your Life: Teaching Kids the Value of Work, Not Entitlement

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Most of my teenage friends worked in the summer, but I might have been the only one to work every day after class during the last two years of high school.

It wasn’t by choice. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, required it. I protested that it would affect my school work and I think it probably did, but not so much that I didn’t do well.

I accepted my dad’s work dictum, but generally felt put-upon that I, in the minority among the lower-middle class kids I hung around with, had to do this. In the end, it taught me a good deal, as I shall relate to you.

I’d catch the Lincoln Avenue bus and transfer to the Ravenswood elevated train at Western Avenue. This would take me into the “Loop,” that place where the elevated tracks encircle a good part of what is also called “Downtown Chicago.” During my junior year of  high school I was employed at Chicago Band Repair/Ace Crystal Service, my Uncle Sam’s business.

There, I learned to make simple repairs on expansion watch bands, pack and ship glass watch crystals that had been ground to size on a lathe (this was in the days before plastic watch crystals), dispatch those repaired expansion bands, and run errands. The next year I was an “office boy” at David Altman Law Offices on La Salle Street (still in the Loop) doing filing, errands, and running a Multilith machine, the offset duplicating equipment that was used to copy and print large quantities of legal documents.

Those jobs were interesting enough. There were always lots of things to do, little “down time,” and some entertaining people whose life experience was entirely different from my own. At my Uncle’s place at 5 S. Wabash in the Mallers Building I worked with an almost entirely black and mostly female staff in the days just before the major civil rights legislation was passed. At the law office, it was lawyers and secretaries — all white and all white-collar. In both places I fit in pretty well and got treated pretty well.

But it was the summer work at one job that I hated. I was a college student by then, just having finished my junior year. The place was an un-air conditioned metal stamping factory. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do it, you never got better at it, and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing over and over and over. For eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by punching in at 7:00 AM, which meant that I had to get up at around 5:00 AM in order to get to work on time. If I stayed out at all late the night before, I paid for it dearly the next day with the extra-strenuous effort that was required to stay awake while performing my deadly dull duties. You know the feeling — each eye lid seems to weigh 400 pounds and sleep beckons more enticingly than the most beautiful woman and more insistently than the most demanding boss.

I recall one day in particular. The summer was a hot one and the factory retained heat. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Even so, it felt peculiar to be drenched in sweat at my work station at 7:00 AM in a building where the thermometer already registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best that day to keep alert and be productive. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the clock on the wall. It said 7:15 AM! It seemed impossible, but only 15 minutes had elapsed since the moment of my clocking in. Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity seemed nearer than the end of the work day.

I so-hated the job that I found another one that summer in order to get out of the factory, where both the duties and the temperature were liquefying my brain. But it was an experience I never forgot, nor the fact that there were men there who did work only slightly more sophisticated and challenging than I did, and continued to do it for the rest of their working lives.

Earlier, during the summer before my second year in college, I worked in the mail room at Edward H. Weiss Advertising Agency. I made about $1.25 per hour. I had a girlfriend named Beverly that summer and she fancied the idea of going horse back riding. One Saturday afternoon we did just that in Lincoln Park. But, to my dismay, I discovered that the horses cost $3.00 per hour. I knew something was wrong if an equine commanded a better wage than I did!

So what exactly did I learn from experiences such as that?

First, that honest labor at whatever level is nothing to look down upon. There are many worse jobs than those I did, but some of mine were bad enough to make me appreciate the men and women who make a living at tasks that provide little room for growth, excitement, or creativity. My hat is off to them and to what they do for their families and their children.

Second, those jobs taught me how to get along with people whose backgrounds were different from mine, in some cases individuals of a different color, sometimes of a different social status (both higher and lower), including people whose parents and grandparents had gone to college (as mine had not) and those who only could hope that their kids might some day be able to obtain more than a high school degree. I came to see the nobility in simple labor; the complexity and skill required to work precisely with your hands; the meaning of craftsmanship, duty, and dedication. I also learned respect for authority even when the authority wasn’t always fair, and the value of being able to make the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal.

I realized, too, that if one had some good fortune — in my case the opportunity to go to college along with parents who encouraged me to become educated and scholarships and fellowships that enabled me to obtain graduate degrees — one should take advantage of it. I saw, up close, that life could be different from what I hoped my life would be, and that the “different” path was one that I did not want to traverse.

And, I have come to appreciate, every day of my life, how lucky I am to do the work that I do. Work that is interesting, mostly in my control (since I am my own boss), and that has allowed me to make a good life for my children; labor that does not always feel like labor, that I do not dread, and that is challenging, enriching, and satisfying to myself and those I serve.

