I posted recently about the Internal Critic(s), and how we, as children, internalise external hostility or disapproval in an attempt to control our impulses and make our external world safe. I have been pondering since then about how that post was received by people who are also parents. We all have multiple selves who interpret the world through their own particular framework; this is most apparent for those of us who have a (real)* parent self with the responsibility of care-taking and nurturing our own children. Whilst our ‘child self' may have felt validated by the argument I presented, it is possible, if not highly likely, that our 'parent self' might feel guilty about it’s own capacity to raise a child with good self-esteem. I think a post on one strand, therefore, automatically necessitates a post on the other strand. And then Atyllah produced a wonderful post on the problems of the ‘self-esteem movement’ in the
So this post is for all parents (or prospective parents), in case you had decided you should hand your children over to the perfect parenting brigade for their own well-being.
Winnicot talked of ‘good enough parenting’ and argued convincingly that whilst small babies need parents who can anticipate and meet their needs satisfactorily, developing children need only have some of their needs met by their parents for healthy psychological growth. He argues that:
The good-enough mother...starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure... (My italics)
D.W.Winnicot (1951) Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena
Small children are by their very nature grandiose and egotistical. They wish to control their world, to ensure that their every need is met and that the world responds only to their wishes. (Of course they do. Who wouldn't? I would, if I thought I could get away with it.) Our job as parents is to ensure that we do meet their essential physical and relational needs, but, importantly, that we enable them to regulate their internal, emotional experience when we fail to meet their ego-needs. Our job, in fact, is sometimes to let them down and then allow them to feel the rage and grief that ensues.
Kohut called this a process of transmuting internalisation. He argues that failures of empathy allow the developing child the capacity to develop their own internal self-structures which will enable them to deal – bit by bit – with a world that will not respond to their every whim. In other words, if we get the basics right but screw up a bit around the edges, we give our children the best chance they can have of learning to deal with the big bad world. If we indulge their grandiosity then ultimately they develop a fragile ego and fail to cope with the real world when the time comes. If we let them down just a bit, they develop a robust ego that can cope with life’s disappointments.
The important thing is that we do this in a ‘day to day’ kind of way, rather than a ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson’ kind of way (which is why I have a great deal of difficulty with the ‘naughty step’.) If our failures of empathy are persistently punitive or hostile, our children learn another kind of lesson altogether. But we can let our children down, if this is the exception rather than the norm, because by doing so we are actually giving our children a big psychological hand up. Let's remember that children who don’t learn to move beyond their own grandiosity turn into narcissistic adults. I’m not suggesting you should beat your children into submission. But go ahead and screw up just a bit. Trust me, it’s good for them. And if you don’t believe me go and read Atyllah’s post. *as opposed to the Parent ego state of Transactional Analysis, which we all have whether we or not we have children of our own.
*as opposed to the Parent ego state of Transactional Analysis, which we all have whether we or not we have children of our own.