The Child is the Father to the Maniac
To answer the last question first, I’m not sure I can help with the teenager business. There are advantages and disadvantages to having a child relatively late in life, as I did. One of the advantages is that, by the time my son is a teenager, there’s a better chance I’ll be dead.
The latest research on the subject shows--as if we didn’t know--that the adolescent brain literally disassembles and rewires itself during the teenage years. Obviously this is more problematic for some teens than others... such as, I don't know, me. The psychoanalytic idea is that we go into a relatively conflict-free period from around five or six until adolescence. But when adolescence hits, there is an idruption of all of the unresolved, unconscious psychosexual, developmental attachment issues from the first few years of life. In other words, if the teen had an insecure, ambivalent, chaotic or abusive attachment as an infant, it’s going to come roaring back in adolescence, as the adolescent looks for situations and relationships in which to act out their infantile emotional conflicts.
This is an especially dangerous time for boys, because the rewiring of the brain literally disrupts the ability to understand the consequences of danger. Teenage boys often engage in impulsively risk-taking behavior for this reason. For girls, it’s apparently more of a hormonal problem. From what I understand, the surge of hormones is so overwhelming that it can often cause a kind of sudden moodiness that almost looks like bipolar or borderline personality disorder. Now I understand 1) why my first girlfriend treated me the way she did, and 2) why I was attracted to her.
Having said that, I don’t treat adolescents. My wife actually knows a lot more about the subject than I do. Perhaps she’ll chime in later.
Looking back on my own extended adolescence, I’m not sure how I survived it. Things were relatively tranquil until 17, when I discovered beer. When you toss drugs and alcohol into the brain-dismantling and general impulsivity, predictable consequences ensue. Which is to say, unpredictable consequences. I suppose you could say I was crazy, but it didn’t feel like it at the time.... jumping out of moving cars, drinking and driving so frequently that I got quite good at it, getting drunk twice a day on special occasions, like New Years... This period of time didn’t last all that long--couldn’t have lasted that long--but it was enough for a lifetime.
I know it probably sounds disingenuous, but even then I am quite sure I was searching for the vertical, for some sort of extraordinary, liberating experience. It is not so much that I felt oppressed by life, but I definitely concluded quite early on that there was nothing of much interest in the world as such. Instead, I was quite sure that the key to life was in our relationship to the world, and that we could alter this relationship by altering our consciousness. Of course, I was steeped in the ethos of the 1960’s, which maintained that an alternate reality was always just a few microns away.
For whatever reason, I was always very susceptible to a kind of uncontainable joy or exhilaration--even ecstasy--that had nothing to do with the outward circumstances of my life. For this reason, I never developed the idea that outward circumstances mattered--grades, college, career, etc. I never thought for one moment that any kind of worldly accomplishment would alter the basic existential equation of my life. If anything, I always suspected that deeper entanglement in the world would only lead me away from the liberation I was seeking. I’m not even saying that it’s a good or bad thing, but I could never have tolerated an ordinary life with an ordinary job, no matter how extraordinary. Even now I long for the day that I can fully commit myself to nothing, the operative word being commit. That's when this blog will take off into hyperspace.
Where were we? Oh yes. Vertical child rearing. One of the problems here is that the vast majority of parents throughout history--and certainly in the world at this time--are completely clueless about the horizontal aspects of parenting, let alone the vertical. In other words, it has only been in the last 50 years or so, specifically in Western Europe and America, that we have realized the critical importance of early attachment, and how this shapes the personality for the rest of one’s life. Even in the West, studies routinely show that about a third of mothers and infants are securely attached, about a third ambivalently attached, and about a third insecurely or chaotically attached. You can see videos of this, and if you are remotely sensitive about what it’s like to be a helpless, preverbal infant, they are quite heartbreaking. Frankly, the mothers are so clueless that you want to just shake them. (Hasn't that ever happened to you in a store, seeing how some mothers treat their children?)
One of the key ideas in attachment theory is that, from the moment they pop out of the womb--and even in the womb--you must treat your infant as a fully human subject with all the rights and dignities we give to any human being. You don’t treat them as an object or an extension of yourself. You explain to them what you’re doing, respond to their vocalizations, and even give words to the frustrations they are feeling. It’s amazing how this calms them down. And although I enjoy playing “rough” with my son (and he loves it as well), I never do so in such a way that he feels out of control of the situation. I’m always sensitive to his reaction, so that he can feel that he has control over things--even when I'm dangling him over the balcony.
Of course, there’s always a random element to child rearing, if only because of genetics and basic temperament, which is apparently not subject to change. Furthermore, one of the biggest challenges is that for any life trials must come, and it is through trials that our character is revealed, tested, and developed. So you cannot shield your child from pain and suffering, although naturally you try to shield them from meaningless pain.
One of the biggest conundrums for me is in fact how to formally introduce the vertical into my son's life when the time comes. Frankly, I’m still working on this. I have to allow for that fact that his basic temperament and orientation to the world are most likely going to be completely different from mine. In my case, I was as close to a “natural mystic” as fate and temperament would allow, so my basic orientation was always to the vertical--to such an extent that the formal religious involvement of my childhood only interfered with it.
But I am assuming that most people require the formal introduction of a specific religion in childhood in order to give shape and structure to the vertical.
There is also the issue that, by the time a man is 40 years old, he has pretty much “seen it all.” I don’t mean to say that I am jaded or disillusioned in a bad way. But I am definitely disillusioned about the world as such, especially given my temperamental head start. As they say, “it is not I who have left the world, it is the world that has left me.” Nor is this to say that I have lost my passion for life, much less become cynical. It’s just that a proper human being naturally turns to more inward and upward things at around mid-life. I am never bored unless someone is boring me--usually a horizontal someone.
This puts me on a rather different developmental track than my son. I can hardly tell him not to devour the apple, even though the consequences are preordained. Like God, I have to even provide him with the forbidden tree with all the trimmings, knowing full well that he’s going to fall under its hypnotic spell and go in for the whole beautiful catastrophe. I suppose you can only hope that your prodigal son will be like the prodigal son.
I’ve rambled on for too long. In the book we have been discussing, Lawrence Harrison’s The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself, he gets into the specific parenting skills that differentiate progress-prone from progress-resistant cultures. I had wanted to get into that, but now I’m out of time. If anyone’s still interested, perhaps I can do so tomorrow. I had also intended to touch on the child rearing practices of ancient peoples, including the Jews, so if anyone’s interested, let me know.