My friend Jeff Carren, who is an attorney, tells me that he has encountered new hires into legal practice (that is, new lawyers) who had never held a full-time job until they became associates at a law firm. And, that they were stunned at the amount of effort that “work” — a new job, any job — requires.

Perhaps then, in light of my experience, you will not be surprised to know that my kids, despite heavy academic and extra-curricular loads, both were gainfully employed part-time during high school. My oldest, Jorie, did her regular stint as a barista at Star Bucks, while Carly did lots of baby sitting. And, both performed full-time summer jobs when school wasn’t in session. They too, have learned the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar earned from that labor; that is, they have learned the one additional lesson of my early life experience — that money does not grow on trees. They discovered, early enough, what it feels like to “earn” a thing — quite a different sensation from having it given to you. And they have, thankfully, grown up without the sense of “entitlement” that is so pervasive in American youth.

JFK put the entitlement issue in quite a different context when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Similarly, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the movie Saving Private Ryan tells Ryan to “Earn It” as the latter faces the fact that men have given their lives to save him. That is, “earn” your life by making something of it, so that those who gave their lives for you will not have died in vain.

There is great value in “earning” your life. And, the way it starts is by doing work, “making” a living — in effect, doing what is required to sustain yourself and others.

Parents need to remember that we can let our children down just as much by expecting too little of them, as by expecting too much; as much by overprotection as neglect.

We are not entitled to anything — not you, not me, not our kids. Life can be a gift of opportunity, but there is no free lunch.

It is work, hard and honest labor, that helps to teach this lesson.

Thanks, Dad.

Moms on Mother’s Day

Nurturing, caring, loving, concerned, patient, compassionate, expressive, reliable, watchful, tender, giving, interested, independent, graceful, affectionate, accepting, enthusiastic, encouraging, strong, wise, and kind

or

preoccupied, worried, stressed, indifferent, cold, selfish, shrill, overwhelmed, judgmental, angry, impulsive, erratic, hard, numb, inconsistent, weak, troubled, vain, dependent, clumsy, clueless, and cruel.

As a parent and as a child, here’s hoping you came out and come out on the right side of this.

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Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (detail) by Caravaggio

What Children Need From Parents III: Beware the Extinction Burst!

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Popular culture gives us just enough information to be confused.

Not surprisingly, many parents who have never taken a psychology course know it is important to set limits on their children and to be consistent in enforcing those limits. Despite this, a good many parents don’t have the strength of will to withstand the repeated pleading of their kids, or the energy to do so.

If your child wants you to buy him a candy bar or a toy while you are in the store, many parents believe it is simply easier to give in than to listen to the endless entreaties of their offspring.

In some cases it can be too exhausting or overwhelming to have to deal with a persistent child, in other instances the parent might fear losing the child’s affection if the desired treat isn’t forthcoming, and in still other situations the parent feels guilty if he or she deprives the youngster of something.

For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I always tell parents before they intend to change their style from one that inconsistently reinforces their child’s misbehavior, they have to be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to be prepared for what comes next.

And what comes next is something pretty powerful.

Its called an “extinction burst.”

First, what is “extinction?” Extinction occurs when a behavior that has been previously “reinforced” (some would use the word “rewarded”), no longer receives reinforcement. Eventually, the organism (animal or person) will stop performing the behavior. Put differently, the undesirable behavior is “extinguished.”

Take, for example, a laboratory rat. You can teach these creatures to press a bar in order to get a food pellet. Rats are good at this. But, if you no longer give the rat food pellets for pressing the bar, the critter will eventually stop doing the bar press. But there is a catch here and it relates to the word eventually. And the catch is what is called an “extinction burst.”

Let us assume your child, like the lab rat, has learned something about how you deliver reinforcers. The reinforcer could be the aforementioned candy bar or toy; it could be money; it could be your attention; it could be staying home from school; it could be a lot of things.

And, let’s further assume that you no  longer want the child to keep pestering you for whatever it is that he wants. Now, remember he hasn’t gotten what he wanted every time, but often enough to learn to be persistent and keep at it until you “break” under the assault.

The “extinction burst” consists of the young-one doing even more of the behavior you want to eliminate at the point you stop reinforcing him.

That might mean he will be louder, or pursue you longer, or repeat more often whatever has worked before. It can go on for a very long time until, finally, the child learns the lesson you want to teach him; in other words, learns he will no longer receive what he wants for his inappropriate actions.

