A Good Childhood: How It’s Supposed to Go

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Simply stated, we may say that,

finding ourselves forlorn and abandoned in the world,

we must shoulder our human condition – and assert our destiny.

- Jean Paul Sartre


t is impossible to describe a good childhood without broaching existential issues, for what is the purpose of our long childhood if not to help us learn to face the basic questions of life: What am I supposed to make of the fact that I am unique? How can I learn to be responsible for my thoughts, my feelings and my actions? What am I passionate about learning, doing and being? How can I cope with knowing I’m going to die and with not knowing when? Do I matter to anyone and does anyone matter to me? How can I live my life in the face of these unanswerable questions?

It may seem counterintuitive to hear that a good childhood is one that goes out of its way not to answer these questions for the child, but instead, surrounds the child with adults who do two things. They model preoccupation with finding their own answers to these most vexing questions. And they applaud when the child turns to face age-appropriate challenges. When either or both of these two important training elements are missing in our upbringing, we have a poor childhood. A poor childhood is an existentially misleading one, which damages both our understanding of reality and our ability to trust ourselves to work on our answers to these fundamental questions. The understanding-of-reality system is addressed in the article entitled Pricked: The Cinderella Effect of a Poor Childhood. This article focuses on the latter system, how to learn to trust that you can handle the challenges of life.

First, the big picture

The premise of this article harkens back to the feminist aphorism: The personal is political. Put another way, there can be no maturity without understanding the context within which we were born and raised. While the degree to which we accept the status quo is up to each of us, before we decide anything, we must be aware of the influence of the milieu of our upbringing. Unfortunately, most of our childhood happens to us before we are capable of critiquing much, so to understand what pieces of our particular childhood may be distorted or missing, we need to go back to the general concept of what it means to be raised as a human.

Like most mammals, humans are affiliative creatures who depend on a fairly smoothly running society in order to survive. What makes a society run smoothly is a culture. A culture, by definition, is a set of common beliefs agreed upon by a community of interdependent individuals about the structure of their association, the roles of the members in it and the taboos that protect the stability of the society. Members of a culture dedicate themselves to passing these beliefs on to their offspring.

For the most part, the leaders who create cultural rules truly believe that the values they are trying to teach their members will produce successful, satisfied human beings participating in a stable society. In the best cases, then, these adult sources of information are rich legacies that provide support, training and rituals which help us survive, navigate through the social world efficiently and flourish personally. (At worst, they lead to malevolent strategies for maintaining the status quo for those corrupt few in control. I leave the latter to books such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell or Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.) Some of these legacies involve simple traditions such as songs that teach us the alphabet, rituals for celebrating a marriage or the agreement that red lights mean stop. Some are more complex and controversial such as habeas corpus, the accreditation process for universities or how forest fires are handled.

Benign or beneficent, however, if cultures are simply best guesses about the generic truth of things, if they are predominantly formed in alignment with the male way of approaching life, and if, as the author Allan Bloom wrote, “the sources of the truest truths are inevitably profoundly personal,” then we can see how likely it is that our cultures will misfit many, many of us. Because we will flourish as individuals only if our environment addresses our particular needs, a cultural misfit created a dangerous situation. Our particular needs are met when we are given a heuristic for evaluating our particular fit with cultural mores as well as permission to step outside those mores to experiment with ways that will fit us better. Put another way, we do best when our training ground (childhood) offers us many learning options so that we can customize our curriculum.

Therefore, what is supposed to happen for each of us culturally is this:

1. We grow up surrounded by and listening to diverse examples of humanity.

2. As we become verbally skilled we come to appreciate the range of cultural options this diversity makes open to us.

3. Because of the vibrancy and resourcefulness in that diversity, we learn to like and to trust our species and therefore ourselves.

4. We are encouraged by our personal adults (parents, teachers, coaches, ministers, etc.) to customize our individual culture by trying on different values, roles and identities to see what challenges best suit us.

