Don’t Sniff Don’t Smell: When Kids Hate On Parents

How might thinking about Gaddafi’s lurid death help us to be better parents?

Collective rage and murder wrought upon a crazed dictator pulled from a sewage drain wearing gold pants and packing a solid gold gun, while bizarre on the one hand, also illustrates an important dynamic in human consciousness:  idealization and devaluation.

Whether plotting a coup or parenting a toddler or a teen, the relationship between idealization and devaluation is infallible:  idealization masks secret devaluation; devaluation masks secret idealization.

Teens, for example, often exhibit know-it-all contempt and pseudo-independence (if they are safe enough to swagger), but they eventually tame it down and transition from rebel-with-an-allowance to worker bee in the collective hive, that is if we have a hive worth working for.

When our kids are very young they idealize us because they are both naïve enough to think us all-powerful and they are utterly dependent on us for their survival.  Being dwarfed by grown-ups and told what to do breeds unconscious fantasies of power—and the occasional angry nightmare of our parental demise.

The flip side of the idealizing-devaluing coin is that when our kids hate on us and tell us how terrible we are, they are secretly revealing just how important we are to them.

The angry mob doesn’t kill someone who hasn’t at some level scared the hell out of them and impressed them very greatly—someone who they had secretly idealized.

Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst with some issues of her own, but with some valuable insights too, felt that babies “split” mom into good and bad because they cannot handle the confusion of a caregiver being both good and bad, at least not if they depend for their lives upon that mom.  Melanie called this state of mind “the paranoid-schizoid position.”

In Klein’s lexicon, if and when you graduate to being able to see that mom is both good and bad, you arrive at “the depressive position.”  This is the integration of opposites and a mark of maturation.

Saddam, like Gaddafi, was also pulled from a fetid hiding hole and killed by an angry mob.  What’s up with mighty bad-guys ending up in some sort of fecal position?  Isn’t this the underside of idealization—not just in the collective mind, but in the secretly miniscule and terrified mind of any given dictator?

Hate is not the opposite of love, hate lives right next door to love.  The opposite of love is indifference.  This is why ignoring people, big or small, is so powerfully hurtful—we affirm someone’s existence with love, but also with hate (i.e. the “war on terror,” trying to out-hate the hate); but with indifference we annihilate the object of our contempt and scorn.

Kids prefer loving kindness, but they will demand negative attention and conflict rather than recede into failure-to-thrive passivity—invisibility being the saddest sort of soul-killing despair.

Thus we need to see our children, we need to see them in their metaphorical drains when they feel like sewage.  We need to be able to take our kids’ idealizations of us with a grain of salt (rather than trying to play super-mom or super-dad, especially in our own grandiose fantasies of perfect parenting) and model the ability to make mistakes, to laugh at ourselves, to accept other people and not just judge and criticize.

We also need to be able to handle our children’s wrath, neither crumbling like fragile mice nor retaliating like wounded dictators.  People who feel safe, secure and good about themselves are kind; therefore when kids are being mean, to us, their sibs or to anyone else we can intuit that they feel scared and/or angry.  Our task in these moments is to understand that our kids are scared (and at root, even anger means that something threatened/scared them, so bad behavior is really, in essence, primarily about fear).

In a culture obsessed with facile happiness we are still working our way to the depressive position.  And we tend to obscure the understanding that it was British and American colonialism that put much of Africa and the Arab world on the non-consensual bottom of the missionary position.  Thus the sadism and sociopathy of certain brutal dictators could be seen as the blow-back of brutal oppression and exploitation from colonial influence, leaving conditions ripe for the emulation of this political “parenting style.”

What’s done is done.  But if we, the people, are going to occupy love and compassion it serves us to look hard in the mirror at our own Shadow aspects.  When we deny our portion of fear, shame, anger and Shadow we are all too prone to project our villainous aspect onto “others,” be it the one percent, the terrorist or simply anyone who doesn’t agree with us.  If we are oblivious to our Shadow we are also prone to project power onto leaders willing to do our dirty work—that’s how genocides and other crimes against humanity go unchecked.  Hitler didn’t turn a nation of Jew-loving Germans into anti-Semites, he told them what they wanted to hear.