But if you finally do break down and reinforce the child with what he wants during the “extinction burst,” he will have learned an awful truth: “Well, maybe I just have to do this behavior longer or more or louder in order to get what I want.” Indeed, the child doesn’t even have to be able to think or say this to himself.

Even laboratory rats operate according to the same rules of learning, and no one I know has had a very deep conversation with a rat lately.

At least, not the four-legged kind.

Parents sometimes tell therapists they have tried to be consistent and it failed. In other words, that the science regarding “extinction” and setting limits is inaccurate.

But what has really happened in this kind of case is the parent wasn’t ready to deal with the extinction burst. Their inability to tolerate the “burst” of seemingly relentless pestering or complaining eventually led them to reinforce the child once again for the undesirable behavior; and, in so doing, made it harder to extinguish the behavior than when they started.

Had the mom or dad only be able to stay-the-course and resist the child a bit longer, the “extinction burst” would have ended.

The moral of the story is to prepare yourself before changing your parenting-style in an effort to become more consistent. If you aren’t absolutely sure you have the organization, energy, strength, patience, and self-confidence to withstand the “extinction burst,” don’t even try. You will only make things worse.

And don’t expect your child to really believe you when you say “this is the last time I will let you do this” while you once again reinforce troublesome behavior.

Talk is cheap and, like those same lab rats who can’t understand your language, your child will pay attention to what you do and not what you say.

But, if you do have the requisite qualities that any good parent needs and you are fully prepared to hold your ground with your child, you might be quite pleased at how you have reasserted yourself and gotten control over the home situation.

To do that, the earlier you start in your child’s life, the better.

You may be interested in the following post on the topic of consistency: What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines.

The photo of an Albino Rat was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines

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Do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

It’s not a silly question.

The two machines are rather alike. Both require you to insert some money. Both then demand that you engage the machine, set it in motion. In the case of the candy machine, you press a button or pull a lever to make your choice. The slot machine waits for your follow-through on its lever or “arm,” hence the name, “one-armed bandit.”

That is where the similarity ends and the answer to the question becomes essential: do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

The reason is as simple as it is important. The candy machine is dependable, reliable, and consistent. Every time you insert your coins and make  the selection, it provides you with the item you have chosen. If, by chance, it should not, you would quickly stop inserting coins because your knowledge and experience tell you that no matter how many more coins you deposit, the machine will not do what you want. It is broken.

The slot machine, however,  is another story. Your knowledge and experience tell you that the machine’s failure to provide you with winnings on one occasion doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be a winner the next time, or the time after that. It might take you a very long period of failure and much expenditure of hard-earned silver dollars before you would come to the conclusion that the machine is broken. The machine, when its working correctly delivers winnings on an intermittent (or inconsistent) reinforcement schedule.

Getting the picture? If your children see you as consistent and reliable (like the candy machine) in responding to their requests and their pleadings, they will know that asking for what they want more than once will do them no good: the answer will be the same on the 10th request as it is on the first. And once they have learned this, they will make very few additional requests of you beyond the first one.

But if they see you as similar to the slot machine, boy are you in trouble! They will keep at you, over and over, because they know that one failure at winning doesn’t mean the game is lost. Perhaps the second try will work, or the fifth, or the fiftieth. They will know you better than you know yourself. Simply put, they will know that they have a good chance of wearing you down so that they can have the toy, the TV show, the attention, or the food they want; they will know that the punishment you are trying to enforce also can be changed, maybe not by pleading their case only once, but by repeated appeals to you. Your goose will be cooked.

Kids, of course, have more energy for this sort of “back and forth” than most parents do, so time is not on your side. And the longer they have experienced your inconsistency, the longer it will take for them to “unlearn” what you have taught them about yourself.

The message is simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Do what you say that you will do. It will easier on you and better for your children. But before you get started, be prepared for the “extinction burst.”

What is that, you say? I’ll cover that topic in my next blog.

The above image is a Slot Machine by Jeff Kubina from the milky way galaxy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Letting Go of Your Children

One of the hardest things a parent has to do for his child’s well-being is “letting go.” The attachment between a parent and child, at its best, is profoundly intense and rewarding to both parties. But, at some point, earlier than most parents think, the tie must be loosened. There are at least two reasons for this.

The first involves the danger of overprotection. While the world is a harsh place at times, children who are not seriously disabled need to begin to obtain some mastery of that world. They will not do so if the parent hovers too closely, watches every move, makes every decision, and doesn’t permit the child to get a sense of accomplishment and independence, that is, to get a sense of their own mastery of the world.

