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.
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.