Review – The Drama Of The Gifted Child

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (buy on Amazon.com)

by Alice Miller, published 1979, 1997

Recently I was discussing economic and social philosophy with some friends and the question came up about why certain philosophical ideas aren’t more popular or well-known if they seem to be more logically correct than the alternatives. We entertained a number of reasons why this might be but the one that stuck out to me as particularly weighty is the idea that the truth is deep, long and heavily nuanced and doesn’t make for quick, emotional soundbites. I made the quip, “Why is the economy the way it is? Do you have 5 years to study what you’d need to know to understand it?” followed by, “Why does the political system look as it does today? Do you have an entire lifetime to devote to studying all of human history?”

The other weighty suggestion that was offered is that there are many philosophies that cater to telling people what they want to hear (ie, an easy to accept reality) and only one that emphasizes telling it like it is (ie, a hard truth about reality).

I see echoes of these two notions in the opening of Alice Miller’s “Gifted Child”:

The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing this knowledge closer to our awareness. This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.

Most people do exactly the opposite. Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.

This book asks the reader to consider two troubling ideas. The first is that they are likely to be carrying some emotional baggage from their childhood that originates with the way they were cared for by parents and other important adults in their lives. The second is that they are likely to transmit this baggage to their own children (if they have any) and other important, intimate relationships if they don’t find a way to come to terms with it beforehand.

Like the consideration made about the popularity or penetration of certain economic and social philosophies, these ideas are troubling for most people to accept because it forces them to revise their current understanding of the relationships they have with important people in their lives, it forces them to take responsibility for the course of their lives and their choices and give up the perverse safety and security of seeing life through the eyes of the helpless victim and it forces them to concede that the present is not a unique or isolated moment pregnant with infinite possibilities, but rather one moment at the end of a string of moments stretching back into the earliest reaches of human history in which possibilities exist but are limited by certain choices and events which took place in the uncontrollable past.

There is of course great freedom in choosing to explore these troubling ideas but they come at the cost of a grave responsibility that few, based on my practical experience, seem willing to bear.

To find this freedom, one must seek out “the lost world of feelings.” Human infants are entirely dependent upon their adult caretakers for their survival, unlike most other animals who, while weak and undeveloped, are nonetheless able to move around, seek shelter, find food, etc., on their own almost immediately after birth. For a young human, being ostracized or unloved by ones parents is a death sentence. Therefore, the human psyche is wired at birth to prioritize adapting to the parents’ emotional needs over fully developing its own.

If certain emotional expressions or behaviors prove to be problematic for the relationship with the parents, the human child will work to repress and hide that part of themselves. They will disown it and their personality will become dichotomized into “me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I acknowledge and accept because they have demonstrated value with my parents, and “not me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I deny possessing or experiencing because they have been a source of conflict with my parents, on whom I depend for survival.

This is what Miller means when she talks about searching for the “true self.” The irony, however, is that

the child does not know what he is hiding.

That is, it is not as if the child knows what his true self is and isn’t and is lying to himself and others about who he really is. It is more like, he has shoddy vision and can’t see a focused image of himself in true detail, or else he has a map of himself leading to the buried treasure of his own reality but he doesn’t know how to read the map and therefore doesn’t know where his self is or even what he’ll find when he gets there. Every now and then this person might get a glimpse or a sense of their true self in a particularly emotionally charged moment but really all they’re experiencing is the anxiety indicating the existence of repressed and disowned selfhood, not a look at what is missing.

To heal, these emotions must be encountered and experienced. Further, painful emotions must be resolved by tracking down their genesis in early childhood experiences. Memories and relationships with respected and important adult caretakers must be studied and re-evaluated through the more objective eyes of an independent adult rather than the way they were first constructed by a subjective and immature child. This not only allows the adult of the now to be released from the terrors of the former child but it can enable the adult to have new modes of living and doing:

Rational, constructive action depends not only on the intactness of our intellectual faculties, but also on the extent to which we have access to our true emotions.