5. We see and are reassured by the comfort with which our adults carry their personal power. They do not pretend that they are not more powerful than we are. Rather, they recognize that they need to use that power to mentor us.

6. We are taught first how to conform and then how to innovate so that those values, roles and identities that we have chosen can be responsibly mastered.

7. We become members in a cutting-edge blend of cultures and we flourish within the safety of a beneficent, flexible and inclusive society.

Doesn’t that sound intriguing?

Imagine being able to create your own custom-made set of rules and requirements, being encouraged to seek out excellent training experiences and being rewarded for thinking outside the box. Imagine being considered a responsible adult no matter what design specifics you valued for yourself. You could choose to remain a single woman living with other adults and earning your living by welding; a married man working from home and raising an adopted child; or an ornithologist traveling the world by yourself teaching others how to protect dwindling bird species. You have been given the fabulous message that you are free – both to move about the world and to invent your own life.

Inherent in the what-is-supposed-to-happen-for-us design is a checks-and-balances system that combines many adult voices providing input. This multiple perspective prevents one adult voice (or one parental pair of adult voices) from presenting its view to the child as The Revealed Truth, not to be doubted or questioned. I like to think of this checks-and-balances system as "crowdsourcing the superego!"

The world of work provides a good set of examples for this process. In an ideal situation, there will be lots of options within a community for many different types of work. These options seem exciting to us as we are growing up. We are proud to be part of this community and are eager to become a worker. We push to be allowed to take on tasks. In fact, the mantra of childhood is “Let me try it!” Our eagerness propels us to undertake new responsibilities. We do chores at home, work construction during the summer, enroll in classes to learn keyboard skills, volunteer to assist our coach, etc. We get to know many different adults as we look over their shoulders at their individual world of work. Then we discover that there are two types of reward – intrinsic (the profound satisfaction of doing something well) and extrinsic (appreciation, an allowance, a salary, a certificate or a plaque). We like both kinds. We discover that there are some skills and responsibilities we handle much better than others and are encouraged by our mentors and by the currency of reward to persevere toward mastery in those specific areas. We happily pursue training and experience. We come to appreciate the value of self-discipline and of a good work ethic. We learn enough to start innovating. We earn wages, we make contributions and life is good.

Life is good because we have not been trained to believe that our parents’ version of the work world is always right but have, instead, been given both the permission and the responsibility to form our own sense of what career is right for us. We have been generously exposed to the seven what-is-supposed-to-happen-for-us steps listed above and thereby guided to customize our culture, allowing us to find something meaningful for ourselves within the world of work.

(For an entertaining read about how far off the rails we can get if we attend too closely to the prophecies of our elders, see Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David.)

Specifically for you

A family is supposed to insulate us somewhat from the cultures that dominate our early lives so that we can learn to critique our options and customize our rules.

A good family life goes like this: For the first 18 months or so of your life you are meant to exist in a safe and secure environment that pacifies you with the sense that you are the center of a beneficent universe. Your only job is to learn how to be you. You start with trying to control those tiny hands that keep flying around in front of your face. You move on to sitting up, then you crawl and then you walk. Once upright you discover that you can make words and that words can manipulate the environment. How cool is that!

But right about then you discover that the world also speaks and it will be using big words to put demands on you. Hmmm. Not so cool.

By two years old, then, most of us have realized that we are not the center of a benevolent world but have actually been thrown into an existence within which demands are made, resources are limited and bad things can happen. We are shocked by this new perspective, and the way in which the adults around us handle our dismay determines in large part how deeply cursed we will be by our upbringing. We tend to mewl and complain when our needs get thwarted. Sometime very, very loudly. We are not being bad, we are genuinely upset, for this is our first big existential crisis and we’re only two years old! The adults around us need to appreciate that our dismay is appropriate and guide us through this crucial shift in perspective. If they neither vilify our reactions of distress nor succumb to our demands to remain the center of the world, we will have escaped one of the first psychological pitfalls of life. We will have been supported in handling our first big truth: we are not the center of the universe.

