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They are so big and we are so little. Who? Parents, of course, when we are children. I was thinking about childhood the other day and the formative power that parents have over us. Yes, nature may incline our temperament this way or that, but nothing shapes us—for better or worse—like our moms, dads, and early caretakers.
Take size differential. We’re small and vulnerable, and they’re large and powerful. For years, we can’t even reach the top of a dresser or counter and are dependent on them to do physically what we cannot—including, during infancy and early childhood, feeding us. If they recognize and welcome our total, fragile emotional and physical dependence on them, we learn we can get our needs met by others. If not, well, we’re left with needs unmet and a sense of utter helplessness, distrust, failure, and despair.
Then there are all the things they know that we don’t—a stove burner can be hot, cars move too fast to stop quickly, how to tie shoe laces, the best way to carve a face on a pumpkin, what to wear in the snow. Because our brains are not fully developed, when it comes to how much we know as youngsters, the answer is not so much. We think our parents are amazingly wise because they can drive a car, multiply in their heads, explain how an airplane can fly like a bird, and hit a home run. They have so much to teach us. If they are willing and patient, we learn what they know and become proud of our growing wisdom. If not, we feel stupid and flail about learning by trial and error.
Most importantly, they provide us with a view of who we are, our identity. Depending on how they’ve been taught to feel about themselves, they imbue us with their take on the world (which we naturally, erroneously assume is fact)—it’s a safe or unsafe place, people can or can’t be trusted, humans have inherent worth or must be productive to be valued, emotions are scary or informative. How they interact with us defines our sense of self. Treated well, we believe we are of value and value ourselves. Treated poorly, we assume we don’t deserve much because we’re defective and not worth fixing.
We cannot help but be dependent on parents and, little sponges that we necessarily are, believe what they tell us. But as we mature, a shift occurs. They’re not so big any more and we’re not so small. Our brains are as good as (or better) at figuring out things than theirs are. Our experience or knowledge proves our parents wrong. Our ability to grow and thrive is equal to or better than theirs. We are no longer dependent on them, have our own power, and can take pride in caring for ourselves.
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