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Wednesday, 23 August 2006 00:00

Use Eagles if Necessary, Chapter 21: Ways to Screw Up Kids

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When children are growing up their parents are omnipotent, so it is safe to say they will have enormous impact on their children’s emotional development. When environmentally caused problems arise, a parent is probably — at least partially — responsible, either directly or indirectly.

A direct example of responsibility would be a man who never hugged or kissed his daughter. It should not be a surprise, then, if she grew up believing she was not all that lovable by men. An indirect example would be a mother who dies in a car accident when her son is 6 years old. She couldn’t prevent the accident but her death will adversely affect his emotional make-up, at least to some degree, for the rest of his life. As a child of my parents; as a parent of four children; after 30 years as a psychoanalyst; and over 60 years as a life observer, I’ve experienced the power parents have over their offsprings’ psyches.


There are so many ways to screw up kids that dozens of books couldn’t hold them all so we’ll only hit a few highlights. Remember my North-South theory that so upset the man from Boston that he grabbed his wife and left the party? The following theory could clear out Fenway Park. It came to me early in my practice and upset me. I tried not to believe it, but I saw so much evidence that I know it’s true. Many (perhaps most) parents do not want their children to be better than they are — emotionally. In other words, they don’t want their kids to be happier than them!

It’s fine with these parents if the kids have better educations, get better jobs, have bigger houses, and drive more expensive cars. It’s not only fine; it’s a source of parental pride, “My son the doctor.”

But if a child is anxiety free, upbeat and loving life, his parents will not be pleased unless they are the same way. If not, they will attempt to bring him back down to their emotional level. The relationship between the parents and their children becomes competitive. If the child winds up in a happier, more compatible marriage than theirs, that will drive them around the bend.

This “Don’t be happier than I am” syndrome begins when the kids are growing up and acquiring individual personalities, but it’s easiest to observe when they become adults. They are free to leave the physical realm of their parents’ household, but if they try to leave the parents’ emotional nest, the parents act like they’ve been slapped. This unfortunate human trait functions, of course, at the unconscious level. Probably no parents alive are consciously aware of not wanting their kids to be happier than they are, but the evidence is pervasive.

“Jack” had passed the Ohio Bar Exam and was very pleased with himself. He had achieved a major goal and was now armed and ready for adult life. Because he was an exceptionally bright guy he had skated through the academics of college and law school and also had a very good time partying. This partying was a source of constant irritation to his father, who took pride in his work ethic and sobriety. Jack came home with his good news and called out, “Hey, Dad, I passed the bar!” Without hesitation his father said, “That’s the only bar you ever passed.” Witty, yes, but it stung Jack and put him back under his father’s vigilant scrutiny. The message was clear — don’t be so happy and proud of yourself. You’re still irresponsible as far as I am concerned. Dad was jealous.

“Ed” brought “Cheryl” home to have dinner with his parents, whose marriage had lost its joy years ago. He’d told his parents earlier that day that she was the girl of his dreams and he hoped to marry her. At dinner Ed’s mom asked Cheryl where they’d met. Cheryl said that she and her friends had been to a rock concert and were standing next to Ed and his friends. “Oh,” said Ed’s mother, “so you were a pick-up?” Mom just nailed her daughter-in-law to be. Ed, by the way, had already told his mother where they’d met.

Ed and Cheryl did marry but as you can imagine the relationship between Ed’s mother and wife was strained. This was a constant irritant for Ed and he dreaded the times the two women in his life were together. His mother would not let up. Once when visiting she said, “Cheryl, let me fix breakfast. I know exactly how my Eddie likes his eggs,” implying that Cheryl didn’t. Ed, of course, should have told his mother to butt out but he wouldn’t/couldn’t, which pissed off Cheryl. Mom, meanwhile, was having a grand time keeping her Eddie and his marriage off balance, unconsciously wishing it would deteriorate like her own.