RIght on the heels of that first crisis comes the second. Between the ages of two and three, children learn that, despite the fact that we are not the center of the universe, we have to be the center of our personal universe. In other words, we, and we alone, are in charge of our internal world. We learn this by coming to see that we have to handle our distress ourselves, that our parents can't make life perfect for us. Our disappointments, our fears, our confusion and so on all occur inside of us. The adults in our world can help us soothe ourselves, but they cannot fix everything.

When we squawk about how scary this second existential crisis is, the adults around us will do one of two things. They may malign and humiliate us as we struggle to recover from the shock of being put in charge of our internal universe. Or they will comfort and support us as we take this second, gargantuan existential step.

After the howling stops, we start to test out this new reality. We begin to use our words to express ourselves and to plot vital experiments that will help us figure out how to navigate through this difficult thing that is life. Many of our experiments will be effective. (If I say “please” I can often get what I want. It’s harder to stack big things on top of little things than it is to stack little things on top of big things. When I try over and over, I learn to do powerful things like buckle my own seatbelt.) Some will be disastrous. (Throwing things made of glass tends to break them. Certain things really are hot. Saying whatever comes to mind can hurt others.) Again, how the adults react to our experimenting determines our initial level of cursedness. What the adults are supposed to do is endorse the intentions behind our experiment (the will to discover) without necessarily endorsing the results of the experiment (the broken glass).

If we are successful, we emerge from childhood with more than adequate self-confidence both to allow us to take important risks in life and to recover from inevitable setbacks. We can handle the truth that our uniqueness requires that we design a custom-made life for ourselves.

Good parents and healthy societies provide a rich learning environment for children that will reinforce the outlook that a youngster’s earnest experimenting is wonderful. Wise adults recognize that nearly all child’s play is research. How much sand can I pile up before it starts to collapse? Can I pile up more if the sand is wet? Or if I press it into a bucket first? What happens when I pound it with a shovel? Parents can witness and approve of the child’s scientific process, perhaps stepping in to curtail the study only when the question becomes – what happens when I mix mustard in with the sand? When children are young, the stakes are low, missteps are inexpensive and the resulting scientific training precious.

 

Novels

Brave New World

- Aldous Huxley

1984

- George Orwell

Ishmael

- Daniel Quinn

What We Keep

- Elizabeth Berg

 

 

Send your questions to me at: jan@self-construct.com.

 

At about age 11, kids are ready to start shouldering more responsibility and taking larger risks, for as children grow, so will the complexity of their research and the danger of their missteps. Kids may start to tinker with how little they can study in school and still get satisfying results. They may explore how much they can push themselves athletically without causing their bodies harm. They will try different strategies to capture positive attention from their peers. Then they move on to the really scary research – from considering how sex, drugs and Internet flirting will fit into their lives to choosing a career and committing to a partner. Hopefully before the stakes are this high, good research skills have been put in place. The article that addresses this skill set is Mad Scientists: How to Design the Experiments of Life.

To continue with the way childhood is supposed to unfold, at this preteen stage in a child’s life the parents should be eager to return to the business of prioritizing their own lives and are more than happy to turn the reins over to the child. (When the risk of mistakes is too grave, parents keep their hands close to the child’s to take over quickly if necessary. Of course, a pattern of mistaken experimenting suggests that the parents need to direct this particular child’s learning a little longer.)

At childhood’s end, then, you should have a mature teen who has participated in many honest conversations about life and who has gotten a good deal of respectfully constructive feedback about his or her process in becoming a junior scientist in the great experiment of life. This is a teen who is eager to become a grownup.