Secondly, if the child is ultimately to break-free, the parent must prepare him and encourage him. Kids will make bad decisions; they will get hurt by life. All that is a part of growing up and, in fact, a part of life as an adult, too. If they are to succeed in life, attach to others outside the family (mate), produce children, and develop a personality that is different from that of either parent, they will profit from the permission and encouragement to do so.

There is no perfect guidebook for how to disengage–how to, little-by-little, give your child more freedom, less oversight. It is easier, of course, if the young one is reasonably outgoing, a good student, and doesn’t get into much trouble with authorities. But even with kids who are having difficulty, micro-management can create resentment and rebellion, while constant criticism can be depressing and efface the child’s shaky self-esteem. A parent needs to know which children need a heavy hand, which a light touch, when to praise, when to correct, and when to punish. No one can provide  precise direction to this in the abstract, because each child is different and each parent is different. That said, here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Don’t try to raise each of your children the same way. While this should be obvious, it rarely is. Some parents even brag: “I treated all my kids the same.” This is preposterous, but, even if you came close, you probably shouldn’t have. All children aren’t the same and therefore require the kind of individually tailored attention that works for them. Why would it make sense to raise an active child in the same way as a passive one, or an outgoing offspring just like an introspective little person? One size doesn’t fit all.

2. Don’t “own” your child’s life. He isn’t you. He needs to have his own ideas, not some Xeroxed version of what you think he should be. He ultimately needs to “own” his direction in life, meaning that the desire to do well in school and in other things needs to be his. If he only does his school work because he is required to, even when he is in high school, somehow the transfer of responsibility from you to him hasn’t been made. You’ve got about 15 years to accomplish that hand-off; after that, demands from parents to “do better” usually generate diminishing returns.

3. Don’t set unreasonable expectations. Most middle-class folks see their children, at least a little, as a reflection of themselves; someone to carry the family banner into the future. But, you can make yourself a little crazy by wanting great fortune and fame for your kids, and letting them know you will settle for nothing less. Harvard isn’t for everyone and there is no guarantee of a good life that comes with admission to Princeton, Northwestern, Yale, etc. If your child can make a living, find love in his life, behave honorably, and experience some measure of fulfillment, that just might be quite enough.

4. Don’t make your child feel guilty over leading his own life, not providing you with grandchildren, and not being as close to you as he was when he was little. He needs to break-free and take care of himself. He should (and probably will) want to have you in his life, but don’t be an anchor around his ankle.

5. Don’t live and die with every success and failure on your son or daughter’s path. Easier said than done, by the way. Learn to accept things as they are. Get some distance. Meditate. Get a life of your own. As a famous basketball coach once said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You are going to die a lot.”

6. As your kids move into adulthood, don’t preach and do be careful about giving advice, especially if it hasn’t been requested. Let your children know that you are proud of them. Not because they became captains of industry, but because they are good, decent, and loving people. Give your grown kids support and encouragement. Enjoy them, don’t manage them.

7. Remember that they aren’t you, they won’t always do what you would do, what you think wise, believe what you believe to be true. They might belong to a different political party, root for a different baseball team (God forbid!), change religion or give up religion. They might marry someone you don’t completely fit with. Remind yourself that what is important is your child’s happiness and fulfillment and decency.

8. Take good care of yourself. Find a meaning in life that is not 100% about your adult children. Try to get there gradually, not on his or her 21st birthday.

If you are lucky, your children will turn out well, and be grateful for all you did, and for your wisdom in not “doing it all” for them forever. It’s quite an adventure for the concerned parent, and you will never stop being concerned. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune…” But, with practice, you will sleep at night even on many of the nights that your adult child is having some bumps in the road.

When you look at her, fast asleep in her crib, all of that seems impossible and impossibly far away. But it can happen.

I’ve been there.

What Children Need From Parents: Part I

A 15-year-old treated by me many years ago is a good example of one of the things that parents need to provide their children.

I’ll call him Ike (not his real name), a slender, silly kid with sandy hair. His family was middle class, hard working, and honest. Unfortunately, Ike lacked the latter two qualities. He was a minor league juvenile delinquent, prone to shop lifting, cutting classes, curfew violations, and occasional drug use. Ike was a poor student thanks to a lack of effort,  an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder condition that featured notable impulsivity, and the unfortunate fact that he wasn’t very bright. This teenager treated school as  diversion from his major life tasks of having fun and causing trouble. He rarely thought of the long term consequences of his behavior, instead choosing to do whatever felt right in the moment and whatever action seemed likely to produce some immediate payoff, the future be damned. Outpatient therapy had failed to make a dent in any of this, so his parents ultimately brought him in for whatever a psychiatric hospital could do to redirect Ike’s life and get some control over things.