A psychoanalytic adage states the best way to treat kids is with “benign neglect.” This is debatable when kids are little but it certainly is true when they’ve left home as adults. Don’t call them. Let them call you.

The Mixed Message

The mixed message is an eye-crosser which probably does more damage than any other factor in raising kids. Jealousy toward one’s children is a classic mixed message. The parents say they want only the best for their children yet the kids feel the jealousy when they marry soul mates and lead lives that are relatively stress free. It will be no time at all before the parents are complaining about their own lives and marriages, thus throwing cold water on their children’s happiness.

Telling your kids you are going to do something, and then doing the opposite is a mixed message. “Tomorrow we’re going to the zoo. Won’t that be fun?” But when tomorrow comes there’s too much work to be done around the house, “But we’ll go sometime soon.” Set ‘em up – knock ‘em down.

“Daddy loves you so much, you’re the most important person in the world to me,” says daddy. But the little girl thinks, “But Daddy works all the time and I rarely see him and, besides, isn’t Mommy supposed to be the most important person in the world to him?” (A wise person once said, “The most important thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother.”)

No child of any age can fathom the following: “Mommy says she loves me and daddy says he loves me but they no longer love each other and are getting divorced. They used to love each other, what happened? What have I done wrong?” Want to screw up your kids? Get divorced. It’s a high-powered mixed message with unending fallout. The kids’ will be affected always, at least to some degree, blaming themselves for the failed marriage.

If you are a sober, responsible and loving person all day and a staggering, speech slurring, abusive drunk at night, you are a walking mixed message unto yourself and to your children.

Following is a litany of things not to say: A divorced mother to her child, “Of course it’s good for you to visit your father. I just hate every minute you are not with me. All I do is cry ‘til you come back. Now go and have fun.” (Sure, kid, try to have fun while mommy’s home crying.)

“No one will ever love you as much as I do.” (You’re screwed, kid.)

The child has been told often that cheating and lying are bad. Once I heard an acquaintance answer a waitress’s question, as she pointed to her child, “How old is your daughter?” The kid, I knew, was 7. The mother answered, “6,” so her child’s breakfast would be free. (You should have seen the little girl’s face.)

A parent says to his 20-something son, “I enjoyed talking to your girlfriend, she seems like a nice person. Did she go to college?” (Zap.)

“I want only what’s best for you, and nobody knows what’s best for you better than me,” says dad. (“Oh, oh,” thinks the kid.)

“You can accomplish whatever you put your mind to.” (Excuse me?)

“You can be whoever you want to be, just don’t ever forget where you came from.” (Huh?)

Tell a kid to do something, notice that he didn’t do it, and let it pass. Or tell a kid not to do something, watch him do it, and say nothing. Mixed messages not only cross eyes they confuse little minds. “What am I supposed to do, or not do, really?” they ask. “Who is the boss around here anyway? Not me, I hope, I’m too young.” Mixed massages are very harmful to kids.

When I was a kid I had an annual mixed message every fall when visiting my grandparent’s farm. My grandfather took particular pride in his chickens. He had the healthiest, best looking flock for miles around. Everybody said, “Ed Wurtz sure loves his chickens.” Yet every autumn I watched him catch his chickens, then chop their heads off on a wooden block, dip their carcasses in boiling water and pluck their feathers. I loved my grandfather but was understandably ambivalent about wanting him to love me.

Encouraging Oedipus

When kids are around 4 or 5 years old, and again around puberty, you will recall they are especially attracted to their parents of the opposite sex. The wise parents gently, but firmly, rebuff the child’s overtures so he or she will emulate and identify with the parent of the same sex.

But many parents are not wise and instead of gently rebuffing they encourage this newfound, semi-erotic, attention. A colleague had a patient who, when she was a little girl, told her daddy she wanted to marry him when she grew up. This was a perfectly normal, rational statement for a 5-year-old to make. But the father, instead of saying something like, “That makes me happy, Honey, but I’m already married to mommy,” went out and bought his daughter an engagement ring. She delightedly wore the ring for months until one day she overheard her father laughing about it to friends. Twenty years later she still recalled her pain and shame.

