I have an image of myself as a three-year-old: it’s summer and we’re at “Sleepy Hollow,” a vaguely depressing summer vacation place of cottages and “the dome”—where more socially adjusted kids happily participated in activities; I’m ready for my morning swim, wearing a life-preserver, water-wings and non-slip shoes of some dimly remembered rubber; I’m being placed in the kiddie pool where the water is barely past my knees; I don’t think I’m wearing a diving mask, but I feel like I see my mom’s over-concerned face, radiating the message, “This is very, very dangerous and you might drown at any second.”
I’m not sure what my first word was, but I feel like it might have been, “Careful!” since that’s the word I remember my parents blurting out most frequently toward me. And still I was accident prone and despite many swimming lessons, still nearly drowned at summer camp when I was nine.
As a parent I’ve come to appreciate the notion that we just can’t win—whatever we choose to do often, at least in the short run, we are told was all wrong.
When I compare childhood today with that of the 1960s I would say that many kids are more overprotected than I was—riding bikes all over the place by the time I was nine or ten—things I didn’t let me kids do. I probably “overprotect” to some degree, trying to weigh out crippling limits with blaring headlines of danger. My kids are teens now and so the dangers are different, but what I wanted to focus on today was not just the limits on safety we choose to set, but our attitude of concern vs. confidence in our kids’ own abilities to make safe choices.
For example there was a classic study where a baby is allowed to crawl on a glass countertop where halfway along the “floor” appears to drop out below the glass, in effect creating a sort of safe cliff. Babies tend to look down, stop, look at mom and proceed if mom smiles and wait where they are if mom looks concerned. Other studies examined climbing behavior where little ones looked to mom’s face to decide if they should climb higher or not. Confident moms seemed to breed confident kids—not overly risk-taking, but not anxious and avoidant either.
It is very hard to shield kids against our own neurotic anxieties, very it difficult to mask our own unconscious dread or control our non-verbal cues that bubble up from our often unconscious world-view (which we mistake for “reality”). This is why it’s good to cultivate self-awareness and tranquility in ourselves; consciousness empowers us to make more choices about our formerly unconscious fears, beliefs and aggression.
I have noticed that Holocaust survivors tend to overprotect their kids; this makes sense because those parents have an overdeveloped awareness of the precariousness of life—and yet this can sometimes hobble their kids from taking risks and learning natural confidence and self-reliance when they are young, but I’ve often seen it also breed brash go-out-and-get-it bravado (which is not necessarily authentic confidence).
While my parents were not direct survivors of the holocaust, I suspect that my dad’s family’s experience of fleeing pogroms and my mom’s family’s experience of Nazi persecution (her dad losing eight brothers and sisters to the ovens, along with my mom’s dad dying when she was a kid, and my dad’s mom being seriously ill most of his childhood) might have shaped them to be rather worried about bad things happening.
Another angle on overprotection, however, is that it contains unconscious aggression. For example, if a loved one is late, how quickly do we go to disaster scenarios in our minds? If it is chronic worry that something terrible has happened, perhaps we unconsciously feel abandoned by the ticking seconds without them; in the depths of our forbidden mind we crash their car, and then fear that this must be what has happened. We get anxious, and then angry and relieved at the same time when they “make it home” safely. Kids in particular, may have bad dreams about their parents being killed precisely because they are feeling abandoned or neglected and both fear being alone, but also feel angry and powerless over this perceived abandonment.
Back in the Greek day we had gods to hang our Shadows on, Hades for all things dark and Chronos for those eat-you-up-I-love-(and-resent)-you-so uneasy feelings that parenting may also evoke in the underworld of our psyches, individual and collective.
Kids are a lot of work, and I think my dad must have been miserable on our holiday to Sleepy Hollow, unconsciously immersed in his own bitter childhood and antsy without the demands of work, without access to our family addiction of workaholism (hi, I’m Bruce and I’m blogging when I should be sleeping); over the years dad would chronically get sick on the day before a family trip (not his business trips, however) and the bags, all packed by the door, would end up migrating back to our rooms and being unpacked again while the holiday got cancelled. He didn’t get sick on the no-kids-included trips to Europe or Asia every year either.
My “growth” was to actually go with my kids on holidays, but then get sick and need to stay back and rest (in awful and unconscious solidarity with my father?). What finally cured that was Ireland; that’s a curative place (and a little good Irish Whiskey, which means “water of life” in Celtic, homeopathically employed, was for me a step up from addiction to work and exhaustion. Meanwhile I had a friend who couldn’t resist drinking most of the bottle, but we all have our Achilles’ heels). One parent’s palliative is another parent’s poison (and for that friend, work—and AA—were the cure).
So when I look back at my over-concerned and grumpy parents, pushing me to “go be with the normal kids” in the “dome” (so they could not be with me), I must wonder if their sorrows at being poorly parented in their own childhoods combined with my orchidly-high level of sensitivity to make them feel angry at me for existing (and at themselves for not enjoying it more or dealing with it more fluidly)?
As a dad, I totter on the fence between being more connected with my kids than my parents were with me, and still not nearly as present as I wish to be; to empower better, yet still protect them from real dangers and accurately gauge what they can handle. In some strange way I blog as a post-it note to my own Self, trying to get things right through seeking community with other parents who do not find parenting as all that easy either, yet feel it to be profoundly rewarding when we do get it right—and even a potential path to higher consciousness (or, in simpler words, a tutorial in loving the world).
Parenting has come to intrigue me as a mindset, as a way of relating to each other and the world. In a sense I also blog as a person tunneling out of prison, striving toward shorter posts and perhaps eventual freedom from writing and figuring out into just being (even though I’ve come to truly enjoy writing). At the same time I sincerely wish to serve others through this process, not necessarily in knowing what to do, but in being authentic and hoping that we can all manage to stay engaged with our kids (and with each other) and so non-defensively learn from our loves, set-backs and struggles.
So, let’s dedicate today to consciousness of our own potentially sorrow-driven, aggression-laden lapses into overprotection (since we’re all just doing the best we can, and trying to improve on what that looks like), forgiving ourselves for our shortcomings and seeing if we can get a few moments just a little more right with our kids—today. I’m off to try that right now, still in the service of all our collective children.