Several years ago I attended a seminar called the Forum. It had been designed by Werner Erhardt, the inventor of EST. Since then Erhardt has collaborated with Harvard in the creation of a leadership program on integrity for the U.S. military.
The Forum stretched over several days and involved personal testimony by the nearly 300 individuals in attendance. As people approached the microphones, they divided neatly into two groups. Those who recognized they had personal issues deriving from troubled childhoods that spilled over into their adult lives and impaired their ability to function and be happy.
But, there was also a small group who got up and testified that they had idyllic childhoods and few problems. Then the group annealed and a deeper dive into the ocean of life occurred.
Everyone attending the Forum did so for a reason and at the heart of it was a dissatisfaction with where they were in their lives. For some it was unfulfilled development potential; for others it was recovering from setbacks and trauma.
Over the years I have often thought of the Forum experience. Like most of you I have read my fair share of self-help books that ranged from positive thinking to more clinical examinations of the issues. One book in particular is Alice Miller’s “Drama of the Gifted Child”. Alice Miller was a Swiss psychologist who spent a lifetime exploring the issues of narcissism and childhoods that left children poorly equipped.
One of the characteristics of this phenomena is the child who believes they had a great childhood, but upon further examination comes to realize much of their time and energy was in service to the parent’s ego and narcissism. These individuals often spend a large portion of their adult life playing by the rules their parents imparted to them until one of two things happen.
For the adult who has children of their own, they eventually come to realize how destructive excessive egotism and narcissism can be in the development of a child. In families where there are multiple children one of the children will be compliant and another will rebel. A cascade of unintended consequences can emerge. This is particularly true when divorce occurs and leaves the offending parent in charge.
In other cases the person arrives at middle life unfulfilled. Perhaps they obsessed about their career to the exclusion of other things. In some cases they had difficulty forming meaningful relationships. The realization that one’s potential may never be fulfilled or the realization that whatever role they occupy in the hierarchy of organizations can be purchased as a replacement in the open market is a sobering experience.
There is also that person who has satisficed, i.e. rationalized that things have gone pretty well all things considered. They just feel a need to add a few charms onto their bracelet. You know, a husband, baby, BMW, condo at Vail, etc. They have plotted and schemed all their life and are pursuing a turtle and hare competition. Only a major illness, divorce, death or some traumatic event will bring them to their knees and make they realize the folly of their ways. Even then they may see themselves as the victim of a random, one-time event.
The social fabric of modern families is obviously in tatters. Institutions including churches, schools, and employers treat their markets as an extractives industry and are largely mercantile entities. Their failure has placed the parenting of children in relief and front and center.
The plain and simple fact is that upon close examination few families are capable of parenting without contamination of the process from their own childhoods. It is the denial and dismissiveness that places an entire generation at risk.
The most conservative amongst us believe that the family unit is the best way to raise a child. In reality it might be the lesser of two poor choices. The family whose parents chose to work out their own issues first are rare indeed. Many parents view behavioral health as the place to drop their kids off to be fixed, the same way they drop their car off at the dealer to get the oil changed.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no easy fix. Adults simply must get a grip on their own personal issues before they take on parenting. At a high level this obviously includes addiction, narcissism, and character issues. And, it does not suggest that seeing a psychologist is the only way. There are a multitude of self help regimens such as journaling, meditation, reading and seminars that can offer assistance.
In many ways we are left with the advice of the classical philosophers who advised us to understand ourselves first and foremost. That is ironic because it might appear, in and of itself, to be self-centered. But, you have to start somewhere.
The greatest menace to children is the hubris filled adult who believes they had a perfect childhood and can just do a followup act to their own parents. I can almost guarantee that person the peeling the onion will reveal dysfunction galore. After all, if it works so well why are you attending the Forum or reading this blog. For validation?