I had a patient whose divorced mother began inspecting his penis at age 4, “Just to make sure it’s growing.” She continued to do this until her son was 12 when he finally got up the courage to tell her to stop. He grappled with his sexuality, and his anger toward women in general, for many years.

You’d be surprised how many parents sleep in the same bed with their children of the opposite sex claiming nothing sexual ever takes place. Even if this is true, and I believe it is in most cases, it’s still a bad idea. It’s an inappropriate setting, encouraging the Oedipal attraction.

This hardly needs to be said, but it’s so important that it cannot be emphasized enough. If you really want to mess with your kid’s mind, and leave an emotional wound that will never heal, act out with that child sexually. This is not only a mixed message that will destroy a spirit, it is a mortal sin. Incest is frighteningly common (in all economic brackets) between father and daughter and older brother with younger sister. So, too, is implied incestual desires from mothers to their sons, although it is rare that they go “all the way.”

There are lots of other ways to screw up the Oedipal phase besides engagement rings, penis checking and acting upon your child’s (and your) sexual attraction. Allowing your kid of the opposite sex to see you naked, if only briefly, is seductive and inappropriate and should be avoided. A two-second glimpse of a parent’s crotch, breasts, derriere or penis is a mind photo that will last a lifetime.

On the flip side of the Oedipal conflict are those parents who react harshly to the overtures of their children of the opposite sex. Fathers are the main culprits here. They get distant with their daughters or they bark at them. When the second Oedipal phase comes along at puberty, frightened by his feelings, a father may make statements like, “Women are air-heads,” or other words denigrating their daughter’s gender. They may criticize their daughter’s dress, call her a slut, make fun of her looks, and belittle her friends. Sometimes they get heavy handed with their daughters, which is a counter-phobic display of their real feelings. Mothers usually do better with the flip side of Oedipus. They do not have to “push” their boys away as much as fathers do their daughters.

How parents handle the Oedipal Conflict will affect their children for the rest of their lives, just like the other stages of psychological development. But Oedipus is key in preparing children for the ultimate and most important adult relationship — marriage. Again, the key guideline is to gently but firmly push the child toward the parent of the same sex. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Gently but firmly. Almost a paradox.

Of course the question is now begged: “What about in cases of death or divorce, where there’s only one parent in the home?” This is indeed a problem. Call in the grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbors, teachers and preachers who can pinch-hit as adult role models. They will help to lessen the mess the divorce or death has created in a child’s emotional system. But lessen is all they can do.

When parents get divorced they should never denigrate an ex-spouse in front of the children. Trashing their mother or father is a terrible thing to do to children. When they become adults the kids can figure out themselves what went wrong with the marriage, if they choose to do so. Meanwhile, bite your tongue. (Good luck.)

Let’s be Friends

Another sure-fire way to confuse a kid is to become his “buddy.” Kids cannot empathize with or understand the experience level of their parents. For parents to regress to the child’s level is suspicious (what is their emotional age?) and unfair to the child. Kids need their folks to be firmly established as adult role models into which they can grow.

Parents cannot be friends with their kids until they are at least grownup and permanently gone from the nest. Even then, it’s an iffy proposition. Kids and parents of all ages should have their own friends. That’s the best way to grow and continue to grow.

A classic culprit is the Little League dad who gets upset at his son, the other kids (on both teams), the other parents, the umpires, and the coaches. When things aren’t going as he wishes, he begins yelling and generally making an ass of himself. He becomes one more 10-year-old on the playground and is an embarrassment to his child. Parents at Little League games should be there for one reason — to cheer!