Years ago it was often possible to keep a teenager in the hospital for several weeks or months if he needed it. Insurance policies were different and more generous then. And so, given the total control over someone’s life that a psychiatric adolescent treatment unit provided, you could produce changes in some very rebellious, out of control kids. Ike was like that. Eventually he figured out that the only way to get out of the hospital was to conform his behavior to the required standard.

While his parents participated in family therapy during his hospital stay, they remained uncomfortable with the job of setting limits on Ike. Neither one was very secure or self-confident and Ike fueled that insecurity by his behavior. Both parents were prone to feeling guilty when they punished him because of their own unresolved childhood issues, and Ike knew how to “play” them and get them to back off of threats and attempted punishments. These adults needed their son’s approval and good will too much for his, and their, good. Ike was running the show before his hospitalization. He knew it, they knew it, and his “will” was stronger than their wills were. If he complained and pleaded long enough, one or the other parent would typically break down and give him what he wanted. Despite the fact that family therapy hadn’t succeeded with the parents, Ike ultimately behaved himself in the hospital and had to be discharged even if his parents didn’t seem to have a better handle on how to deal with him in the real world. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As often happens after an adolescent is discharged from a psychiatric hospital, Ike and his folks went through a honeymoon period. But after a couple of months, he resumed his misbehavior and things weren’t much different from the way they had been the moment that Ike had first stepped into the hospital. So it was on the first day of his second stint in confinement (yes, his parents took him back and readmitted him), that I recall having the following conversation with Ike:

GS: “So, Ike, how does it feel to know that you can pretty much do anything you want when you are at home? How does it feel to know that your parents really can’t control you?”

Ike: “Terrific!” (Said with a big smile).

Silence ensued. I was quiet and just sat there with Ike for perhaps 30 seconds. Then, Ike spoke again and surprised me.

Ike: “And scary.”

This was the truth of it. Even Ike, who was one of the least thoughtful and least self aware patients I’ve ever treated, realized that if he could get away with anything he wanted, that wasn’t a good thing. Even Ike knew that if he was driving the bus, the bus was in trouble. Even Ike knew that he needed someone to rein him in, to set a good example, to steer him in the right direction, and to prevent him from doing some of the things he would do impulsively, recklessly, and thoughtlessly.

What then do children need? Parents with the will power, strength, consistency, motivation, intelligence, resilience, and the self confidence to set and stick to limits, take charge, and make sure that the combination of a child’s poor judgment and impulsive or rebellious behavior doesn’t rule the day. Ike was the problem, but without his parents getting a grip on their own lives and finding the strength and confidence to assume the proper role in the home, Ike wasn’t going to get better any time soon. And even though Ike would have and did resist a more assertive, consistent, and confident approach from his parents, he knew that he needed it.

Some children are easy, some more challenging for parents. It is our job in the latter role to figure out what each of our children need and provide it. Not all children are the same and not all of our children need an identical approach from us. Ike would continue to misbehave until his parents figured this out.

The strength that I’m talking about isn’t the only thing that children need from parents, and from time to time I’ll write about some of the other requirements. The good news is that if Ike, at age 15, was able to figure out what he needed, nearly all adults can too. From that point on, good things are possible.

A Few Good Books

You won’t be looking at this unless you are a reader. So here are a few brief recommendations of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Most are not new and I suspect that some are out of print, but are likely to be obtainable by a search on the Internet. In no particular order:

1. Frauen by Allison Owings. Owings comes as close as anyone to answering the question, “How did the Holocaust Happen.” An American journalist who studied in Germany, she returned there to interview mostly gentile women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. Owings summary does an extraordinary job of describing the psychology of the bystanding German population.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Irving gives away the plot of his novel early on: Owen Meany will die an unusual death. But rather than destroying the tension of the book, this puts the reader in Owen’s shoes as a man who knows that he will come to an untimely end, but doesn’t know exactly how. As the book progresses and that end comes closer, the terror is almost unbearable.

3.  Agitato by Jerome Toobin. The story of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in the one decade that it attempted to survive after his retirement. If you enjoy anecdotes about famous musicians, this book is for you. The tale Toobin tells is both funny and sad, since the orchestra did not last. Jerome Toobin, by the way, is the father of Jeffrey Toobin, the legal scholar and public intellectual.