Whatever the truth about power struggles, money, oil and politics, when it comes to children they do not do well if they are made to feel terribly small and unimportant when little.  Feeling like poop as a child has a way of creating a hankering for all things gold, from pants to guns to couches.  If nothing else, cruelty appears to lead to wickedly bad taste.

Even if we have to squint pretty hard to do it, perhaps it serves us to take a kind eye for the bent guy, especially if the twisted little rager happens to be our own tantruming child.

When children, and grown-ups, feel safe, secure and accurately understood, they are generally compassionate, generous, kind and fair.

Gaddafi’s death is, in a sense, a collective human nightmare writ large—the fear that we are bad, an imposter, will be found out and die horribly alone and either hated or ignored.  If we can grasp that our fears are universal we might be kinder and more gentle with others, we might realize that failing to give poor kids support makes them scared that they will not live long, much less prosperous, lives.  Scared kids make dumber choices than safe and secure kids; scared kids do worse on tests, do worse at socializing, are more prone to fall in with other low-self-esteem kids and fall victim to bullies.

There’s no winning in war.  We need a different lexicon when dealing with fear.  We don’t want to wage a war on fear, we want to hug fear, nurture the child who is scared witless, the kid who is rude and disrespectful because, deep down, they are frightened.

So, while the world will re-organize itself as it sees fit, meanwhile we can strive to recognize when we are hurt or angry, and in those moments strive for non-action.  Waiting until we are calm empowers us to choose right-action, to model compassion for our kids, and to accurately understand, rather than intimidate or control, our children.

So, here’s to supporting each other to feel safe, connected and better understood so that we can make intelligent and loving choices and, in turn, lead happier and more productive lives—and make as much possible for all our collective children.



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11 Responses to “Don’t Sniff Don’t Smell: When Kids Hate On Parents”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Boy this one really resonated with me. Thank you.

  2. Mark Says:

    Man, this parenting gig sure requires a lot from us, both inside and out. I’m thinking I should be applying for hazard-duty pay. What about you? ~ Mark

  3. Katrina Kenison Says:

    You are one heavy-hitter! But sometimes, we need the clunk on the head. Of course I know that rage and meanness come from a hurt, scared place — but it really can be such a hard truth to remember in the heat of a tough moment. Thanks for the reminder, as always.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    “Hate lives next door to love.”


    What a rich and important piece of writing, Bruce.

  5. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    “Scared kids make poorer choices…” That really jumped out at me–the fact that you point out (so well) that angry kids are really scared kids inside. Wow. So important to remember.

    I was at a party this weekend and witnessed that teen “eye-roll-disgust-mom-is-so-dorky” behavior by one of the guests. It chilled me to the bone. I am so not looking forward to that. Hurtful and demeaning as Hell.

    And umm…Gaddafi was packing a solid gold gun? Really? How’s that for grandiose?

  6. Cathy Says:

    “strive to recognize when we are hurt or angry, and in those moments strive for non-action. Waiting until we are calm empowers us to choose right-action, to model compassion for our kids, and to accurately understand, rather than intimidate or control, our children.”

    I cannot agree more. The difficult part is developing the emotional maturity to respond rather than react. More often than I like to admit I find myself getting my buttons pushed.

  7. Caitlyn Says:

    As a school teacher, it behooves me (us) to remember these lessons. I forwarded the link to all my colleagues.

  8. Wolf Pascoe Says:

    “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” — Rilke

  9. Laura Weldon Says:

    This is brilliant on a vast scale, touching on hidden sorrows of the heart to shadows haunting society at large. Every one of your posts has me nodding in recognition, this one is begging to become a full length book.

  10. Pamela Says:

    Bruce, I always learn so much here. Thank you!! Such a great reminder to about power. I have small children and frankly, I don’t feel as though I have much power, but thank you for this call to use it wisely.

  11. Being Rudri Says:

    As always, your insight enlightens. Thank you for these words.

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