Human School

I want to take a moment here to make a further distinction between what I would call a social curriculum and an existential curriculum. Many parents do an excellent job educating their children to be sophisticated and effective participants in the social and perhaps professional worlds. But very few parents see that their job also includes teaching the child how to be a human at the foundational level. True, parents may present ad hoc lessons in being mortal, for example when a neighbor dies, or lessons in learning right from wrong when a child breaks a rule, but we don’t intentionally give our kids lessons in how to be a lucid-living human. But this needs to be put on the table – to be a true adult human, each person must be able to see the Big Picture existentially, which incorporates those truths that cannot be escaped. And further, since all the big questions are personal, if we don’t learn why we must face them and how we must face them, our personal questions can remain unarticulated and thus unresolved.

The personal questions precipitated by the Big Picture are as follows: Who am I exactly? How do I know what to choose from moment to moment? What was I designed to be successful doing? Am I lucky or unlucky? Do people really like me? When will my time be up?

Nearly every article on this website incorporates strategies to acknowledge and work with these tough – and to a large extent – unanswerable questions. Suffice it to say here: parents can only be skilled at providing existentially savvy lessons to their children if they themselves have come to understand that a talented person in any aspect of contemporary existence is one who is good at being a person first.

Aside: I think the need for human school is a large part of what can make grandparents extremely valuable. Fate will step in and teach us about the givens of existence if our families of origin failed to do so, meaning that by the time we reach old age, most of us have a clearer sense of what it means at that foundational level to live a coherent life. Grandparents can often be counted on, therefore, to give those proactive existential lessons. Along with, of course, the occasional snickerdoodle.

My hope in writing the material of this website is to provide a straightforward (albeit lengthy) curriculum for human school. One that is designed to create a great life for you – one worthy of a thinking person.

How it is not supposed to be

Rather than being raised in a tempting smorgasbord of cultural options by curious, open and protective adults, many children are instead brought up within a community that only trains them to conform. It is a very rare child, indeed, who fits perfectly into the preconceived notions that a traditional adult world has for that child. Most often, there will be many aspects of cultural expectations that chafe the child’s growing personhood.

Sadly, what often happens culturally for us is this:

1. We are raised by families and/or cultures that fear our wish to use diverse input to design our own lives.

2. We are told in ten thousand ways that the adults are always right and that we should follow their instruction without question.

3. We learn the structure of conformity and the vocabulary of shame.

4. We are unable to question authority and are sent into the world existentially unprepared to assess whether or not our personal characteristics fit the life our culture has chosen for us.

5. We struggle, then assume that only we are floundering and everyone else is doing just fine.

6. We desperately seek escape from the pain and humiliation of our lonely floundering.

7. We focus too much on the escaping and not nearly enough on figuring out who we were designed to be.

Here there be psychological dragons.

When our upbringing blocks us from a healthy route to discovering ourselves, we become extremely vulnerable to the internal psychological damage that drives symptoms. When we cannot get to those things in life that bring us joy and satisfaction, we start to feel that we have nothing to lose because we are nothing. Unhealthy alternatives to a robust life start to creep in, leading us toward a life defined by addictions, indulgences or resignation. Further down that road lies depression, panic, violence or suicide. Tragically, we come to agree with the culture that the resulting symptoms are proof that we were foolish to deviate from our inherited path. They were right. We were wrong. We should have just done what we were told.

Again, using the world of work, we can see how this bleak scenario unfolds. We grow up seeing many opportunities for interesting work and we are eager to start the process of trying some of them out. But we are told that there is only one set of beliefs around work that is open to us. The messages sound like this: “You’re not college material. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up like I did. Someday you will take over your father’s business. Don’t expect to like what you’re doing – everyone just puts up with his or her job. You’re good at math – you should be an engineer. You’re no good at math – you can’t be an architect. Of course you want to go to medical school – everyone can see what a great doctor you’d be!” Shame gets heaped on us if we want to major in art rather than biology. Support dries up if we start to explore midwifery or want to become a farrier.

