I remember the day well, nearly 20 years ago. My teenage daughter, already overwhelmed with school activities and responsibilities, took a phone call from one of her high-school teachers asking her to assume yet another extracurricular chore involving hours of time. As she agreed to take it on, assuring him that she would love to do it, she flashed a grimace at me, indicating her distaste for the activity he proposed.
Suddenly I saw myself more clearly than I ever had. I wanted to shout at her to say no, but she had lived a lifetime of hearing me say yes to people when I wanted to say no, saying yes out of fear of displeasing them. Any words from me were pointless. She had absorbed my weakness to the core. I was, after all, her model.
The incident ultimately graced me as a gift because my daughter's behavior revealed my defect to me in a way no book, lecture, or workshop ever had. I felt as if I had been struck off Saul's horse. When I saw someone I deeply loved suffering from the same need for approval at all costs, I changed myself. Almost overnight, I began to value myself enough to risk others' displeasure and prioritize my activities.
Short of chronic illness, little troubles parents more than seeing their children take on their faults and weaknesses. It's an almost universal truth that parents have difficulty relating with the child most like themselves, largely because they see in that child what they dislike and repress in themselves.
Psychologist Carl Jung called this our "shadow side." We all have a shadow side that consists of negative elements we see in ourselves. We don't like to admit to them, so we stuff them deep down inside ourselves and pretend they don't exist. Or we rationalize them away, as I did in my inability to stand up for myself: "I am not doing this because I'm afraid to say no but because it's a worthy cause."
Our shadow side is not benign, however. As we stuff more into its knapsack, the pressure to erupt increases. To alleviate this pressure, we project it onto others. So, if I'm miserly, I will overly berate the child who exhibits miserliness. If I reach for food for solace, I will criticize the child who does the same. If I'm paranoid, I will explode when my child accuses me of picking on him. Whatever I dislike in myself, I am going to disdain in others. Therapists tell us that when we meet people we don't like, it's an excellent opportunity to explore what we have repressed in ourselves.
Often the flaws we perceive in our children are minor, irritating behaviors such as pouting or self-righteousness, but sometimes the faults we witness in our children reveal ourselves to us in a startlingly dramatic way. We experience the pain of seeing ourselves in development in the ones we love.
History repeats itself
In a journal of 1846, a pioneer woman named Mary Richardson Walker illustrates this pain superbly. She tells of her 4-year-old son, Cyrus, who refused to say please when he wanted some sugar.
She goes on to recount the next 24 hours during which the child refused to say please. Following the dictates of her day in rearing obedient children, they whipped him continuously, withheld food and drink, and imprisoned him in bed the whole day. Finally, he said please.
But she ends her account with a profound insight into her obsession not to yield: "I often fear being guilty of the very thing for which I punish my child."
Walker's story may have occurred 150 years ago, but parents today struggle with the same paradox and guilt. A mother I'll call Marilyn shares her story with me. "When our son went into a treatment center for alcoholism at 16, we were grateful. But we had no idea it would change us like it did. Part of his treatment demanded family participation and let me tell you, nothing is sacrosanct. Nothing."
She shakes her head. "All our problems and faults were aired. Within a month, John and I had to acknowledge our own drinking problems. …