The Loneliness of Children

I am fascinated by the ways in which people can offer each other support. I include in support expressions of care and reassurance, deep listening and validating another’s subjective experience, but I also include hard-to-hear feedback, meaningful but challenging questions, and even silence — if that silence conveys confidence in the other person’s capacity to handle their own problems. There are as many variations on these themes as there are conversations.

We all have preferences for the kinds of support that strengthen us and help us remember who we are. It is interesting that people in leadership roles, even as they complain about others and express through their tone how unsupported they feel, will when confronted often deny the need for any support at all. For sure, this is a defensive reaction to the idea that needing support is a weakness and therefore something that cannot be acknowledged.

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I believe it’s possible to trace this denial of needs back to the culture, to the strange ideas about community and friendship and support built into our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps culture. And it often starts in the culture of families.

I remember growing up I had a music teacher, Mr. __________. I went to his house for clarinet lessons every week when I was about ten years old. One day when I arrived I found his wife and their daughter waiting for Mr.___________ to come out of his last lesson. The daughter needed to play a passage for him on her violin. While we all waited together, she practiced, and to my young ears played beautifully. It was hard to imagine someone close to my own age that accomplished. Eventually, Mr._________ got out of his lesson and he asked me to wait while he listened to her play. Now more nervous in front of her father, the girl’s playing suffered slightly. He immediately interrupted her playing with loud, stern, impatient criticisms. When Mr. __________’s wife attempted to intervene, since the daughter was obviously getting more and more upset at his corrections, Mr. ___________ became even more demanding. “She needs to learn how to play under pressure,” he shouted at his wife. Turning to the girl, his foot already tapping the expected beat of the passage, he pronounced: “Now play it!” She tried once again, but in the middle he turned without saying anything, using his eyes to tell me it was time for my own lesson to start, and simply walked away from his daughter. I had to wonder how many times that day she’d tried to play the passage for him.

I guess this must have been his form of support, toughening her up for adult trials she might one day face. Of course, it told me a lot about what to expect from him, but I would say he was at least two or three times harder on his daughter than he was on me (except for the wrath I experienced some years later when I dropped out of the band class he conducted). After that scene with the daughter, I felt very lucky about life. At least Mr.___________ wasn’t my parent.

I’m sure a case can be made for pushing children beyond their self-perceived limits, but what a lonely space can also be created. What a need for ultimate approval and accomplishment. What a desire to stand out in order just to be seen as a person.

No one walks with this child. No one accompanies this little girl or little boy. And then these children grow up and become all kinds of accomplished people, some of whom lead and manage — and expect that others, just like themselves, should have no support at all.

Oh, I know this all too simplistic. There’s no such absolute cause and effect relationship, at least not in child rearing. A child might just as well learn to swallow their own needs by taking over for parents who are overwhelmed or inept. And he or she might just as well grow up into someone who is constantly supporting others, trying to get what was missed by giving it to others. One way or another, however, the subjectivity of the person has been damaged.

The nightmare is what this damage does later in organizations. The analytical boss who believes it’s his divine right to poke holes in everything anyone else creates. The perfectionistic micro-manager who can’t allow herself to delegate or foster others’ potentials. The insecure professional who has to dominate every meeting with her intelligence. The smooth CEO who trusts no one and who no one trusts in return. All these children, all with a vulnerability, an inner loneliness, who ostensibly do not want to be accompanied or witnessed or supported in any real way. We can say, well, they hunger for it inside, and sometimes they do. But the truth is also that many live their scars and make a kind of success out of it at the expense of others and the world.

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6 Comments

  • You nailed this syndrome for sure Dan. It isn’t just “children”. It’s actually a very human response at any age to become hyper focused on the yelling and the criticism and perform even worse.

    I did theater for many years. During one audition, the director kept interrupting me – a very rare occurrence. Generally you just do your thing and then they decide.

    The result was terrible and quite honestly I had no desire to work with that director.

    Micro-managers and nit pickers can tell themselves they are doing it for others’ good. Yet a focus on only one side of any coin leaves the other side unseen.

    Balance is key to see the truth. Let’s teach these teachers/leaders the essence of yin/yang.

    Kate

  • Dear Kate~

    Thanks for commenting!

    And right on. We need to be aware of how colossally demoralizing it to be criticized and yelled at — even in the name of “toughening someone up” — and how much “fusion” might be involved in that project. Fusion is a term I learned from psychologist David Schnarch. It means taking over — as property — the mindset and behavior of others. Usually, then, there’s a lot of anger and destructiveness as the other person behaves in ways that are not an extension of the person who is fused. Partners can become fused to each other; parents, in particular, can become fused to their children. Many managers and leaders are so fused to those who report to them that they become irate and take personally any small mistake or lapse. Because the person who is fused is often not good at giving themselves any meaningful positive support, they can hardly offer it to anyone who works for them, even when the mistake is inadvertent and the person wants to learn.

