aggression within overprotection

I have an image of myself as a three-year-old: it’s summer and we’re at “Sleepy Hollow,” a vaguely depressing summer vacation place of cottages and “the dome”—where more socially adjusted kids happily participated in activities; I’m ready for my morning swim, wearing a life-preserver, water-wings and non-slip shoes of some dimly remembered rubber; I’m being placed in the kiddie pool where the water is barely past my knees; I don’t think I’m wearing a diving mask, but I feel like I see my mom’s over-concerned face, radiating the message, “This is very, very dangerous and you might drown at any second.”

I’m not sure what my first word was, but I feel like it might have been, “Careful!” since that’s the word I remember my parents blurting out most frequently toward me.  And still I was accident prone and despite many swimming lessons, still nearly drowned at summer camp when I was nine.

As a parent I’ve come to appreciate the notion that we just can’t win—whatever we choose to do often, at least in the short run, we are told was all wrong.

When I compare childhood today with that of the 1960s I would say that many kids are more overprotected than I was—riding bikes all over the place by the time I was nine or ten—things I didn’t let me kids do.  I probably “overprotect” to some degree, trying to weigh out crippling limits with blaring headlines of danger.  My kids are teens now and so the dangers are different, but what I wanted to focus on today was not just the limits on safety we choose to set, but our attitude of concern vs. confidence in our kids’ own abilities to make safe choices.

For example there was a classic study where a baby is allowed to crawl on a glass countertop where halfway along the “floor” appears to drop out below the glass, in effect creating a sort of safe cliff.  Babies tend to look down, stop, look at mom and proceed if mom smiles and wait where they are if mom looks concerned.  Other studies examined climbing behavior where little ones looked to mom’s face to decide if they should climb higher or not.  Confident moms seemed to breed confident kids—not overly risk-taking, but not anxious and avoidant either.

It is very hard to shield kids against our own neurotic anxieties, very it difficult to mask our own unconscious dread or control our non-verbal cues that bubble up from our often unconscious world-view (which we mistake for “reality”).  This is why it’s good to cultivate self-awareness and tranquility in ourselves; consciousness empowers us to make more choices about our formerly unconscious fears, beliefs and aggression.

I have noticed that Holocaust survivors tend to overprotect their kids; this makes sense because those parents have an overdeveloped awareness of the precariousness of life—and yet this can sometimes hobble their kids from taking risks and learning natural confidence and self-reliance when they are young, but I’ve often seen it also breed brash go-out-and-get-it bravado (which is not necessarily authentic confidence).

While my parents were not direct survivors of the holocaust, I suspect that my dad’s family’s experience of fleeing pogroms and my mom’s family’s experience of Nazi persecution (her dad losing eight brothers and sisters to the ovens, along with my mom’s dad dying when she was a kid, and my dad’s mom being seriously ill most of his childhood) might have shaped them to be rather worried about bad things happening.

Another angle on overprotection, however, is that it contains unconscious aggression.  For example, if a loved one is late, how quickly do we go to disaster scenarios in our minds?  If it is chronic worry that something terrible has happened, perhaps we unconsciously feel abandoned by the ticking seconds without them; in the depths of our forbidden mind we crash their car, and then fear that this must be what has happened.  We get anxious, and then angry and relieved at the same time when they “make it home” safely.  Kids in particular, may have bad dreams about their parents being killed precisely because they are feeling abandoned or neglected and both fear being alone, but also feel angry and powerless over this perceived abandonment.

Back in the Greek day we had gods to hang our Shadows on, Hades for all things dark and Chronos for those eat-you-up-I-love-(and-resent)-you-so uneasy feelings that parenting may also evoke in the underworld of our psyches, individual and collective.

Kids are a lot of work, and I think my dad must have been miserable on our holiday to Sleepy Hollow, unconsciously immersed in his own bitter childhood and antsy without the demands of work, without access to our family addiction of workaholism (hi, I’m Bruce and I’m blogging when I should be sleeping); over the years dad would chronically get sick on the day before a family trip (not his business trips, however) and the bags, all packed by the door, would end up migrating back to our rooms and being unpacked again while the holiday got cancelled.  He didn’t get sick on the no-kids-included trips to Europe or Asia every year either.

My “growth” was to actually go with my kids on holidays, but then get sick and need to stay back and rest (in awful and unconscious solidarity with my father?).  What finally cured that was Ireland; that’s a curative place (and a little good Irish Whiskey, which means “water of life” in Celtic, homeopathically employed, was for me a step up from addiction to work and exhaustion.  Meanwhile I had a friend who couldn’t resist drinking most of the bottle, but we all have our Achilles’ heels).  One parent’s palliative is another parent’s poison (and for that friend, work—and AA—were the cure).

So when I look back at my over-concerned and grumpy parents, pushing me to “go be with the normal kids” in the “dome” (so they could not be with me), I must wonder if their sorrows at being poorly parented in their own childhoods combined with my orchidly-high level of sensitivity to make them feel angry at me for existing (and at themselves for not enjoying it more or dealing with it more fluidly)?

