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.


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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  • 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.


  • 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

  • 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

  • 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!


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