    The opposite is helping people “differentiate,” meaning fostering and supporting them to become their best selves.

    Like you, I’ve also had experiences with people who wanted to nitpick my work. I’ll never forget the time a potential client asked to correct the content of my overheads for a presentation I’ve done about a zillion times. Luckily, before he did it became quite clear I wasn’t the right person to be of service to him and we parted ways. And I can tell you, I feel sorry for the people who had to work for this guy. Although he was vice-president of a very successful engineering company, he seemed quite uninterested in others’ views. He knew better than anyone around him and was stocked to the rafters with judgments of others inadequacies. Ironically, I won’t forget his office, as it was covered with pictures drawn for him by his grandchildren. I’ve always wondered if he treated them the same way as he treated the folks who worked for him.

    And it makes me wonder, what happened to him? Which is the real point of my post.

    Thanks again for your fine words, Kate. It’s always a boon to find your comments here.

    All the best
    Dan

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar wrote:

    Hi Dan,

    Interesting article, made me remember a quote “you can’t choose your boss or parents”.

    Do you believe in choice or chance? Are we born to people in random or for some reason? is it just chance or something more?

    I remember reading a story of two brothers, who had a very difficult childhood. The father was alcoholic & abusive to both & had a profound impact on their mind & subsequent future. One brother grew up to become a criminal like his father while other ended up becoming a prominent & respectable authority in society. Once a reporter doing a piece on his story asked both of them to state the reason for being what they have become.

    The bother who ended up bad justified himself by saying “what else you expect from a person who has seen such horrible childhood, I am what I am because of my upbringing, my father.”

    when reporter asked same question from his brother, he replied,” I am what I am because of my upbringing, my father. I in my childhood decided I do not want to be like my father & therefore have to become a better person.”

    Not sure if this story is true, but is interesting.

    Conditions are powerful, no doubt to that, but as Covey said, “there lies a space between stimulus & response called choice”

    thanks for sharing, have a great day ahead :-)

  • The student must be ready, because teachers are appearing.

    I just finished reading an article in The Atlantic on The Case for Nagging Kids about their Homework, in which Lisa Endlich Heffernan offers a middle way between a very hands-on “helicopter parenting” style and the more hands-off style of relying solely on natural consequences to do the teaching. I imagine there are implications for this in the managing of direct reports in the workplace as well as children in the home (& school) places.

    As a parent, I’ve been struggling with balance you articulate here between the warm & fuzzy variants of support – care, listening & validation – with the tougher forms of love – asking challenging questions and offering hard-to-hear feedback.

    Your reference to Schnarch’s notion of fusion – and its applicability to parents (or supervisors in the workplace) – in a previous comment is further illuminating.

    In the workplace, I recently experienced a challenging episode where a peer was incessantly interrupting & correcting me and crossing boundaries in other dimensions as we “collaborated” on a paper. Your thoughts here offer me an opportunity to reflect on how this person’s actions may be a reflection of their own upbringing … which, in turn, offers me an opportunity to practice more compassion (which was not the foremost emotion I was experiencing at the time).

  • Dear Gurmeet~

    Your story is a good one, highlighting the deep question of who much conditioning is in charge, and how much personal choice. I believe, reflection, which is the foundation of conscious choice, is a powerful first step to undoing some of what may have been done to us.

    Yet, thinking of leaders I know, it is clear that for most of us, choice and conditioning are intertwined vines. Some part of reflection and ownership may be quite painful. Consequently, we look at one reason at a time for the way we are and the choices we’ve made. And we are all too prone to giving ourselves credit for things that are part of cultural privilege or pure chance, just as we may blame others such as caregivers for our own failings.

    In my experience, untangling the vines usually takes time and the support of others. It can’t simply be thought, and it probably won’t be done alone. If it could, compassion would mean little in the process of personal growth and fostering the growth of others.

    Thank you so much for stopping by and for your very thought-provoking comment, Gurmeet!

    All the best to you
    Dan

  • Dear Joe~

    It’s tough in the moment to ask, “What happened to to him (or to her)?” when on the receiving end of abrasive behavior. The problem is that it isn’t just behavior; it’s a mind-set that might very well have roots in the person’s conditioning as a child, just your own reactions (or mine) have roots in our own pasts, too.

    This does not mean we are fixed and final in who we are or who others are, although there can be fear there. These events are destined to raise interior questions, and out of them growth emotions that can be uncomfortable: anger, annoyance, frustration, disappointment, etc. etc. All too often our conditioning suggests we should figure out how to suppress those emotions or decide what to do with the other person, when the deeper question is about what to do with ourselves. Compassion in both directions, perhaps, builds the strongest platform for change.

    All the best, and thanks again, Joe!

    ~Dan

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