Friday, July 07, 2006

The Child is the Father to the Maniac

Reader Mary asked the question, “Would you develop your thoughts on the vertical evolution of child rearing? You mentioned awhile back that the amazing accomplishments of the Jewish people throughout history stem from their ‘scandalous’ ways of raising their children. As a parent of teenagers, any insight to help understand parent/teenager relationships would be appreciated.”

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.


Tamara said...

Yes! Please continue your posts about child rearing practices - I'd love to know your thoughts on them.

There's an interesting book by Jean Liedloff titled The Continuum Concept that addresses the importance of attachment in the early years. The only caveat is that the book details her experiences living in the South American rainforest with a tribe, so the whole tone of the book is pretty anti-Western.

In spite of this, I think her premise about the need for attachment for healthy human development is sound.

Anonymous said...

Some would say that virtually everything we do, including drinking to excess and using illgal drugs, is a "search for the vertical." They would agree with young Bob's intuition that what's most important in life is not the world itself but our "relationship" to that world.

But they would also agree with the more mature Bob that the ideal relationship to the world comes not through momentary alterations of consciousness by alcohol, drugs, and gratuitous risk-taking, but through fostering stable and accurate perceptions of complementary "horizontal" and "vertical" realities and wholesomely harmonizing with those realities.

You raise an interesting question about how to introduce your child to the "vertical" and about whether it needs to be done by way of early exposure to conventional religion. I don't subscribe to any conventional religion and wouldn't think of sending my child to any church, temple, or synagogue for exposure to the vertical dimension. But I would try to create an enviroment of openness to the vertical, and I would encourage my child to pursue his or her interest in it if it arose. On the other hand, if you already attend a church, temple, or synagogue, there may be no grave harm and there may even be some good involved in taking your child along with you and bringing him or her into your religious practices.

My misgivings about this center on the fear that exposing impressionable young children to any religion before they are mature enough to embrace it on their own may fixate them on false and harmful religion. It could be argued that many bible-thumping evangelicals and strident atheists are that way in large part because of their premature exposure to dubious religion in childhood.

Gagdad Bob said...


You make some excellent points. I fully agree that people can be traumatized by early exposure to bad religion. However, on the positive side, early exposure can help the person have deeper "roots" in a particular tradition, and help them feel as if they have a spiritual home, so to speak.....

joseph said...

I would suggest that one of the problems, however, in allowing children to get "roots" in a tradition today, is that they get "roots" in a today's tradition, most all of which are now rootless. I think this makes sense in a very closed, close-knit community, but today, I propose what Frithjof Schuon recommends for children...simple prayer, deep belief in God, and clear teaching on virtue and vice.

Really enjoyed your blog today, Bob.

Hoarhey said...

Bob said:

>>"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."<<

Hey,I resemble that remark!

Could you elaborate at some point on how you have come to have those attachments of wife, job, child and your accomplishments while at the same time having the thought that it would spoil your liberation. I guess I'm looking at getting your take on the progression of your spiritual growth through familial attachments in a healthy ego-detached way. Assuming of course that you didn't go down the path kicking and screaming. :)

Alan said...

A few thoughts:

As a Roman Catholic and knowing quite a few evangelicals, I would say that "cradle Catholics" are far less involved and evangelical than their adult convert counterparts. They largely take it for granted and never have a transformative moment in the vertical (or even conceive that they could)

We have a challenge in Western civilization of knowing how to "grow men" let alone "grow men comfortable in the vertical" - methinks they are intertwined at a point.

Great points Anon. A benefit of having kids brought up in a mainstream religious tradition is that it "entrains" beneficial archetypal impressions in the conscious and subconscious that can have a great effect over time - especially as one starts taking off in the vertical :-)

Anonymous said...

Alan, one problem I see with entraining kids with "beneficial archetypal impressions" from orthodox religion is that orthodox religion teaches them to take these "archetypal impressions" as literal, historical facts and, consequently, they never learn the real truths to which these archetypes point or experience the transformation a deeper understanding of these truths could foster. That is, to borrow a Zen metaphor, they see the scriptural and dogmatic religious finger pointing to the moon of transformative spiritual truth and suck the finger for comfort instead of beholding the glorious Reality to which it points.

But you raise an interesting point about how "cradle Catholics" tend to be less zealous than adult converts.

jwm said...

My folks took me to the Methodist church and Sunday school up until I was in the sixth grade. We had vacation Bible school in the summer as well. I remember not liking church or Sunday school very much, and I also remember an uneasy sense that it was wrong not to like it. I used to say prayers before going to bed, but I don't recall anything like a positive or negative feeling about it all other than the sense that you were "supposed to" do it.
I got really turned off by religion during my freshman year in high school. I hadn't gone to church in a couple of years, and a friend of mine was a Southern Baptist. He invited me to go along, and I went out of a feeling of obligation- that you were "supposed to". I didn't get along with the crowd in the Sunday school class, and I didn't like a preacher yelling at the congregation. Too, they were of the opinion that only Southern Baptists were going to get into heaven. That didn't set well with me. Eventually I just quit. I decided all religion was so much BS. The quasi-hippie Jesus freaks of the early seventies drove the final spike into my feelings about Christianity.
Nonetheless, the Sunday school stuff did have a benefit that I wouldn't realize for many years. I had taken away from it, at least, a familiarity with most of the stories and characters from the Bible. When I taught high school it amazed me the number of kids, and adults who had no idea who Noah was, no idea of the basic story of Moses,and the Exodus, no idea of Sodom and Gomorrah... I could go on.
But the antipathy to religion is a tough nut to crack. I have cracked it, though- much thanks to this blog, among other things. Now, it seems almost the opposite problem has come into being. I feel a great draw toward religion. In most ways now, I would have to count myself among the believers. Yet there seems to be something that I cannot quite penetrate, or that hasn't quite penetrated me. I pray. I read the scriptures. Yet I always have the feeling of not being there yet, of falling just this much short of having "real" faith. As soon as I get near it it seems to move just a little further out of reach.