4.  Regret: the Persistence of the Possible by Janet Landman. A book about the title emotion, viewed from literary, psychological, and other perspectives.

5.  What is the Good Life? by Luc Ferry. A very good attempt to answer the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life?

6.  The Long Walk by Slavomir Ramicz. The author tells the true story of his escape from a Siberian prison camp. He and his compatriots, with almost no equipment, food, or appropriate clothing, attempted to walk to freedom and Western Civilization, which took them as far as India. As you can imagine, not all of them made it. That anyone at all did is astonishing.

7.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This story of an unhappily married Russian woman touches on almost all that is important in life: love, friendship, obligation, children, religion, the value (or lack) of value to be found in work and education, death, and the meaning of life. None of that would matter much without the author’s gift of telling his story and allowing these issues to flow out of the human relationships and events he describes.

8.  The Boys of  Summer by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s classic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1950s, the team that had Jackie Robinson as its central figure and leader.

9.  War Without Mercy by John Dower. Dower describes the racism that underpinned the Pacific theater of World War II. Unlike the war in Europe, each side viewed the other as less than human and treated the enemy with a brutality consistent with that view.

10.  The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Although the book is now a few decades old, the writer’s message is still spot on. He looks at the empty pursuit of happiness in material things and acquisitions, driven by the increasingly disconnected nature of social relationships in this country, and the promise of the media that happiness lies, not in fulfilling human contact, but in the goods that come with “success.”

11.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A fantastic and touching creation about a man unstuck in time, thrown forward and back, and the woman who loves him. Its being made into a movie, I’m told.

12. Patrimony by Philip Roth. Roth’s account of the illness and death of his father.

13.  The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker . More than one person has told me that this is the finest nonfiction book they have ever read. It is a meditation on what it means to be mortal, and how the knowledge we all have of our inevitable demise influences how we live, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Becker’s book has lead to an entire area of psychological research called “Terror Management Theory.”

14.  For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller is a controversial Swiss psychiatrist who looks at the effect of harsh upbringing on the welfare of children. If you believe that children should be seen and not heard, this book might make you think twice.

15.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A story of self sacrifice and heroism set in the French Revolution. If you can read the last few pages without tears, you have a firmer grip on your emotions that I have on mine.

16.  The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter was a college professor when he began to travel around the country in the 1960s, tape recorder in tow, to obtain the first hand stories of the great baseball players of the first two decades of the 20th century, who were by then very old men. Probably as great an oral history as any of those written by Studs Terkel, and perhaps the greatest baseball book ever.

17.  American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Oppenheimer is the man who brought the Manhattan Project to fruition, that is, helped create the bomb we used to end World War II in 1945. But more than that, this book is a wonderful biography of a complex, peculiar, and brilliant man, who was brought low by those who wished to discredit his opposition to nuclear proliferation in the period after the war.

18.  The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. A story that is beyond belief, but turns out to be true. The central figure of the story, when he was a little boy, was adopted as a mascot by a Latvian SS troop after surviving the murder of his family. Why beyond belief? Because he was Jewish. The book reads like the most extraordinary mystery.

19.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The most famous anti-war novel ever written. The book is told from the standpoint of a young German infantryman during World War I.

Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Hand_drawn_ghost.png

A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of her husband’s previous wife.

It’s like living with a ghost.

How do you do that?” I replied.

First, you make friends with the ghost.

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Indeed, what else was possible? How could the almost palpable presence of this woman be denied? To ignore or discourage discussion of her or suppress her memory — put away the photos and other objects — would be a disservice to the children and risk their alienation.

Surely, the only way forward was to “make friends” with someone she never met, a ghost guaranteed to defeat her if my friend chose to create a competition.

Special days like Mother’s Day remained difficult. On such occasions she suffered the reminder of never giving birth to a child, but also that she was not the “real” mother to her husband’s offspring. Still, the best solution required honoring this woman’s memory; and the part of her living in her offspring and in their father’s memory.

Sometimes life offers limited choices. Those situations must be accepted even if one wouldn’t have chosen them freely. My friend decided to recognize the woman who came before her: see her in the good qualities the children displayed — their beauty, their kindness, and their intellect — just as she came to think of her husband’s first wife as having encouraged a loving side of him she now enjoyed as his second wife.

As I said, in all of this my “not always wise” friend was very wise indeed.

The top image is a Hand Drawn Ghost by Milonicia, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second painting is The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft by Salvador Dali. It came from WikiArt.org.