I had women patients whose mothers made them into friends at an early age. Their mothers’ idea of friendship was having a person they could tell their troubles to. Can you imagine a mother complaining about her lot in life to 6-year-old daughter? Happens all the time, much to the daughter’s detriment. One of my patients, by the time she entered puberty, had gone beyond being mom’s friend. She had become mom’s mom. The child assumed the role of parent to the emotionally infantile mother and thus was cheated out of having a parent herself. She had no one to turn to in her times of crisis or stress. She not only had to mother her moth, she also had to mother herself. This is wrong.

I had a male patient who grew up in 1960s in what was supposed to be a psychologically enlightened family. There was no discipline and from his earliest years he was treated as an equal by his parents. He was told to address them by their first names. During his high school years he “acted out” with truancies, lousy grades, and scrapes with the law regarding alcohol and drugs. He got a classmate pregnant. Whenever his parents learned of these transgressions they simply cried. My patient became a sociopath in adulthood. He had nothing but scorn for society, which, to him, was merely a replacement of his flawed parents.

Kids need to be with other kids. Receiving verbal abuse, getting feelings hurt, being chastised and teased is best when it comes from other kids. So, too, is being praised. Friends are important for children and in many ways are better preparers for adult life than adults.

You’re My Favorite

If there is more than one child in the family parents should never tell one of them that he or she is their favorite. This is a cruel thing to do to that kid. His sibling(s) will resent him and the pressures to continue to be the favorite takes a toll. One of my male patients was frequently told by his mother that he was her favorite, but that it was a secret and made him promise not to tell the others. Of course he did tell — how could he not, he was a kid. When they became adults he was the one who needed therapy. His siblings were fine. In reality, parents may very well have a favorite child, probably the one who’s least like them. They must keep this information to themselves.


One of my patients, “Marie,” was a 42-year-old attorney. Her parents had tried for years to have a child without success and eventually decided to adopt. Marie was three days old when they brought her home. During the many years of childlessness the parents raised Yorkshire Terriers as a hobby, showing them at AKC functions around the South. The bitch that won the most prizes was named “Honey.” Marie told me that she hated Honey because Honey got 10 times more attention than she did. “You should have seen how they fawned over her — grooming, bathing, petting, kissing. Hell, they never even touched me.”

Coincidentally (I’m sure) I had another attorney patient named “Dan.” Dan described his father as being very harsh with him over the least infraction and often took off his belt and wailed away at Dan and his two brothers. “He was the most unbending, unloving bastard who ever lived,” Dan said.

I asked him if his father ever showed kindness. “Yes,” he said, “But only to his dog. The goddamned thing could shit in the middle of the kitchen floor and my father thought it was funny. My brothers and I would have to clean it up, of course. I hated that fucking mutt.”

If there are pets in the house when children are growing up those pets should belong to the children, not the parents. Sibling rivalries cause enough frustration; a kid should not have to compete with an animal for the parents’ love and attention.

Sticks and Stones

Can break my bones but words will never hurt me. This saying could take top prize for being the dumbest of all.

Following are some statements that were made to my patients by their parents:

“I wish you were never born.”

“You will never amount to anything.”

“You are a slut.”

“You’re just plain stupid.”

“Why can’t you be like your brother (sister)?”

“I really don’t know where you came from.”

“You’re a loser.”

“You have a terrible personality.”

“You’ll be miserable all your life.”

“There’s nothing lovable about you.”

“You’re the most selfish person I know.”

The emotional mind is programmed by statements like these, which leave an indelible mark. Words cannot only hurt children, they can kill them — emotionally.

I don’t know a therapist who has not had the following experience. The phone rings and it is a parent, usually a mother, who wants to make an appointment for her child. The therapist wisely says, “Why don’t you come in first and tell me about your child? Then we’ll see how to proceed.”

The mom shows up, talks for perhaps three minutes about her kid then inevitably segues the conversation onto herself and her problems. Months later she will still be talking about herself, never mentioning her child. This is how it should be. Few kids need psychotherapy. If a child is screwed up, his or her parents should seek help to gain insight into their own problems. They’ll then discover what is really going on with their kid.

Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at, and may be ordered through bookstores.


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