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How Smart People Become Foolish Parents

parents photo A client came to me for help dealing with her “bratty” six-year-old. The kid was acting out at school and at home. She stated that she was confident that she had done all the right things. She had been a progressive parent who read poetry to her child while the boy was still in her womb. She had eaten nutritious meals while pregnant and had been a taught the child to add before he was two years old.

“I don’t know why he’s acting the way he is,” she complained. “Everybody has always told me I am a confident and competent person. But I can’t figure out why he’s being such a brat at school and even at home with my husband and me.”

When I observed mother and child in my office I noticed the mother’s tone of voice. Whenever she addressed her boy, she did so in an angry, exasperated tone of voice. Her body language indicated that she was fed up and disappointed with him. He reacted by running around the room and disregarding anything she said.

This mother was clearly intelligent and self-confident, but she did not have the ability to be self-objective. It is the latter that caused the problem with her son. She was not aware of the effect her tone of voice and body language were having on her son. Hence she was unable to mold him the way she would like to have molded him.

This is an example of how you can have a high IQ but a low emotional IQ. Self-confidence is often confused with healthy self-esteem. They are not at all the same. Self-confidence is a faith in yourself and your abilities. Healthy self-esteem is respect for your abilities based on self-objectivity. You can be self-confident based on faith in yourself, but that faith can come from parents who had unconditional faith in you. Hence you can develop confidence in yourself based on your parents narcissism rather than on reality.

People who have narcissistic personality disorder are often supremely confident. They become high-achievers and their achievements are proof to them of their omniscience. Once, at a family reunion, a grown-up son was crying because his mother was going to move to a foreign country. The rich father’s attitude was to berate the son for excessive emotion and weakness. When I, a health professional, attempted to intervene, he dismissed me, confident that he knew best about all things.

Today this confident man is estranged from his son and daughter. He was more interested in making money than being a parent. His confidence came from being rich. I thought that because he was rich he was superior in all ways, including in parenting. However, he was so busy making money that he had almost no relationship with his children, and when they became young adults they both stopped speaking to him.

A mother who also suffered from narcissism thought she was being a good mother by micromanaging her daughter. She thought she was teaching her daughter how to behave in a way that she thought would be beneficial to her. But, in fact, she was so critical and controlling that she made the daughter grow up to doubt her abilities. As an adult, she incorporated her mother’s critical voice in her head and was thus over-critical of herself.

What this mother was unconscious of was her competitive feelings toward this daughter. The mother was an attractive woman who had been spoiled as a child by being always made the center of attention. She was unconsciously competitive toward her daughter, even interfering with her relation with her father, fearing that her daughter would steal the center of attention away from her. However, she was unaware of her deeper feelings.

Self-objectivity is hard to accomplish. Even though wise people, from ancient times onward, have advocated it, few people seem to take it seriously. “This above all: to thine own self be true,” Shakespeare said, “And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” There seems to be a human tendency to believe we are right and to not look at ourselves objectively. This tendency prevents us from being true to ourselves and others.

Is it possible to learn to be self-objective? Although self-objectivity is something that is best learned when we are young, passed on by self-objective parents, it can be learned later on, but the learning is difficult. It requires going through a process such as psychotherapy, wherein we are guided towards looking at difficult things about ourselves that cause problems for us and for others.

For example, in therapy the mother I described in the beginning of this piece did not want to explore how she might be adversely affecting her eight-year-old son. I could not directly tell her she was not self-objective or that she was causing her son to be disrespectful and uncooperative. Instead, I had to be patient and wait until I could guide her into figuring that out for herself. Sometimes it takes years for a person to do that. Sometimes it never happens.

Parents today are often very bright and confident, but like the parents described above, their intelligence and confidence can sometimes be a detriment if they lack emotional intelligence. Their self-confidence must be combined with healthy self-esteem based on self-objectivity. Confidence without healthy self-esteem and self-objectivity is an illusion. It is an illusion that can cause great harm to children. A child whose confidence is based on faith rather than on reality becomes a shell of a person who does not really know herself or himself and cannot operate healthily in the world.

How Smart People Become Foolish Parents

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). How Smart People Become Foolish Parents. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Jun 2018
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