We Have To Be Carefully Taught
By Angela B. Chrysler
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
– South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Parenting is, without a doubt, full of surprises. Whether it’s hearing your five year old announce something far beyond her years or whether its the ol’ peanut butter sandwich smashed into the VCR. I just want to say, I am convinced this was the real reason technology advanced to DVD. Parenting is never boring, I will say that.
We all know the boastful parents who can’t shut up about how great their spoiled, bully children are. Or the neglectful parent who has no idea their two year old is walking twenty feet behind them. I could grab their kid and run long before they would even notice. There is the over-protective parent, the micro-manager, the cool parents, prude parents, soft spoken parents whose children wear the pants in the house. No matter how you parent, we all have one thing in common. We all want the best for our children. We all want to raise successful, healthy, loving children. And not one of us knows the right way to do it. Oh, irony. And yet we try. We stay up at night worrying, re-thinking, re-planning, re-designing. We re-lecture, re-explain, re-argue. Our hair turns gray if we don’t pull it out and behind closed doors we weep for our children. When they sleep we hold them. We never miss a goodnight.
I’ve dedicated my life to knowledge and am no stranger to life’s big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? Douglas Adams did much to shape my beliefs. Now that I stand on the brink of puberty and adolescence, I find myself returning to the Existentialism I explored twenty years ago. Why are we here?
I believe we are here to be the best we can be. Not for a deity or for ourselves, but for our offspring, our children, the next generation. The future.
So here I am, a mother of three who has read more encyclopedia articles than have been written, I think, and more books on relationships and parenting. I’ve clawed my way through my youth and have vowed that I will do better by my kids. But what proper examples do I have? I look back on my own parents. One thing I will say, without a doubt in my mind, my father always did his best. And, just recently, I can finally say with complete certainty—finally—that my father has always loved me. Aside from that, my parents were clearly as clueless as I feel. I’m motivated, self-driven, intelligent, and know how to self-teach. I know where to begin.
One can not simply direct a child’s behavior without first understanding child development. This brings us to psychology and human behavior. One can not parent without clearly defining our morals and ethics. Not religion. Don’t make the mistake of confusing religion with morals and ethics. They are two completely different topics. Our morals and ethics are what we will pass on to our children. If not through our words, through our actions. One can not define morals and ethics without first asking the most basic of questions about themselves: Are the lessons I need to teach to my children biased or skewed by my own life experiences? Of course they are! Logically, they would have to be.
And now it’s time to examine the relationship we had with our parents. We learn how to parent from our parents. But what if your parent was neglectful, absent, selfish, abusive, or just… well… mean? What if your parents were mentally ill? Where does that leave those of us who never saw the right way to parent? Some of us turn to books for aid and articles like this for a clue. Most of us don’t bother trying. They don’t think there’s a problem.
“My parents beat me and I turned out just fine.”
“Did you?” I want to say. “Do you really think you’re okay with being beaten by those who you looked to for protection?”
We call that denial. To admit your parents were terrible, is to admit you’re not okay. Admitting your parents were terrible does not mean you don’t love them. It does mean you can be angry with them. It’s okay to be angry with your parents and still love them. People who deny their hurt hide their anger and fear behind proclamations attesting to their parent’s skills as parents. So the rest of us may not have been that bad. Maybe we stood on the side, watching our baby sister get more hugs while you simply didn’t. Maybe you felt there was favoritism. These experiences, all experiences, affect us. It alters our mind, our outlook, our perspective. It seems small from where we stand. But is it?
I am a thirty-five year old with three children. And I am the child of a mentally ill mother. We think she has Munchhausen’ by proxy, BPD, PTSD, Bipolar, and Dissociation Identity Disorder. She also could have Schizophrenia (she has a sister that has been diagnosed with it). The symptoms are there. She refuses to see a doctor. My siblings and I will die not knowing what is wrong with her. Unlike myself, my mother went without diagnoses, assistance, therapy, or medicine. My best friend was raised by a mother with multiple personalities. Nine, in fact including one personality—We’ll call her Personality #5—that loathed her and tried to kill her. Her mother—Personality #1—has no memory of this because personality #5 was present at the time. My husband was raised by a father with schizophrenic-paranoia and hording… we think. There is no diagnoses. But the symptoms are there and scream his condition.
Not all early life experiences were this drastic, but too often we dismiss the smaller, seemingly petty issues that simply stayed with us for decades. We are bothered, disturbed even. We may have been provided with a wealthy house, a substantial allowance, a loving wholesome home. “How can I be so selfish as to think I was neglected?” Because you were. Because, in the end, no matter what, something bothers us. At some point, no one asked. At some point, no one praised. At some point, no one noticed. Something wasn’t “okay.” And that is okay to feel that way.
Looking back, to my mother’s kin, based on the stories I heard growing up, I am the fourth generation of severe mental health. My children will make fifth generation. These conditions are not genetically inherited. Environment determines the illnesses I have. Schizophrenia is genetically dormant, but the environment—trauma—must “activate” it to develop. My mother literally re-created an environment that resulted in my mental health. She passed on her mental health to me by recreating the environment she was raised in: not of one spent in foster homes, sexual abuse, and maternal abuse and neglect, but one of emotional neglect and absent parenting. On the surface, she thought she was had provided a better environment. We had a beautiful, clean, and financially stable home. Physically, she did provide something better, but emotionally, just like her parents, she neglected and abandoned me as much as her mother emotionally neglected and abandoned her.
