By John T. Chirban
Parenting invariably includes blind spots; however, long term problems result when parents fail to recognize their children as separate individuals. When parents live vicariously through their children, often unconsciously and narcissistically, they use their kids as a distraction rather than confronting their own history of difficulties and disappointments.
Sylvia could not have children of her own, so she and her husband adopted a 3 year-old girl named Laurie. Sylvia said that she worried that Laurie might not be one of “the popular kids.” To counter this fear, Sylvia dressed Laurie a few years ahead of her age, working hard to ensure that Laurie was a trendsetter and a leader of all that was “in.”
Sylvia’s behavior resulted from missed experiences of her own childhood. She never made it in the “popular group,” as a child, and felt that growing up with parents who were prudish and sexually overly modest caused her social awkwardness. She blamed her parents for feeling left out by the “cool” kids, and she made up her mind to be a “progressive parent” so that Laurie could reap the rewards for leading the “pack” rather than feeling left behind. To desensitize anxiety around sex, Sylvia walked around the house naked and felt comfortable with her husband lounging around in his underwear in the presence of their daughter. Later in life, Laurie recalled that her parents explained, “Nakedness is a sign that we’re comfortable enough with ourselves to be in our natural state.” These actions directly influenced Laurie’s social interactions at a young age and her perceived understanding of appropriate boundaries.
When Laurie was in third grade, Sylvia arranged for her eighth birthday party to be a dance. She explained to the other parents that this would be “cute” and would “kind of get them going.” However, she didn’t understand why no boys actually showed up for the party (Dances are usually the furthest thing of interest for 8 year-old boys.).
Nonetheless, by the time fifth grade came around, Laurie took pride in leading all-girl discussions about her kissing fantasies and experiences. In fact, she criticized a seventh-grade boy who dated her for not knowing how to kiss, saying, “Instead of kissing me on the lips, the idiot stuck his tongue in my mouth!” Although Laurie thought herself the leader in her pack, she didn’t realize that she was cajoled into French-kissing. Acting on her mom’s agenda, Laurie did not know she was actually way over her head when it came to sexual involvement.
Sylvia felt that she had failed socially as a child because of the restrictiveness of her parents, so she relived her steps, trying to get it right, through her daughter. Paradoxically, instead of resolving the problem of her childhood, she repeated it. Her parents had failed to tune into her as a child and as a person and acted out their fears in guiding her. In the same way, Sylvia guided Laurie, driven by her own fears and not attuning to Laurie’s person.
By living vicariously through her daughter, Sylvia did not honor Laurie. Crossing the parental boundary and imposing (or trying to correct) her own history on (through) her daughter, harmful consequences evolved. Rather than exploring and understanding her own sexuality and growth, Laurie had been programmed to recapture her mother’s loss childhood.
While parents understandably want to save their children from mistakes that they made, parents need to take a step back to recognize and discover their unique path of their children. We have to ask who’s driving and deserving of the trophy for which our children compete. Kids learn much more about themselves and life when they know that they are heard and understood, rather than when they follow a script or, worse, not understood at all and play out someone else’s dream or fantasy. By attuning to the unique needs and interests of our kids and nurturing their voice and life, we build healthy relationships and instill strong identity and true self-confidence.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexual problems.com.