Not long ago, my now-adult daughter called from New York to let me know about a medical scare she was facing. She assured me that she was handling it, had the best doctor, and was confident about the outcome. I could sense her concern, though, beneath her surface calm. I wished I could do something, and was troubled by knowing that I couldn’t.
That event triggered a memory of an event that occurred more than two decades earlier. It made me reflect on what we do as parents that affect how our children will deal with uncertainties and unknowns that lie ahead in their lives. But it also reminded me that children have some innate “adult” powers that we haven’t fully recognized.
It happened one morning in early spring. We were sitting at the airport, waiting for the plane to begin boarding. My daughter was going fly alone. It wasn’t the first time she had flown, but on this trip she would be unaccompanied, and would meet her mother in another city. She was excited about it, but was also scared about going alone.
We sat side-by-side in the airport lounge, where we could look through the large windows at the baggage loading and refueling activity outside. She began peppering me with unnerving questions — like why planes crashed, how frequently, and whether I knew that this one would be safe. Oddly, though, each time she asked I thought I detected a faint, sly grin, followed by a quick sideways glance with her twinkling blue eyes. I sensed that she was feeling something she couldn’t quite express, beyond her fears. Maybe was looking to me to affirm whatever that was, if only I could tune into it.
Then suddenly, it was boarding time. We rose together, and she hugged me tightly. “I’m still scared, Daddy,” she murmured quietly. Quickly reviewing my parental options, I thought of something: I reached into my pocket and found a quarter. I told her that this was a Magic Quarter that I kept for situations like these. As long as she held it in her hand, she would be completely safe. Then, then she would feel free to have fun on the trip.
She gripped it tightly in her little fist, and with a solemn look, but still with that odd glint in her eye, marched down the boarding ramp. She continued looking back at me, waving until she was out of sight.
Driving along the Potomac River back into Washington, I kept thinking about what had happened. I felt there was something meaningful in her sly grin. Perhaps she sensed that the trip could be fun, a new adventure, and not just a bundle of fears. At the time, I wasn’t sure, but if so, maybe the Magic Quarter provided the bridge. Maybe she knew the real “magic” was the nascent power within her.
Today, I think that moment illuminated something that’s often unrecognized in our understanding of both children and adults: That there are innate “adult” powers within the child that are the foundation for a psychologically healthy adulthood. But the parenting the child receives, as well as the norms and rewards the culture provides, can deform those powers.
Let me explain. Mental health practitioners and the general public alike often speak of a “wounded child” within the adult; that a healthy adulthood requires healing that “inner child” and building good coping skills and competencies. That’s certainly true, for many people. But I think psychological health includes more than healing early damage and successfully adjusting to the conditions you’re in. Those enable you to be functional in society, but can also fuel one’s “default mode” of self-centeredness and self-absorption to an extreme degree. Just check out the daily news.
Missing from that picture are the capacities for embracing new possibilities and challenges in life. A spirit of adventure, fun and confidence in the face of the unknowns that lie ahead in your life path. Going against the grain in decisions and values. Creating positive, mutual connections with diverse people. And, knowing who you are inside — independent of the pressures to adapt to a “self” that may bring external reward but also feels alien and inauthentic.
In short, reverse the notion that there’s a child within the adult. Consider that there is also an adult within the child.
Think of how the seeds of a flower contain everything that’s needed to sprout, grow and bloom into its full form. Similarly, the infant isn’t a blank slate. Here are three adult powers within the child:
You’re innately empathic
This is the rudimentary form of the adult capacity for mutuality and compassion. Empathy is the basis for experiencing others’ feelings, desires and conflicts, and moving beyond your tendency to view the world only through your own lens. Research shows you can observe empathy within the emotional experiences and behavior of infants and small children. In fact, we now know that empathy is hard-wired, in the mirror-neurons.
You can rebound from adversity
The child has the capacity to bounce back from loss, trauma, or abuse. Research confirms this, even for abused and emotionally damaged children. What helps is when a child has or seeks out a role model who provides inspiration to carry him or her through the damaging experience. The child who heals was able to construct a vision of hope and change, beyond the damaging experience. That’s the basis for the adult capacity for creative flexibility and proactive behavior in the face of change, whether positive or negative. That’s what I’ve described in previous posts as the proactive “new resiliency” needed in our current world.
You know your ‘true’ self
This is the child’s capacity to recognize the differences or boundaries between his or her emotional states, needs, and desires, and those of others. That’s the foundation for the adult capacity for self-definition, for being the “author” who’s writing the “story” of your life. That self-definition helps you let go of the social conditioning that tends to shape your values and beliefs, and that also underlies the choices at work and in relationships that often result in pain and conflict. It’s the basis for defining your own goals and values, independent of the pull from social pressures or rewards.
Of course, these adult capacities can and do become deformed, arrested or squashed, depending on parenting, inherited temperamental and other circumstances. For example, empathy can be short-circuited by abusive experiences or extreme reward. (see some celebrities or sports stars). Resilience can turn into hopelessness and despair if the child is unable to visualize a hopeful possibility for the future. And your true self can be deformed by an increasing gap between your socially-adapted false self and your more authentic “secret self,” especially if the child is pressured or rewarded to comply too much or too easily with life situations that are stifling or disappointing.
In fact, the latter underlies many of the feelings of meaningless and lifelessness that often erupt in the form of the “midlife crisis.” It also underlies the recent, seemingly contradictory findings that the mature adult years show an increase in reported happiness, on the one hand, and depression – including suicide – on the other.
The parents’ behavior is crucial to whether the adult-within-the-child flourishes, deforms or becomes arrested. Some parents are more able than others to support growth. Some are indifferent, or affirm the wrong things because of their own unconscious, unresolved conflicts. As Jung once wrote, “Nothing has a greater impact on children than the unlived lives of their parents.” Research confirms this. Children report that being subjected to humiliation and disrespect, not listened to, and put in embarrassing situations have the most significant impact on them.
Looking back to that event at the airport, I think my daughter was trying to let me know – perhaps with only dim awareness — that she wanted to experience this new adventure as fun; not just cope with her anxiety about it. As her father, my challenge was to recognize and affirm that. The worst affirmation would have been to give her the message that her fears should be her main focus, or imply that life is just one long series of anxieties. Or, that her task was to endure the fears and sadness, but without any spirit of fun or adventure to trump them.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t so aware of any of that at the time. But maybe the Magic Quarter help ease her anxieties, and — if she was “on” to it, as I suspected — opened the door to her drawing on her own budding “adult” capacities.
Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that youth is “life as yet untouched by tragedy.” Well, youth seems to end awfully early these days, in our world. Like many, my daughter has traversed her own ups and downs as she moved into her adult years. But her medical crisis did resolve…without any “magic.”
She did keep that Magic Quarter for several years, in a little box along with other coins and items accumulated through childhood and adolescence. As in Chris Van Allstein’s classic children’s book, The Polar Express, when the child eventually became unable to hear the Christmas bell that only children could hear, eventually she could no longer tell – or cared — which quarter had once been the “magic” one.
Just as it should be.