It’s hard being a family

I just read a great post over at Science-based Parenting (a group of parents writing from a "skeptics" perspective). Have you read the blog? The post resonated so well with many thoughts I've been having recently about teaching my children how to cope with their own intense negative emotions, especially when those emotions are aimed at the people they are closest to, those they need the most, those without whom they could not survive (literally). The post was a reflection on the movie (and book), Where The Wild Things Are. Go read it (trust me)… it invokes so many of what I believe are the key emotional experiences that form the building blocks of our personalities. Experiences in particular that involve jealousy, shame, anger and anxiety. I also reviewed the book here and suggested why the story has appealed to so many kids (and adults).

If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't think of childhood as a happy-happy, carefree, rainbow-filled period in development. I sure would like my children to experience as little pain and sorrow as possible, but I know they'll feel some. And I know that there's not a whole lot I can do about that. What I CAN do is give them a safe place to express and work through their tough emotions. I can also try to cultivate a family environment that does not quash all conflict, but instead works through it, with all the messiness that that might entail. (After all, it's within the family microcosm that children most often practice how to regulate, evaluate, negotiate, and express their inner worlds. If most emotions are left unexpressed and hidden, then it's difficult to get the chance to learn much about how to handle them later on.)  I can also own my own mistakes and communicate that to my kids in developmentally appropriate ways.

I suspect that one of the hardest realizations that comes about in childhood is the insight that your parents aren't all-powerful, all-knowing and perfect. Oy… the anxiety that must come about with this awareness… I wonder if it's a "sudden awareness" or if it slowly dawns on a child, much like the idea that Santa doesn't exist. I suspect that in some cases, traumatic family events may induce these more "sudden" realizations while a more gradual understanding of human fallibility may emerge in the absence of trauma… but that's pure speculation. Now I'm off to see if any developmental researcher has actually studied that "aha" moment when a parent loses their deity status in the child's eye…

12 thoughts on “It’s hard being a family

  1. My mother actively discouraged any notion that she was human and ever made mistakes. It may have been at least somewhat joking, but as children we didn’t take it that way. I think it was a very bad strategy. I still see my mother more as an archetype or a force of nature than as a human being. I also have huge issues with making any kind of mistake or admitting ignorance.
    We are trying to actively show our daughter that people make mistakes and they’re usually not big deals. We’ll see how it goes. At this stage it is sometimes frustrating for me that she doesn’t yet have a theory of mind. She thinks I know everything: what that random bit of black plastic on the ground came from, what she did that day while I was at work, what daddy is making us for dinner while we are out and about, and she is very frustrated that I will not share this information with her. I am looking forward to her coming to an understanding that I have limits to my knowledge. I do think, though, that she may have figured out that I don’t make it rain or cause dogs and red cars to appear. It was not fun endure tantrums when we didn’t satisfy her demand for “More red cars!”

  2. I clearly remember being deeply disappointed when I realized that my parents did not know everything and did not have absolute power. I was probably around 5 or 6 years old (post-divorce-but-before-starting-school-age), but I can still recall that frightening, gut wrenching feeling… For me, at least, it was a “sudden” realization.

  3. OK, no good research out there on the subject. Which now SO makes me want to conduct the study myself.
    @Mia: REALLY!? You can clearly remember the moment? I can’t tell you how interesting that is to me. I wonder if I could just collect qualitative, narrative stories from people about these moments… I personally remember the first time I saw my mother cry (other than at a movie or something relatively minor). I think that was the moment I realized she wasn’t all-powerful and it was because she was upset about something she did/had to do with her own parents. I saw the regret, guilt, sadness in her and it crushed me because it wasn’t supposed to be possible to crush her. I was freaking 13!!! But both these ages — 5 and 13 are major developmental shifts (the two last ones we often don’t mention in this blog). I wonder if these “aha” disillusionments happen at particularly sensitive times in our development. Hmmmm….

  4. Hey Bella, this would not be exactly what you’re looking for, but there is some research in the cognitive science of religion field looking at developmental factors influencing how children understand supernatural concepts. It’s an extension of false belief task and whether children can discriminate between whether different agents (mother, kitty cat, God) can hold false beliefs. When they are very young children cannot discriminate between different agents (i.e., all agents “fail” the false belief task) but when they are a bit older they can discriminate that God would know things that mother would not. Taking the more psychoanalytic/object relations approach that children do see their parents as god-like, maybe this could shed light on when parents stop seeing their parents as all-knowing, all-powerful, etc.
    Barrett, J. L., Richert, R. A., Driesenga, A. (2001). God’s Beliefs versus Mother’s: The Development of Nonhuman Agent Concepts
    Child Development, Vol. 72, No. 1, pp. 50-65

  5. This is one of my favorite posts! One of the things I’m pondering is how to allow enough adversity into my children’s lives that they learn to be resilient and to accept failure but not so much that it overwhelms them- and that amount depends on the child. Thank you!

  6. What an interesting question! I think I remember feeling a sense of – well, not disappointment, really, but something like that, when I figured out, retrospectively, and on my own, that my parents had, in this example, gotten the words to a song wrong. I was just pre-adolescent, which also dovetailed with my parents’ divorce. Possibly linked. About 10 or 11 or so.
    (It was Carole King singing You’ve Got A Friend: “Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall”, which I interpreted as “Winter, Spring, Summer, all four” because where I live we call “Fall” autumn.)
    In any case, my parents didn’t correct me. I felt, later, a bit angry, as if they had “humoured” me – and the next step was realising that they may simply not have known the lyrics themselves. But the disappointment in their limited knowledge was real!
    It seems like the tiniest anecdote in retrospect, which makes me wonder what my son will make of the stuff that goes on in my mind one day. What will he remember as a particularly “fail” mom moment? Shudder.

  7. Bella, I also remember the first time I saw my mother cry – she had had to take my brother to hospital with a concussion, I was maybe 7. But I don’t recall being concerned that this meant she was not emotionally sound or capable of caring for me. I think I actually perceived it as reassurance that she cared a lot for us.

  8. @ Margot, I have to same worry about my boys remembering my “fail” moment, or what the original attachment injury will be between us.
    I want to tell them all the time that I’m trying, trying to do right by all of us.
    And if by chance your first memory is wailing at my feet while I attend to your brother, please let me explain how much I love you.
    This stuff is so messy.

  9. What @Twin Mom said – “how to allow enough adversity into my children’s lives that they learn to be resilient and to accept failure but not so much that it overwhelms them.” I want to be the kind of parent who helps my kids to learn how to mourn the losses, not avoid all losses.
    I agree @Lindsay, that this stuff is so messy.

  10. @Twin Mom @Lindsay @Hush – yes, me too. great post. tough stuff. I don’t remember ever seeing my parents as perfect – they are some obviously flawed human beings – but I wish they had done a better job of explaining how and why they kept picking themselves back up instead of acting like the bad things never happened. But maybe they didn’t know at the time.

  11. I wonder about how personalities affect this moment, as well. My mother called me a Doubting Thomas as a kid, and this personality trait of mine has been pretty constant in my life (and currently drives my husband crazy). I don’t have any specific memory of realizing that my parents didn’t know everything–is that simply because I don’t have a lot of solid memories from childhood or is it because my doubting personality had me questioning their omniscience and omnipotence from early on?
    Great post, and great links to the post on emotions and Where the Wild Things Are as well as your previous post!

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