[…]

the inescapable conclusion is that for people to be able to organize their lives, they must have access to their emotions.

This is one of the many and for me, the most important, takeaways from this book. It is not enough to rationalize about a choice and a potential plan of action. To actually develop an impetus to act requires an emotional experience. Adults who repress certain parts of their emotional selves due to childhood traumas become incapable of acting in certain areas of their lives. They become procrastinators, perfectionists or otherwise evasive in the area of making a decision, acting on it and then sticking with it.

By finding and integrating one’s lost world of feelings, one has the opportunity to become active and empowered in new areas of one’s life that were otherwise mysterious, frustrating or dormant.

One question that comes up for some people as they consider all of this is, “But why did my parents ever treat me in such and such a way?” Using some of the memories and recollections of a famous cultural writer as an example, Miller says,

like so many gifted children [he] was so difficult for his parents to bear not despite but because of his inner riches. Often a child’s very gifts […] will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay by means of rules and regulations. These regulations must then be rescued at the cost of the child’s development.

The parents’ childhoods involved repression as well. For their own survival they learned to disown parts of their emotional experience or certain of their behaviors that caused trouble with their parents. They rationalized this turn of events and created rules for living that would help them avoid these perceived dangers. And then when they had children, these rules and procedures came into question by the existence of the innocent child. And so a new round of repression is started.

The only way the cycle can be broken is for the adult to make the painstaking effort to connect with his child self and understand what happened and how it has impacted him, and then he must choose to live his life differently with that new awareness of his past. This is hard for many to do because

What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.

Another powerful idea contained in this book is an explanation of the appeal of irrational ideas to adults with traumatic childhood experiences. The trauma of childhood is itself irrational– there is no “reason” for any child to be abused or neglected by those who brought it into the world, and save those who are simply unlucky in having some external misfortune befall their family (ie, the child is made an orphan when the parents die unexpectedly), there is no excuse or justification the adults could offer a child as to why they are being treated as they are. For survival reasons, the child must make a place in their psyche for irrational ideas to exist because in doing so they “close the loop” on the irrationality and make it seem rational. “Some things just don’t make sense” is a way to make sense of things that don’t make sense.

When this space for irrationality exists, adults can become wedded to irrational ideas and beliefs, such as political ideologies, abusive social relationships or supernatural superstitions. On one hand, they lack the ability to rationally resist these ideas and beliefs because they are willing to accept that not everything has to make rational sense in their lives. On the other hand, they may positively identify with the claims of these ideologies because they appeal to their own experiences or sense of self as a victim who is oppressed by others, that is, they offer a way to feel like they’re getting even. On this point Miller is worth quoting at length:

Oppression and the forcing of submission do not begin in the office, factory or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of the infant’s life.

[…]

Political action can be fed by the unconscious rage of children who have been misused, imprisoned, exploited, cramped and drilled. This rage can be partially discharged in fighting “enemies”, without having to give up the idealization of one’s own parents. The old dependency will then simply be shifted to a new group or leader. If, however, disillusionment and the resultant mourning can be lived through, social and political disengagement do not usually follow, but our actions are freed from the compulsion to repeat. They can then have a clear goal, formed out of conscious decisions.

Once our own reality has been faced and experienced, the inner necessity to keep building up new illusions and denials in order to avoid the experience of that reality disappears. We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer; it has already happened, at the very beginning of our lives while we were completely dependent.

The term “fighting yesterday’s battles” comes to mind when thinking about this irrational space.

While Miller’s analysis applies to any child and any adult experiencing emotional pain and depression (whether they’re aware of it or not!), the book is especially focused on the plight of “gifted” children because of the uniquely problematic experience they can have in this area due to their talents and abilities. Not only do “gifted” children tend to experience these emotional troubles more deeply,

many people suffering from severe symptoms are very intelligent

but they also tend to experience these troubles uniquely through feelings of grandiosity and contempt.

