This is about insecure attachment and it describes a (small) incident of terrible behavior by a parent. It made me feel unwell but also compelled me to collect a few thoughts.
A common incident
I went for a walk with my small family and we saw another family with children. The parents, grandparents, a baby in a stroller and a four year old boy. The boy was trotting a few meters behind the rest of his family with a sun hat in his hand. The father turned around, saw him not wearing his hat and almost ran to the boy with lots of anger. He put his child verbally down with words like “I told you for the last time; don’t make a scene in front of your grandparents; you never listen, I am sick of you; put the hat on or else”.
The boy immediately started crying and could not be calmed. But not the usual crying from falling down, losing a toy or realizing that you ate the last cookie kind of crying. It was the crying of a child whose world suddenly crashed together around him. The person who he depended upon essentially for his life went from a strong caregiver to a dangerous threat. I am sure this was not the first time. The poor child had experienced this often enough. I know the signs myself. My parents were not better.
I felt terrible and helpless. My first instinct was to protect the boy. But then the father looked like the kind of guy who would not listen to reason. In fact the chances were great that he would direct his anger at me. I also knew that he would certainly punish his son for “making a scene in front of a stranger”. I have experienced this often enough myself and saw it often enough with other parents (from friends and classmates) too. Had he physically assaulted his child I could have called the police but alas non-physical violence is still not a crime that is being prosecuted very well. So I went away feeling helpless. Instinctively I stroked my daughter’s head and told her how much I love her.
But it made me think. The family I saw had what polite people nowadays call a “low socio-economic status”. It’s a fancy way of saying they were poor and uneducated. Then I looked at my daughter and thought that she has two stable parents, all the material things and probably too many at that, parents who are attentive to her needs, who enjoy seeing her grow up and who nurture and support her development. This boy has very little of these things.
There is always this debate about why people are poor, unhealthy, die earlier or achieve less education. Some say it is up to personal responsibility others blame society’s ills. Of course everyone is responsible for his or her own life, but then their circumstances matter too, but those are again the result of individual actions. It seems circuitous.
Now this boy with his damaged parental attachment will struggle with developing the necessary skills and emotional stability to deal with life’s challenges. And considering the place and family he is growing up in he needs a lot of those skills. Chances are high that he ends up like his father. But then the man writing these lines right now was a boy in a similar situation as well. He developed the skills and maturity to overcome a lot of challenges. Personal responsibility, society or circumstances, the answer is not simple.
Responsibility and Forgiveness
I think we as a society can actually do very little except promoting good parenting, exposing children to different views, people and lifestyles, furthering education and reducing barriers. But ultimately when this boy grows up he has to make some tough decisions for himself. Many like him will fail, some muddle through halfway but their children might break free and some escape their childhood and circumstances to make a decent life for their own. It will take generations to change this.
Seeing this father hurting his little four year old boy and the feelings that came up within me made me wonder if I can ever truly forgive my parents. I’d like to think I already did but now I am unsure. Some say forgiveness frees us from pain but maybe pain gives us the strength to change? True forgiveness would require atonement which my parents never even attempted. All I can really do is forgive myself and no longer be angry. Then pain fades into disappointment which over time fades into unimportance. One could call it acceptance of one’s own history instead of forgiveness. Now most of the time I can even laugh about it. I no longer live in my parents world, I have my own. But sometimes when I am full of love for my own family I am sad that my parents were not.
If you are interested in learning more about parental attachment and some of the terrible ideas of how to raise children I suggest reading something from Alice Miller (For your own good is a good start).