We may go along with our elders and go to medical school, only to find that career unworkable. We may flunk out or rebel, but then without the support of the system, we may not know how to shift gears to pursue other options. We are unable to step into that particular corner of the world of work that is uniquely suited to us. Psychological symptoms start to fill the void created by the absence of the satisfaction and joy that being an expert brings to our lives.

When we do not do what we love, nothing but distress follows. There is no overstating this truth.

When the how-it-is-supposed-to-be scenario is replaced with the how-it-is-not-supposed-to-be version, the results are wretched. Natural curiosity and courage in children are sabotaged by the indoctrination of conformity. As a result, these children are prevented from doing what humans do best – experimenting.

The healing process

What are we to do today if our inherent process for defining ourselves has been derailed?

For starters, we need to examine our sense of powerlessness vis-à-vis the adults who have shaped our thinking about ourselves. Are we still powerless relative to these people from our past? Probably not. Let’s rethink our understanding of the word “power.” Existentially speaking, power is defined as “the ability to do.” In our current adult form, we have plenty of ability to do what is necessary to take over the administration of our lives. We are no longer children, incapable of understanding the limitations of our upbringing or unable to redesign our values. If we are over 26 years old, our brain is now fully formed and ready to define for itself what is true. Our long, long, long childhood is over. We are ready to lead our lives and discover our gifts. To that end, each of us must review our upbringing to determine which aspects of “how it is supposed to be” have already been put in place and which are still lacking.

Have we been exposed to diverse examples of humanity? Are we aware of a range of cultural options? Have we learned to embrace our species as well as ourselves? If these aspects are not true or are minimally true for us, we need to step beyond our psychological and actual doorstep to encounter more diversity. Traveling, reading, listening, volunteering, joining, and exploring are just a few ways to accomplish this. There are also wise people available in every community who can provide mentorship. Sometimes we can access these people through community lecture series, university extension courses, churches and synagogues, or networking through those friends or neighbors who seem to embody a zest for life. Although this is a tiny list of suggestions as to how to go about broadening our horizons, each item on the list involves a huge commitment and can have an enormous positive effect on the texture of our life.

Were the members of our adult community demonstrably comfortable with their personal power? This entire website is, to a large extent, dedicated to repairing this aspect of our childhood, but specifically the articles Self-Parenting: It’s All in the Attitude, and How to Talk to Yourself: Healthy Internal Discussions will address this specific type of childhood damage the most directly. They outline repair strategies that can assist you in developing a genuine comfort with personal power if your adults did not model that for you.

Were we encouraged to create an innovative and customized culture that suits our unique needs? The article Myth, Choice, Truth: Think Globally, Act Locally describes the skills necessary to correct this missing piece.

Did we learn both the discipline of conformity and the thrill of innovation? Two articles focus on the orthogonal relationship between conformity and innovation. They are – Effective Practice: The 51% Solution, and Mastery: Being Über Human.

Have we been taught how to participate in the cutting edge of human existence by being a contributor to our evolving human culture? This question is addressed in the two theoretical articles Finding Good Teachers: The Existential Whiz Kids and Feminism: The Mother of All Voices.

One of the first steps in self-directed growth is to recognize what the gaps and distortions were in our personal upbringing. If you juxtapose the descriptions above of rich and poor childhoods with your particular childhood, how does yours stack up? Using the articles on this website, you can start the repair process. Please be patient with yourself and try to just tackle the next thing (what’s bothering you the most right now) as opposed to the whole thing (I need to be perfect).

Remember also that, even if our childhood was wonderful, it will have had some constrictions that will need to be lifted. It is our birthright as human beings that we be allowed to explore our essence in an individualistic, benign environment. We cannot simply be content with the version of the truth we inherited from our families and our cultures if we are to be fully ourselves. Our job on earth is to invent ourselves, and the existentialists and the feminists agree – audacity is the mother of invention!

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.