Grandiosity is the concept of identifying one’s personal value as a person with one’s special talents and abilities. One’s greatness isn’t just a part of one’s self, it IS the self. But this complicates the emotional life of the gifted child because it is inevitable that not every part of themselves is grand. There exists then another dichotomy, wherein all the parts that are grand (which may be very few and overall represent a quite limited part of the total person or experience of self) are “me”, and all the parts that are normal or weak (which is likely then the majority and the wider experience of self) are “not me”. And if my parents love and care for the grand gifts I have but dislike or don’t know how to deal with the unexceptional aspects of my self, then

we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, clever… we despise… in short, the child in ourselves and in others.

[…]

“Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved. would never have been loved.”

An emotional experience that often goes hand in hand with grandiosity is contempt.

The function all expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings. [ie, despising what is not grand about oneself]

[…]

Once we are able to feel and understand the repressed emotions of childhood, we will no longer need contempt as a defense against them.

[…]

Contempt as a rule will cease with the beginning of the mourning for the irreversible that cannot be changed… it is, after all, less painful to think that the others do not understand because they are too stupid.

Gifted people often experience contempt for others as an expression of insecurity about the repressed parts of themselves that are not part of their gifts. Unable to have empathy and kindness towards themselves in these areas, they become impatient and hostile towards those reminders of their own weakness that they see in others.

Sadly,

hating and offending an innocent person, using him as a scapegoat, can only strengthen the walls of our inner prison of confusion, isolation, fear and loneliness: it cannot free us.

And the most innocent person of all, the most unfair scapegoat a person can choose in this drama, is their child self. Whether these ideas are new or familiar, I encourage anyone reading this to consider the implications of the ideas contained in this book not as if they describe a set of generalized human experiences but rather as if they describe something specific and personal to the reader himself. If this book’s message can be taken to heart and internalized, it can be the jumping off point for great personal change that will ultimately resolve itself in what Miller refers to as a “healthy self-feeling”:

I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are a part of one’s self.

 

Review – Your Self-Confident Baby (#parenting, #RIE, #infancy, #children, #respect)

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities

by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998

I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.

The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:

  • Major premise; your baby comes built in with the tools it needs to learn and navigate its environment, and will create its own learning problems and discover its own solutions when given freedom to explore the world at its own pace
  • Minor premise; good parenting is less about what you put in early on and more about what you don’t, especially with regards to worry, anxiety and active interventionism

This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:

  • American parenting; your baby may be capable of great and wonderful things (which you implicitly choose for it), but like a Calvinist, you will only know for sure if you actively work to develop these talents and capabilities in your child. Failing to do so means risking that your child will turn out to be not one of the Elect, but a poor loser, or worse, quite average and content
  • Asian parenting; babies are stupid and a constant and confusing source of pride and worry for their parents, and if they are not condescended constantly almost from the moment they are born, they risk becoming ingrates, drug users, or worse, free thinkers, rather than guided automatons with eternal respect for their revered elders

American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?

So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.

But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.

Gerber offers these basic principles:

  • basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner
  • an environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing
  • time for uninterrupted play
  • freedom to explore and interact with other infants
  • involvement of the child in all care-giving activities to allow them to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient
  • sensitive observation of the child to understand their needs
  • consistency and clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline

Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.

Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.

According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?

Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.

This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!

Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:

  • As parents, our role in our baby’s development is primarily trust
  • Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as her model of love and the ideal she’ll seek for future intimate bonds
  • The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are
  • Grieving people want and need to be heard, not fixed
  • A nice bedtime habit to start with your child is to recapture the day… You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, present and future and gives her life a connected flow
  • Since our lifespan is getting longer, why not slow down?
  • We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing
  • Babies are dependent, not helpless
  • “Readiness is when they [the baby] do it.” “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it himself.”
  • Instead of teaching words, use them
  • “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to”
  • Purposefully inflicting pain on a child can not be done with love

4/5