We’ve probably all been through it at some point in our childhood, greeted at a door by a smiling adult for whatever reason, and later feeling trapped with that adult having a grumpy mood and we no longer felt welcome. We know how that feels as adults, but I think we’ve forgotten what it feels like as children who haven’t yet learned why adults feel grumpy (headache or pain spike, bad phone call, depression problems, alcoholism, child predator, this list could be endless) and have no way to express yet how this feels like a personal affront. Once that feeling hits, the trapped child goes into trapped child mode, which can include becoming very quiet and ignoring requests, even hiding, or possibly running around like a little terror. Many adults miss seeing the moment this is triggered, and very few understand they did the triggering. After that happens, the adult turns into an exasperated person, and exasperated people resort to trickery and bribes, yelling and threatening, sometimes even physical roughness that the child has no way of understanding. Why is it even happening? The adult was so nice at the door. Now the adult is being mean, and there is no way out, no way to escape this adult. What the child cannot connect is that the adult is struggling with bigger factors and displacing the frustration onto the child.
I was surrounded by that growing up. Adults back in the 60s were expected to be harsh and hostile and deprecating to children. It wasn’t looked at like that, no. It was called discipline. If you were to treat coworkers like that you’d get in trouble. If you were to treat strangers in stores like that while you’re shopping, everyone would hate you. But it’s ok to treat small children like that and not notice they are feeling trapped and tricked and dumped on.
I was very young when I first told my mom she looked sad. She denied it, of course. You never saw her sad in pictures. Everyone she met thought she was nice and sweet, maybe a bit dogmatic about her faith, but still the picture of virtue. And she really was, until she was alone on a bad day with a small child and didn’t know what else to do. Back then there was no social media for context with other moms, no webMD for fears and anxieties about childhood illnesses and disorders, no parenting memes for laughs. There was no support network. And on bad days, bless her heart, things got pretty ugly from this small child’s viewpoint.
I have some exceptionally sad memories I can never be free of, and I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve tried talking my feelings out, the depression and anger issues that rose, but it didn’t help solve anything. I will always feel sad and angry about some things that happened. I’m old and wise now, and I know that all of us feel this way. I know we all bump heads on bad days, and that different age points of view don’t always understand the other. I know it’s a normal human thing to go through painful misunderstandings, and that the years of figuring it all out are part of our learning process.
But along the way, I’ve also noticed some families seem to get through it better than others, and over more time I noticed that many of the misunderstanding issues seem to be peer related. That is, my generation in particular was the first to break through a worldwide societal norm regarding the way children are treated. While genders and ethnicities and others have openly fought for their dignities through recent history, so have children. It probably didn’t help that Flower Power and drugs were the most visible catalyst, but it was everywhere and it really did empower younger people to stand up to excessive standardized bullying from their parents.
One common phrase from teens that could ignite instant hateful sputtering from adults was “What’s your hang up, man?” And the hang up was always the one asking, right, but we knew deep down the adult was displacing whole loads of squashed feels onto the kid asking, like it was all their fault for being impudent. I realized somewhere in my teens that my mom kept pushing me out where she dared not go because expectations wouldn’t allow it, and that my venturing forth was her wish to escape her own bonds. She didn’t hesitate to call me a bad mother when I had my own child, but neither did she hold me back from the things she herself secretly wished she’d been able to do. I was in my 40s before I realized she didn’t understand her own psychology and turned everything into a dichotomy with me. We never had an honest talk together in our lives.
What’s my hang up? That my mother couldn’t be honest about her own feelings and forced me to hide mine. Back then, being honest about how people felt inside was bad. The generation before me came from a very different world where surviving meant sucking up to the ones above who could squash you like a bug. Wearing your best clothes, being your most polite was the way to survive, no matter how you were treated. The generation before theirs came from a generation that could be incarcerated with little or no warning for made up offences, even capital punishment over silly things like being the wrong skin color or being accused of witchcraft or being friends with a political enemy. When you come from an era of instant punishment and death all around you, you walk the straight line and force your children to walk it so they’ll survive. Over time, we’ve lost that reason as a connection to the behavior, and the generation below me doesn’t even know or remember all that. Still, there is an undercurrent in society to hide our flaws, hide our feels, present with masks, and play the games right.
My parents’ generation believed children must be broken in order for them to learn to obey. This was part and parcel of religion and even politics. Many cultures still follow this principle. The reasons may have changed over time, but it came from an urgent need to protect children from hostile actions taken by religions and governments. I came from the ‘better dead than red’ era, which I find extremely distasteful, but knowing people who fled their governments even in my own time, I got it. I get the need for urgency in disciplining children when there really is urgency. What I don’t get is that it’s a lifestyle that continues long after the need is over. Discipline needs to be redefined for some younger parents so they don’t recreate the very atmosphere my generation overcame.
Social pressure paramounts to social fallout. I’m not saying take all the pressure off. In fact, I think humans find ways to shine under pressure that turn ordinary folk into superheroes.
By the way, I love language usage research, and paramounts is an acceptable verb from the 1600s. We verb so many words nowadays that I hold no apology for the way I enjoy writing.
And that’s a great place to stop and move along.