As a dad, I totter on the fence between being more connected with my kids than my parents were with me, and still not nearly as present as I wish to be; to empower better, yet still protect them from real dangers and accurately gauge what they can handle.  In some strange way I blog as a post-it note to my own Self, trying to get things right through seeking community with other parents who do not find parenting as all that easy either, yet feel it to be profoundly rewarding when we do get it right—and even a potential path to higher consciousness (or, in simpler words, a tutorial in loving the world).

Parenting has come to intrigue me as a mindset, as a way of relating to each other and the world.  In a sense I also blog as a person tunneling out of prison, striving toward shorter posts and perhaps eventual freedom from writing and figuring out into just being (even though I’ve come to truly enjoy writing).  At the same time I sincerely wish to serve others through this process, not necessarily in knowing what to do, but in being authentic and hoping that we can all manage to stay engaged with our kids (and with each other) and so non-defensively learn from our loves, set-backs and struggles.

So, let’s dedicate today to consciousness of our own potentially sorrow-driven, aggression-laden lapses into overprotection (since we’re all just doing the best we can, and trying to improve on what that looks like), forgiving ourselves for our shortcomings and seeing if we can get a few moments just a little more right with our kids—today.  I’m off to try that right now, still in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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5 Responses to “aggression within overprotection”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Ahh, Bruce, this post is just what the doctor ordered for me today.

    Having just returned from a trip during which I saw my toddler manifest all sorts of nervous behavior, I have been questioning myself, wondering what sort of emotional messages I have been sending him. (Blog post forthcoming, naturally.)

    Interestingly enough, I think of myself as quite confident, but I am also anxiety-prone. I wonder how to balance the modeling of risk-taking vs. risk-avoidance for my sons since it’s something I struggle with myself. And, ultimately, I wonder about the complex matrix of natural and “nurtural” messages I send my kids – how to manage them and how much control I should try to retain.

  2. Katrina Says:

    And your very real authenticity makes your blog so impactful. It is a true place of connection. I certainly do not find parenting easy, and being a part of this community (something I never imagined I would do, as I’ve never even read a blog before this one) has truly shifted my attitude towards parenting my little orchid. My parenting experience has been nothing like those of my family or friends, and in trying to stay positive and less exhausted by it all, I just stopped sharing. But here, I have learned to look at myself and my daughter from many different angles, and to sort of “rewrite” the parenting script that I envisioned and imagined. I must say, I am enjoying parenting more and more…but I am feeling “out of balance” personally and in my relationship with my husband, as I stay at home with my daughter (and the four or five times we have had a babysitter in the past 2 years to go have dinner alone, it has not gone well at all, with my daughter being unable to separate). My husband, who works such long hours and travels so much, just wants time for “us”, and so do I. It doesn’t feel right to leave my daughter with a babysitter when she cries and is miserable most of the time and then continues to get upset about it for weeks, but it also doesn’t feel right not to make alone time for myself and my husband. Parenting is certainly not easy, and sustaining and nurturing a marriage relationship alongside is something I am finding to be getting more difficult instead of easier. How do we “get it right” with our children and our spouses during these early parenting years?

  3. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments—the common theme and question here seems to be balance: balance of our own pasts and wounds with the needs of our kids to grow up free of our stuff; balance of risks and self-preservation; balance of adult love and parent-child love.

    My hope is that realizing that we all struggle with some version of these dialectics of opposites might help us at least decrease shame, guilt and isolation and find ways to work toward better balance (and not expect any sort of perfection). Maybe it’s a bit like riding a bike where balance hinges on confidence that we can do it mixed with adequate momentum. Don’t let yesterday’s misfire get scripted as tomorrow’s inevitability—picture what you want to achieve (i.e. a confident but safe child, a warm and unified parental relationship) and work to UNDERSTAND the other (spouse, partner, child) rather than change their minds or behaviors. Understanding is the basis for love that feels like love, and love is the key ingredient in finding courage, balance and nourishing connections all around.

    I know that as a man it took some time to realize that my being bonded with my kids was something that strengthened the adult bond with my wife; coming to conceptualize us as a family, rather than as competing dyads is also a difficult developmental step for men, particularly if childhood was less than ideal.

    On the romantic front, maybe a good interim step would be a lunch date (moving away from making the rare date into something like a New Years Eve overloaded with baggage); and once the pressure is down, and the sense of having fun is back in place in the marriage, it may be easier to work as a team to help a child tolerate separation and not always getting their way (for their own good and relatively free of parental guilt).

    If nothing else, trust that these times past relatively quickly and that a strong relationship that a child cannot topple ultimately gives them a strong model of love to internalize.

  4. Katrina Says:

    Thank you so very much, Bruce.

  5. krk Says:

    I agree with Katrina. Your authenticity is one of the reasons I look forward to reading your daily blog. Thank you.

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