“The right way to wholeness,” Jung wrote, “is full of fateful detours and wrong turnings.” And yet many mothers worry that there is a right way and a wrong way to parent. We spend time reading books and blogs. We listen to podcasts, and pay for expert advice, which is often contradictory.
Of course, there are general approaches in parenting that are superior to others, but we do ourselves a disservice when we overestimate our ability to control outcomes when it comes to parenting. Our children enter the world with their own distinct personalities and inclinations. Environmental factors that are out of our control shape their lives further. And even when we parent with intention, how can we know for certain what effect our efforts will have? Any parent of more than one child knows that the parenting technique that works wonders with one child has an entirely different effect on another child.
Though I am not advocating against parenting thoughtfully and with intention, I do think it is important to remember that we our ability to purposefully shape our children through our parenting has its limitations. Sometimes the ways in which are children are influenced are quite unintended.
Patricia was raised by a single, alcoholic mother. Due to heavy drinking and erratic behavior, Patricia’s mother had difficulty keeping a job. The two of them moved frequently, and Patricia recalls that life was chaotic and unpredictable. Every now and again, she would stay with her father and his wife and children. Her father’s family lived a much more stable life. “The children always had clean clothes. They lived in a house, and it was neat and orderly. When I stayed with them, we ate together at the dining room table.”
From these brief visits with her father, Patricia learned that there was another way of living than that she knew with her mother. “I remember being very young – maybe around ten years old – and realizing all of sudden that my mother was kind of a wreck. I loved her, but I knew she wasn’t taking good care of me, and that a different kind of life was possible. Somewhere inside of me, I resolved to myself that I was going to create that different life for myself just as soon as I could.”
Patricia became a stellar student. She excelled in school, and advocated for herself successfully. She was skipped a grade, allowing her to graduate and leave home to attend college when she was barely 17, and had a PhD by 25. Today, she is highly respected in her field.
Though her chaotic early life took its toll, she can look back and see that the deficits of her childhood also created a firm resolve in her to take advantage of the opportunities life offered her.
This is a common theme in fairy tales as well. One of the central paradoxes of psychic life is that it is often the witches, dragons, and ogres that stand in our way that eventually lead us to into a discovery of our own depths. It is no coincidence that the confrontation with these dark elements almost always leads to a discovery of the treasure.
In the Hungarian fairy tale “The Boy Who Could Keep a Secret,” a child is beaten by his mother, and sits crying.
For a long time the child sat sobbing, and the noise was heard by the king as he was driving by. ‘Go and see who it is that is crying so,’ said he to one of his servants, and the man went. In a few minutes he returned saying: ‘Your Majesty, it is a little boy who is kneeling there sobbing because his mother has beaten him.’
‘Bring him to me at once,’ commanded the monarch, ‘and tell him that it is the king who sends for him, and that he has never cried in all his life and cannot bear anyone else to do so.’ On receiving this message the boy dried his tears and went with the servant to the royal carriage. ‘Will you be my son?’ asked the king.
By the end of the tale, the boy has become the King of Hungary, and he acknowledges his gratitude to his mother for the beating that set him out on his path. “If you had not beaten me, nothing would have happened that has happened, and I would not now be King of Hungary.” The mother’s beatings were in fact the thing that set him on his hero’s journey.
Of course, we shouldn’t beat our children! And parental alcoholism has well-documented negative effects on children. But the fairy tale makes it clear that we can’t always predict with certainty the outcomes – either positive or negative – of our parenting interventions. The day to day cultivation of a human personality is such a complex task that there can’t possibly be one right way.
To learn more about how fairy tales help us understand ourselves better, join my mailing list.