The Child is the Father of Wo/Man

Separated at the start of the Holocaust era from their parents at quite a young pre-teen age, my relatives (nameless to protect their privacy) spent their adolescent years in physical security but in severe economic poverty. Throughout their adult life, otherwise honorable and quite normal, they had one “foible”: hyper-materialism. As much as they could afford, the wore only the finest suits and sported the best jewelry. Once I understood their history, it was not hard to figure out why.

They aren’t the only ones. What’s “lacking” in youth need not be something material; emotional starvation is just as bad (maybe worse). For instance, a parent who died too early, leaving the child with the second parent, incapable of emotional support (occasionally due to their own pain); or overwhelmed with the task of parenting and being the only source of economic support; or remarrying and wanting to start “anew” without the memory of the previous spouse and progeny of that earlier union.

And then there are adopted children turned adults. Their “past trauma” is hard to see because most (especially those adopted at birth), never suffer any specific trauma. But the emotional pain is deep when they discover at whatever age that they are adopted. Their general question (not often spoken out loud): why did my mother/father abandon me? (From this standpoint, the “lucky” ones are adopted because their parents died; they might rail against “God” but there’s no human rejection.)

These are painful experiences or situations, but at least the person involved (usually) understands the drive to supplement what was once (and forever) greatly missing. It’s the rest of us – fortunate enough to spend our youthful years with material and emotional support of our biological parents – who need to be aware of the problem. I am sure that all of us have met people whose adult behavior is “peculiar”. We usually ask ourselves whether this isn’t a matter of their “flawed personality”; we should first rather be asking if there might not be a personal-historical reason for such “traits”. Certainly, assuming that it is someone we care for (cousin, aunt) or is close to us whether we want them or not (an in-law), we would do well to try and understand the source of that person’s behavior.

This general phenomenon is quite widespread but difficult to ferret out, given that the individuals in question are not keen on “revisiting their past”, or to seem as if they are blaming a parent, or to publicly admitting that they even have a problem. Most people, though, are not “born strange” – the most probable reason for “strange” behavior is circumstantial. Nurture, not Nature.

It also turns out that environmental factors in one generation can have an influence two generations further down! The classic example: the 1944 “Dutch Hunger Winter” when Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands and basically starved its population ( Women who became pregnant and gave birth during those famine years had grandchildren who were born significantly smaller or were prone to diabetes and obesity later in life!! If you were puzzled by the title of my essay here, perhaps now you understand the aphorism’s deep wisdom.

Is there anything we can do about all this? I believe so. First, as already mentioned, we have to try and be more tolerant towards people with “quirks” or worse. There might be some dark (or negative) things that s/he went through earlier in life. Second, of all the professions in the world, by far the most important one is “parenting”. I have always wondered why we demand education and even licensing for most serious professions, but not for parenting. Of course, I am not suggesting prohibiting people from having children without due “parenting education”, but I am suggesting that governments could “incentivize” such “parenting training courses” e.g. pay them to attend; tax them higher if they don’t; etc.). The eventual savings – economic and societal – are huge, if only we decreased somewhat the pain that children suffer due to lack of parenting knowledge about child development and the like.

And consider this: children who are emotionally (or physically traumatized) will likely do something similar to their progeny, and so on – a sort of “Emotional Hunger” that carries forward from one generation to the next (and the next…). On the other hand, grant a child a solid upbringing and we’ve started a virtuous cycle for many decades into the future.

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