Do childhood traumas inevitably twist and warp a person in the adult years?
No. Difficult childhoods leave some people wounded and disadvantaged. But for others, they fuel great achievement and success. The difference appears to be a function of individual temperament and resourcefulness.
In a classic study called "Cradles of Eminence," Victor and Mildred Goertzel investigated the home backgrounds of 400 highly successful people.
The researchers sought to identify the early experiences that may have contributed to remarkable achievement. All of the subjects were well-known for their accomplishments; they included Einstein, Freud, Churchill and many others.
The backgrounds of these people proved very interesting. Three-fourths of them came from troubled childhoods, enduring poverty, broken homes or parental abuse. One-fourth had physical handicaps. Most of those who became writers and playwrights had watched their own parents embroiled in psychological dramas of one sort or another.
The researchers concluded that the need to compensate for disadvantages was a major factor in the drive toward personal achievement.
One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon is seen in the life first lady. Orphaned at 10, she underwent a childhood of utter anguish. She was very homely and never felt she really belonged to anybody.
According to Victor Wilson of the Newhouse News Service, "She was a rather humorless introvert, a young woman unbelievably shy, unable to overcome her personal insecurity and with a conviction of her own inadequacy."
The world knows, however, that Mrs. Roosevelt rose above her emotional shackles. As Wilson said, "from some inner wellspring, Mrs. Roosevelt summoned a tough, unyielding courage, tempered by remarkable self-control and self-discipline." That "inner wellspring" has another appropriate name: compensation!
Obviously, one's attitude toward a handicap determines its effect on his or her life. It has become popular to blame adverse circumstances for irresponsible behavior, i.e., poverty causes crime, broken homes produce juvenile delinquents, a sick society imposes drug addiction on its youth.
There is some truth in this assumption, because people in those difficult circumstances are more likely to behave in destructive ways. But they are not forced to do so.
To say that adverse conditions "cause" irresponsible behavior is to remove all responsibility from the shoulders of the individual. The excuse is hollow. We must each decide what we will do with inner doubt or outer hardship.
The application to an individual family should be obvious. If a child has gone through a traumatic experience or is physically disadvantaged, his or her parents need not give up hope. They should identify his or her strengths and natural abilities, which can be used to overcome the hurdle. The problem that seems so formidable today may become the inspiration for greatness tomorrow.
You have described two extremes that are both harmful to kids being too permissive and being too harsh. Which is the most common error in Western cultures today?
Permissiveness is still more common and has been since the 1950s. But harshness and severity still occur frequently as well.
These dual dangers are equally harmful to children and were described by Marguerite and Willard Beecher in their book "Parents on the Run." This is how they saw the two extremes:
"The adult-centered home of yesteryear made parents the masters and children their slaves. The child-centered home of today has made parents the slaves and children the masters. There is no true cooperation in any master-slave relationship, and therefore no democracy.
"Neither the restrictive-authoritative technique of rearing children nor the newer 'anything goes' technique develop the genius within the individual, because neither trains him to be self-reliant. The way to raise healthy children is to find the safety of the middle ground between disciplinary extremes."