When Sigmund Freud presented his life’s work to western civilization, everything changed. A cultural savant, Freud’s psychoanalytic theories literally rewired our world view of individuals, relationships, and especially child-rearing.
It’s always been true that parents and surrounding family dynamics fundamentally shape the psyches of growing children, leaving etched, more or less permanent fingerprints on those same lives into adulthood. But Freud said it out loud. He noticed it first. He codified it in published theory. He made us aware of the consequential weight, the “wallop” of how quality parents (or not-quality parents) can form and deform the personalities of children.
And, let me be clear before I go on, Freud was absolutely right.
But, nearing 100 years later, I notice other, bothersome cultural patterns that have spun out of this dominant, psychoanalytic view of the human experience. Unwitting and unintended. Whatever Freud meant, I’m certain he did not mean “Therefore, the moral responsibility for any and all character flaws, foibles, selfishness, anger management problems, anti-social idiosyncrasies, mood disorders, neuroses, personality disorders, criminal behavior, mean streaks, bad manners, addictions and/or psychopathologies you exhibit in adulthood should be summarily laid at the feet of your mother and father in some combination. Not to mention that you should spend the rest of your life castigating said Parental Units for all said and presumed sins. Because your life is their fault.”
I make my living as an ardent advocate for the innocence and vulnerability of children. But, sheesh, talk about a pendulum swing!
Today, I meet mother after father, father after mother who come limping into my office besieged by indignant, scornful, angry adult children. These children treat their parent(s) as persona non grata. Cycles of contempt, shunning, or self-righteous estrangement. Emotional outbursts. Condescension. Indignities. Railing criticisms.
And, in a culture of psychoanalytical worldview, so many parents just buy it. Hook, line and sinker. Their sons and daughters lead unhappy, difficult, in some cases miserable, self-destructive or even criminal lives. Some of those sons and daughters are just … well, jerks. And it must be because “I-was-a-bad-parent.”
Here’s a page from my own personal Good Parent Primer:
I assume that good parents are all flawed parents. I further assume that good parents are ever-ready and even eager to be radically, humbly accountable for those flaws. Good parents ‘own’ their behavior. They tell their children the truth about who they are, even the unlovely truths. Good parents can hear their child’s righteous, appropriate anger about injustices, cruelties, or in some (thankfully rare) cases evil. At minimum, ordinary, finite human parents all must eventually account for various stupidities, oblivion, ego maneuvers and just plain ordinary failures of empathy.
But here’s another page from that same primer:
Under no circumstances will I grant my children an audience for mere scorn. Mere contempt. Reviling. For that matter, at 61, I no longer grant anyone an audience for that. If you want to be close to me, I guarantee you will eventually have reason to be angry with me. And that’s when I will need you the most. So be angry. Make your claim on the “best of me.” Submit your grievance. Punctuate it with volume and trembling voice if need be.
But not with disrespect. Don’t abuse me, even if you’re certain that I have abused you. I won’t allow that. Not only because it’s not good for me, but especially because it’s not good for you. Providing sanctuary for an adolescent or adult who still solves problems like a tantrum two year-old is not in your best interest. If you have a grievance, let’s talk. But if you’re just mean, then, here’s a news flash: I don’t spend time with mean people.
(By the way, not to worry: my sons and I are getting on just fine these days. I’m only making a point here, trying to advocate for other parents.)
In 2013, therapist Mark Sichel published “When Good Parents Have Difficult Children.” He notices what should be palpably obvious, yet is often unnoticed. Not all shoddy, incompetent parents produce psychologically deformed children. Not all ordinarily good, competent parents produce psychologically healthy children.
So, let’s just say it: My parents’ child-rearing sins are solely and only my parents’ responsibility. As are their virtues. Whatever injuries I have sustained from their sins AND whatever character I have enjoyed because of their virtues … well, what I do with that combination in myself is solely my responsibility. Morally and otherwise. That’s on me.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, an author and an Episcopal priest. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)