Love your children well

Love Your Children Well

For the past few years, I’ve been struck by intermittent doubts about whether we’re raising our children “right.” Our house is filled with a gaggle of teenagers. As our eldest nears university, his upbringing is a done deal, the question a moot point. As for the others, it is said that parents have a diminishing influence over their children around the age of 12, when peers take the upper hand. 

Someone once told me that my boys should learn how to fight. But then shouldn’t my daughter, too? Over the years I’ve flattened a few drunk guys in bars who mistook my body for the Yellow Pages. I possess more fight than flight – an instinct necessarily mediated by having children – so I can see the attraction in that proposition. I believe in embracing confrontation when required, a useful superpower for the everyday hero and an effective complement to the word “No.” It creates boundaries for those who wish to trespass against us.

My kids are lovers not fighters, critically thinking and feeling their way through the everyday conflicts of growing up and into themselves. And I – we – use a primary measuring stick of empathy to determine whether they are turning out to be Decent Human Beings (they are). And I ask myself the questions: Have I provided enough? Have I listened enough? Have I loved them enough? I can honestly answer (mostly) yes, I believe I have, not without mistakes, of course. But it’s what I haven’t done that picks at the edges of my brain.

I worry that I haven’t ridden them hard enough about striving to do their best, preparing them to be competitive in a world that rewards hyper-competitiveness, a world of modern gladiators, a world of jumping through hoops. Should we have prepared them to be a little bit harder on the outside and a little less soft on the inside? Toughened them up for the school of hard knocks instead of beauty, decency and human kindness?  Have we taught them to be kind – suckers, even – instead of scratching a little when necessary, stuffing down the feelings and keeping the eye on the prize, the “success” at end of the rainbow?

If “everybody’s doing it” – putting their kids in a high-pressure cooker – and we’re not, are we just stooges of middle class brainwashing?

I have mixed feelings about the old saw that declares money doesn’t buy happiness. “I wonder if the Dragon Moms (and dads) have it right?” I ask my friends, who ask themselves the same question. In what seems like an increasingly unstable and corporate-driven world, survival seems to be about doing whatever it takes to get to (and stay at) the top of the pyramid. If “everybody’s doing it” – putting their kids in a high-pressure cooker – and we’re not, are we just stooges of middle class brainwashing? Are we out of touch with reality?

A friend posted an article on Facebook from Vancouver’s Dr. Gabor Maté about Trump and Clinton’s childhoods that speaks to the root of the problem. Trump’s traumatic childhood and Clinton’s “opaque persona” isn’t fresh news, but this piece struck a nerve.

Maté says:

…What we perceive as the adult personality often reflects compensations a helpless child unwittingly adopted in order to survive. Such adaptations can become wired into the brain, persisting into adulthood. Underneath all psychiatric categories Trump manifests childhood trauma. His opponent Hillary Clinton evinces her own history of early suffering, even if milder and far more muted in its impact.

The ghostwriter [Tony] Schwartz reports that Trump had no recollection of his youth.

There is always a reason for such amnesia. People have poor recall of their childhoods when they found reality so painful that their minds had to repress awareness and push memories into the unconscious. “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” Trump admitted to a biographer.

The flaws of our leaders perfectly mirror the emotional underdevelopment of the society that elevates them to power…

According to biographers, Trump’s father was workaholic, ruthless, emotionally cold and authoritarian, a man who believed that life is a competition where the “killers” win. Donald’s elder brother drove himself into alcoholism, a common escape from pain, and to an early death. The younger, favoured child is now self-destructing on the world stage.

Lying is such an endemic aspect of his personality that he does so almost helplessly and reflexively. “Lying is second nature to him,” Tony Schwartz told The New Yorker. “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”

How are such patterns compensations? Not paying attention, tuning out, is a way of coping with stress or emotional hurt. Narcissistic obsession with the self compensates for a lack of nurturing care. Grandiosity covers a deeply negative sense of self-worth. Bullying hides an unconscious conviction of weakness. Lying becomes a mode of survival in a harsh environment. Misogyny is a son’s outwardly projected revenge on a mother who was unable to protect him.

Trump’s opponent also appears to have learned reality-denial at an early age. Her father, too, according to biographic reports, was harsh, verbally abusive, and dismissive of his daughter’s achievements. The opaque persona many now see as inauthentic would have developed as young Hillary Rodham’s protective shell. In an anecdote related by the former Secretary of State herself as an example of salutary character building, four-year-old Hillary runs into her home to escape neighbourhood bullies. “There is no room for cowards in this house,” says her mother, sending the child out into the street to face her tormentors.  The real message was: “Do not feel or show your pain. You are on your own.” Over six decades later the candidate hides her pneumonia even from her doctor and from those closest to her. Repeatedly she has overlooked her husband’s outlandish infidelities, defending him against disgrace— no doubt suppressing her own emotional turmoil in the process…

…What does it say about our society that such deeply troubled individuals frequently rise to the top ruling circles, attaining wealth and power and even the admiration of millions?

We need not be perplexed that a Donald Trump can vie for the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth. We live in a culture where many people are hurt and, like the leaders they idolize, insulated against reality. Trauma is so commonplace that its manifestations have become the norm.

People who are anxious, fearful and aggrieved may be unable to recognize the flaws In those seeking power. They mistake desperate ambition for determination, see grandiosity as authority, paranoia as security, seductiveness as charm, dogmatism as decisiveness, selfishness as economic wisdom, manipulation as political savvy, lack of principles as flexibility. Trauma-induced defences such as venal dishonesty and aggressive self-promotion often lead to success.

The flaws of our leaders perfectly mirror the emotional underdevelopment of the society that elevates them to power…

With four teenagers in hand, it is too late to change course if we have been wrong; it is now up to them to make their way as life requires.

Since I cannot see into the future, I’m going to go with Gabor Maté’s deceptively easy/complex takeaway:

People, love your children well. The world depends on it.

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