I have made the conscious choice that the family’s history—the family’s saga—dies with me. But if I am going to pull this off, I’m going to require a therapist and a lot of change in perspective.
A bad youth can make a person consciously decide to be a better parent. Every one of us has something that we have declared, “I will never do that to my children.” My children will never be fed Lima beans. Or creamed corn. Or liver and canned spinach.
By the time I was eight, I forbade my mother from touching my hair. She would pull hard and if I or my sister dared to complain, instead of an apology or sympathy, we were told the same story. “When I was your age if I complained to my mother about how she brushed my hair, she’d pull harder.” This only communicated one point to my sister and I, “Don’t complain. My life was worse than yours.” And maybe it was. But our hurt was very real. Our needs were very there. Our emotions were very hurt. And that was ignored.
Today, when my girls “complain” if I pull their hair, I apologize and try to be more gentle. I will never tell them the story I had to hear growing up.
My mother’s mother shaped the choice of my mother’s parenting style. Instead of pulling our hair harder like she experienced, she told us about it and maintained the same level of brushing. I in turn was shaped by that and, instead of telling my girls to stop complaining and maintain the same level of brushing, I apologize and ease up on the brush. That line dies with me. My girls will never know about that experience. Both my sister and I have gone out of our way to make that choice. This is a positive experienced formed from a negative experience. Over the generations, the hair-combing improved. But what if the catalyst is negative and what if, what if, it begat a negative response?
What if the abusive parent creates a child more abusive than them?
There are three ways a person handles an attack both physical or verbal: Passive. Assertive. Aggressive. It is healthiest to toggle between these three states.
Attack: That dress is ugly.
Attack: That dress is ugly.
Response: That’s not nice of you to say.
Attack: That dress is ugly.
Response: Well, your face is ugly.
Everyone. EVERYONE identifies with one of these. I am passive. Bullies identify with the aggressor. This is why they are bullies. Harry Potter was passive. Dudley Dursley identified with the aggressor. Hermione was assertive. Those are the “get in your face” and confront the bad behavior without attacking. “Hey! You can’t talk to him like that!” Asserting your beliefs without attacking, prevents another attack.
Many parents, parents who may have been beaten as children, identify with the aggressor (their own abuser) and in turn, abuse their children. Many parents, parents who may have been beaten as children, are passive, and don’t stand up to their children and/or fail to fill the role as “protector.” My father is this way. I am this way. We are both gentle parents. We are both too gentle. I am learning how to become more assertive to establish a parental, protective role. (Have I parentified my son by not assuming the role of protector?)
Children who are beaten or neglected by a parent, sometimes identify with the aggressor. Their control has been taken from them and, to regain it, to “empower” themselves, they identify with the aggressor and beat up on someone smaller at school. If the problem goes unresolved, that child grows up and becomes a parent. They may say, “my parents beat me and I turned out just fine.” They may not beat their children, but they yell a lot. Subjecting children to yelling and name calling can be traumatic.
Our mental health, our past, affects our parenting whether we are conscious of our issues or not. Don’t ask a therapist,”Fix my kid.” Don’t say, “What’s wrong with my kid?” Children only ever mirror their parents. If every you want to know how others see you, look at your child’s behavior. Children are chameleons. They idolize you even if they hate you. Sometimes, children hate their parents because the idol has not met their expectations. Sometimes the idol has fallen. That parent is still the idol. That parent may just be a disappointment and the child lashes out. “Why couldn’t you be the hero I thought you to be?” “Why couldn’t you love me enough to be better than what you are?” “Why couldn’t you love me enough to fix yourself?” “Why couldn’t you love me enough to get help?” Those are the words I often wonder about my mother.
Recently, I was diagnosed with BPD, Bipolar, hypersexuality, Mania, and PTSD. I am still me. Nothing has changed. I was me before the diagnoses and I am still me after the diagnoses. The only thing that has changed is awareness. My education, and now my perspective. With my therapist’s help, I can now look back at my parenting and say, “OMG! Did I really do all of that?” I thought I was protecting my children. I thought I was comforting them. Turns out, I was really forbidding them to feel emotion. Just. Like. Me. As I wrote this article, I suddenly realized I may have been one of the causes of my son’s parentification (This is a real word, by the way… Further reading on parentifying a child). By not stepping into the role of “mother,” I may have put my son into a position to step into that role. I will not hesitate to say I am one bad mother, and I didn’t know it. My intentions were good. I meant the best… And I had too much of my past getting in the way of my parenting.
You want to be best the parent you can be? Address your past. Examine your own mental health. These are the real skeletons in our closets. The hurt we hoard because we are ashamed, naive, afraid, or too angry to care. It’s impossible to grow up without problems. It’s impossible to grow up without hurt. It is possible to have that hurt and not transfer it to your children. It takes awareness and honesty with yourself to not transfer. Be a better parent. Know who you really are. Question why you do what you do. Question everything. Force you to explain your actions to you. Good parenting begins with mental health. What’s yours?
About the Author
Angela B. Chrysler is a writer, logician, philosopher, and die-hard nerd who studies theology, historical linguistics, music composition, and medieval European history in New York with a dry sense of humor and an unusual sense of sarcasm. Growing up without books, Ms. Chrysler spent her early life reading the encyclopedia for fun. By mid-teens, she gained access to her school library, and began working her way through the Great Books. She spent many an afternoon in an old opera house turned library in the town where she grew up. There, she found her passion for reading and writing through the words of Hugo, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Poe. She lives in a garden with her family and cats.