Lisa said...

Very interesting post and comments, so far. Other than being a child myself at one time, I have no experience raising a child, unless you count a 5 pound chihuahua! I do teach swimming lessons in the summer to children and even adults. I am constantly amazed at how open young children are to learning new skills. They can pick up on things so easily, sometimes too easily. I have noticed that sometimes parents can be overbearing and project their own fears or concerns onto the child. I assume they are only doing it out of love, but it really does have a big effect on the child. Must be very challenging for a parent to find the correct balance between allowing a child to grow independently yet providing guidance and advice necessary for the child's safety and development.

Lastly, a post on child-rearing would really be incomplete without a thinly veiled reference to Michael Jackson's parental skills! Thanks for the laugh! Good to know you can always just have another one if you drop this one off the balcony! ;0)

Connecticut Yankee said...

My experience of early religious training is that it can be a lifesaver for kids with clueless or abusive parents (or abusers in the extended family). I found my pastors and Sunday School teachers (as well as my teachers in school) to be much more caring and much more likable than most members of my family-- in short, much better role models for the kind of adult I wanted to be when I grew up. In addition they made God real to me in a way that I could not have put into words but nonetheless felt deeply. And I have several friends who had similar experiences growing up, i.e. that church or synagogue offered a "second chance" to be part of a nurturing rather than a destructive family.

dilys said...

Seems to me there are at least 3 considerations.

Churches are part of our social capital, and functional ones like CTYankee describes are a great social and psychological comfort, sharing a focus with familiar nice-enough people.

Then there is the psychological formation. I think it's the anthropologist Mary Douglas who writes about religious ritual as the neurological basis for art. I don't remember how rigorous her argument is, but it's interesting. I think there may be an "imprint" period before adulthood when it's easiest to open doors. Waiting for rational choice may pretty much foreclose choice at some levels. I notice the already-baptized tiny babies soaking in our services of continuous song. If they get fussy the mother will go hold them where they can see an icon. Talk about Faces furnishing a child's inner life...

Then there is fostering for anyone -- child, friend, or stranger -- their own Vertical relationship. This reminds me of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the patron of a cathedral we visited in Dallas over the 4th: "Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you
thousands will be saved."

So, Bob, what do you think about these ideas adding up to potential parental strategeries:
1. choose a non-dysfunctional religious community;
2. choose a sacramentally rich religious practice which includes children without dumbing down;
3. work out one's own salvation with diligence.

Connecticut Yankee said...

Dilys-- I should perhaps have mentioned that I did grow up in a highly sacramental tradition (Western rather than Eastern Orthodox), so I'm sure the beauty of the music, architecture, vestments, etc. was part of the "mix" for me-- I am still a very visual and aural person-- but I think the "functional community" part would apply to a range of other traditions that are less concerned with aesthetics. At any rate I think simple goodness has its own appeal to kids who are starved at home for it.

Tamquam Leo Rugiens said...

I think that just about everyone is intrinsically drawn to the "vertical" in one way or another. Personally, I think in terms of the attributes of God (One, True, Good, Beautiful). Everyone has a primary mode, and probably a secondary. Most religious traditions tend to focus on one or another of these. If you are fortunate enough to be raised in an eclesial community whose mode matches yours, Bingo! Other modes are more problematical, and some combinations, I suppose, simply repel each other. Of the five us who grew up Catholic, four remain deeply attatched to their faith, but one has wandered off into New Age La-la land. So I'm inclinded, despite a lack of personal experience of child rearing, to think that raising a kid in a traditional ecclesial community is a benefit. It is the parents' role to mediate and explicate that experience. The benefit is that it lays the foundation on which a person can later build an edifice of mature faith. Faith, incidently, seems to me to be continuous living thing that must be nurtured along the way. I meet a lot of people who received some kind of religious training befitting the child they were at the time, but subsequently never nurtured it. Later, at 25, 40 or 50 they "don't get anything out of it". Naturally not, the formulas that help a 7 year old understand his religion will not nurture a 45 year old. Gotta keep expanding your understanding as your capacity to undestand expands. Say that three times real fast!

Gagdad Bob said...


You've convinced me. Scientology it is.

Alan said...


Overall, I would say Amen to your comment with one change:

"teaches them to take these "archetypal impressions" as *ONLY* literal, historical facts" With all the wonders of the created universe, I believe God is powerful enough to have had Jesus become a real person here on earth while also making his actions, teachings, and miracles symbolic of more than one higher meaning.

In agreeing with you, I point to "Jesus, the great physician" as one of the greatest mysteries that Bob's writings point to and are explicated in the Eastern Orthodox monastic traditions to a point. Faith is another mystery that can unfold for us in layers as we grow vertically :-)

Brian said...

Bob wrote:
"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. "

Bob, It sounds like the desert has been calling all your life. Maybe you could comment on why asceticism and the quest for theosis seems attractive to some personalities early on and not others? Are there specific child-rearing practices that influence this call?


Assistant Village Idiot said...

jwm - Your experiences bear some resemblance to CS Lewis's, which he describes in the book Surprised By Joy. Highly recommended.