The Human Spark

The science of human development

The Family's Contribution

Parental behaviors and child interpretations.

Although it would be difficult to find anyone  who did not believe that parents  exert a significant influence on their children, it is easy to find disagreements over the  nature of that influence.  The greatest consensus, at least among contemporary members of  modern societies,  is the belief that a parent’s love for a child trumps all other influences. I prefer the verb value to love. Parents must convince children that they value their personhood.  All  children share a common understanding of  the core meanings of  the concepts good and bad,  agree that valued objects  are  necessarily good, and need to believe that they are good. If parents fail to establish this belief in the first decade, adolescents and adults will seek signs of their value  in an indiscriminate seeking of friends or an addiction  to  positions of power and respect. If both strategies fail  anti-social behavior becomes more likely. Parents can  choose varied actions  to inform  the child of his  or her  value.  Some kiss, embrace, and say “ I love you”. Others assign  responsibilities that make  such an obvious contribution  to the  family’s welfare children automatically  recognize their value. Others convince  children that they  enjoy being with them  or  make  obvious  sacrifices in order to gratify a child’s desire.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

But the perception of being valued is not inherent in the parent’s actions but in  the  child’s interpretation of parental  behaviors. The actions that are interpreted as sacrifices, for example, vary depending on the resources that are scarce. A 20 dollar gift from a father who is unemployed is interpreted as a sacrifice. An afternoon outing has the same value in the eyes of a child whose father works  16 hour days and is rarely home on weekends.Parents who have persuaded  children of their intrinsic value usually  fill the second need of  assuring them that the home is a safe place where they are protected  from harm and the family can be counted on for nurture in times of distress.

Although most children enjoy a feeling of safety, more than 140 million children across the world in 2013 do not have a parent caring for them. Many are  in institutions that do not supply sufficient intellectual stimulation and fail to  persuade children of their value. It appears that  young children can tolerate about one, or at the most two, years of this form of rearing and still  retain a capacity to recover normal functioning if adopted by an affectionate family.  Children who remain in these settings for more than two years find it difficult to erase the damage caused by these compromising environments. It is important to distinguish rearing in a depriving institution from physical or sexual abuse by a parent in a family setting because the child’s interpretation of the abuse has relevance for the outcome. Children growing up in colonial New England in the seventeenth century experienced a harshness that would be viewed as abuse today. But because these behaviors  represented the dominant style in Puritan families children did not interpret the parental actions as reflecting hostility or  rejection.  Children vary in the intensity  of the fear, anxiety,  or shame that accompanies parental  abuse. A fair number inherit a temperament that protects them from a crippling emotional reaction to  these actions;  others are born with a biology that renders them  vulnerable to a severe response to the same abusive events.

Children need some help in discovering  all  the actions that a  majority of  the society  classify as inappropriate, as well as  the traits that are celebrated as ideals.  Parents provide children with this information and use rewards and punishments  to render the relevant habits and ideas automatic. The typical rewards in American homes are praise, gifts, and  extra privileges; the typical punishments are yelling,  mild forms of hitting, and depriving the child  of privileges.

Finally, each parent should present a persona that is admired so that  the children will be able to  extract a measure of  pride from their identification with each parent and later with their  family pedigree.  All  children  recognize some similarities between  their properties and those of each parent.  Children are quick to notice a similarity in an unusual facial feature, skin or hair color,  language spoken in the home, and last name. Although children know little or nothing about genes, they sense that they  share a mysterious  material  essence with the adults who conceived them. Children reveal a general  belief in invisible essences  when  they insist that that  a dog  who lost its tail, ears, fur, and four legs  would still be a dog. The belief in an essence that all biologically related members of a family share  becomes, in time,  an articulated  recognition  that the child belongs to a unique collection of people that are his or her  family.

When this recognition is combined with the  belief that they share more features with one or both parents than with anyone else they know,  children go one step further and entertain the  less rational inference that they  might possess some parental properties for which there is no objective support.  A girl who notices that her mother becomes frightened when she sees a mouse assumes that she, too, possesses this fear.  A girl who recognizes that her mother is popular with many friends  entertains the notion that  popularity with peers is one of her traits. Amos Oz, a celebrated Israeli writer, remembers the day when his father, also a respected writer, told his six-year-old son he could put his childhood books on the  shelf holding the father’s volumes. This sharing of a  distinctive feature with a father who regarded books as sacred objects contributed to the boy’s  inference that perhaps he, too, had the talent to become a great writer.

The recognition of  distinctive features that are  shared  with a parent is often accompanied by a vicarious emotion. The adjective vicarious means that the  child has a feeling that is  appropriate to the person with whom the features are shared. Amos Oz felt vicarious pride when a critic praised one of the father’s books.  Vicarious pride emerges spontaneously because the  child assumes that  the community will  regard him as belonging to the same category as the parent. This phenomenon is unsurprising  because  children  treat a new cookie, crayon, or  ball as they have treated other members of the same category. Since children believe they  belong to a unique  family category  it is perfectly reasonable  for them to assume that others will behave toward them as they might to any member of their family. Psychologists say that a child is identified with another person when the  recognition of shared features is combined with vicarious emotions.

The strength of an identification  depends on the distinctiveness of the shared features. Because the biologically related  members of a  family share  unique properties, identifications with family members are  the strongest and hardest to change. An adult can alter his or her name, hair, and facial features, but is always a member of a unique biological  family.  Hence, beliefs about self and the balance of confidence or doubt depend, in part, on the behaviors of all  members of the family.  This fact explains why so many adults who had been adopted as young children want to find their biological parents or at least learn more about them.

When children learn the ethnic,  religious,  class, or national  category to which they belong they are likely to identify with that category, as long as its members have  distinctive features, for example being a minority in the society. If  the category lacks distinctiveness, which is true for gender, an identification is unlikely.  Boys and girls,  men and women, recognize  they belong to a  gender category, but few  members of either gender experience vicarious emotions of pride or shame when another  member of their category wins a prize for a great accomplishment or is accused of a horrendous crime. Many African-American  children who identify with their ethnic group  would not do so if they lived in  an African nation where blacks were the majority. The members of a Hindu family living in rural Manitoba will  be more strongly identified with their religion than a comparable Hindu family residing in  Bangalore.  The uniqueness  of being the oldest, continuous society makes it easy for Chinese youth to develop  an identification with their nation.

The quality of the vicarious emotion – usually pride or shame- depends on the child’s understanding of how the community views the defining features of their family, ethnic, religious,  class, or national category. If  the features are praiseworthy pride will be a dominant emotion; if the features are undesirable shame will dominate. If an ethnic or religious group has a respected  reputation in the community the members of that group will be protected from shame  when a  member misbehaves. Buddhists are respected in the  American cities where they congregate. Therefore, although a distinctive minority, Buddhists are not especially vulnerable to vicarious shame when a Buddhist behaves inappropriately. Shame is likely when individuals  believe that many in their community have an unfavorable view of their group. I suspect that a number of American Jews felt some vicarious shame when the media publicized Bernard Madoff’s  illegal Ponzi  scheme.  J. D. Salinger, the author of the popular  1951 book “ The Catcher in the Rye”, had to cope with being a member of  ethnic groups with inconsistent reputations.  His mother was Catholic but his father was  Jewish, and he was  an adolescent during the 1930s when many Americans held  virulently anti-Semitic attitudes.

An identification with a family member does not require  direct contact with that person. Many German adolescents born long after the end of World War 2 and the death of a grandfather who served Hitler in that war felt ashamed when they learned that the relative was a Nazi. Rainer Hoess fell  into a depression and attempted suicide  when, at age 12, he learned that his grandfather, who had been the commandant at the  Auschwitz concentration camp,  was  responsible for the deaths of more than one million people . On the other hand, Jean- Paul Sartre felt vicarious pride on learning that his grandfather had been a famous writer. Children resist acknowledging  undesirable qualities in their family for such  admissions imply that they, too, might possess  similar flaws. I recall interviewing a 14-year-old girl whose mentally ill mother had locked her, as an infant,  with  an older sister in a bedroom until both were rescued and adopted several years later.  When I asked  the adolescent  why  her mother behaved so abnormally she defended the parent by  saying,  “ Well, momma had many children and her life was made  a little easier by  putting us in the  bedroom.”  She would not admit that the mother was mentally disturbed.

A number of adolescents who identify with an ethnic, religious, or class group that has been a victim of prejudice  develop a  habit of  defending  all  underdogs for any reason. A colleague who grew up in a poor, Jewish family in New York City  regularly defended psychologists who advocated unpopular scientific ideas, even if he did not believe the idea.  He explained his behavior by claiming that  someone had to stand up for a perspective that a majority dismissed. Adults who identify with the role of a victim  often feel uncomfortable when they assume positions of importance or dominance. Hamid Dabashi  suggests that the Shia have traditionally seen themselves as victims of the much larger Sunni  populations. When the  Shia are victorious, as they were in  Iran in the late 1970s, they become confused  because victims are not supposed to be successful.

Some identifications with a family pedigree, religion, ethnic group, or nation  last a lifetime and affect aspects of a person’s moods and decisions. I know 80 year olds who, unable to rid themselves of an identification with an oppressed group, continue to feel remnants of  an  anger and shame that had been more intense  years earlier.  Historians like to use the layers of the sea as a metaphor for society.  The surface features  of a culture,  for example the  dominant industry,  are altered easily; whereas the deepest layers,  such as an emphasis on individualism, resist change. The products of  identifications occupy the deepest layers of each  person’s character.

Because identifications are difficult to measure,  most psychologists study the effects of parental practices  which, although  easier to quantify, may be less powerful determinants of the traits,moods, and symptoms of adolescents and adults.  Winston Churchill grew up with two indifferent parents who were having  adulterous affairs during his developmental years.  His identification with an elite family pedigree helped him assume a  heroic leadership role during the  second world war. I believe that the social class of the parents, as indexed by their education, vocation,  and wealth, and the pattern of  identifications developed by  mid-adolescence are as significant determinants of an adult’s personality and character as  the behaviors  that parents display with children.  Psychologists ought to develop  procedures that measure  profiles of  identifications. It  is time to begin looking for the keys in the dark region  where they fell and not where  there is more light.

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Spark

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?