Monthly Archives: October 2013

The New Victorian Childhood: Tiger Mothers and Constant Testing

We think of ourselves as much more civilized than the Victorians, who sent their children to the mills or factories, or to work as chimney sweeps.  Thankfully, child labour has been banned, at least in most of the Western world. (Unfortunately, it seems it has simply been outsourced, like our factories… and call centres.)

But the Victorian legacy of depriving children of a childhood lives on… in the Tiger Mothers around the world, and in my local patch of North London, the obsession with schools, results, and cramming knowledge into children at the earliest possible age — ballet/piano/chess/foreign languages/maths/gymnastics etc.

We don’t expect our children to earn a living anymore, but we do expect them to carry our banner into the world.  And sometimes, it can be a very heavy banner indeed.  Especially if it they need to compete with lots of other children who are equally charged with carrying their parent’s banner into the playground, sports field, ice rink or classroom.

I have heard many stories about the degree of expectation parents (and their proxies, teachers) load on kids — in terms of achievement at school (and outside it) and how, at pivotal moments in their English school career —  at 7,  the 11 plus, 13, GCSE’s and A levels —  the pressure gets cranked up to 11.  I’ve heard of parents berating their children publicly about their failure to be in the top three in their class, and the children’s shame and subsequent envy and jealousy of those who effortlessly succeed and who have displaced them in their parent’s eyes.

Self-confessed (and proud) Tiger Mothers have chosen to drive their kids to fulfil their own standards of success.  But with other parents it isn’t so clear this is a conscious choice.  I believe what mostly happens is that parents/teachers/schools get caught up in something, a kind of anxious feverish thoughtlessness.

Of course, we all know parents who see their children as an extension of themselves, not as separate beings.  And we’re probably familiar with mothers who feel their children are their raison d’etre, their life project.  They’ve given up their careers, so their children have to be amazing. Still other parents are terrified their children will be failures, or perhaps just not very successful.

But if we paid exclusive attention to such factors, we’d miss the wood for the trees.  Because this anxious fever which affects parents/teachers/schools about  grades and “achievement” is part of a larger cultural phenomenon.

All these things are important because of what “They” think.  “They” know our schools are rubbish and our kids are falling behind.  “They” are all desperate and will do anything to get their kids into the best schools.  “They” all push their kids as if there’s no tomorrow.  “They” will look down on us and pity us if our kids don’t achieve.

This “they,” which Heidegger talks about in his Being and Time, as “das Man,”  is translated in a variety of ways, as “one,” “people,” but I think in English the most evocative version is the “They.”

When we’re not thinking for ourselves, we do what “one” does, what “they” do.  We’re loathe to do things which we imagine will offend or upset “them.”   The “They” functions as a kind of authority which regulates our lives, an authority which is located… everywhere and nowhere.  It’s always easiest for us to do what “one” does.  We don’t have to think.

It’s not only parents who are subject to this “They.”   But it’s telling that even in relation to their own children it’s so powerful.  Powerful enough to overcome their own instincts to protect and nourish their children.  To override their own sense of what a childhood should be.

It’s always a struggle to free yourself from the ever-present (at least in our heads) “They.”  For Heidegger, it was the battle to achieve authenticity.

This struggle is an essential part of therapy.  Because as long as you’re caught up in what “They” think, what “one” should do, pleasing “them,” you simply don’t have room for your own thoughts, your own desires, your own goals.

I have seen this struggle in mothers in my practice, as the unhappiness of their children at school forces them to begin to question the whole system that creates this unhappiness, this driven-ness, competition, envy, jealousy, etc.

We need to be reminded that there is a time to every season, and our children need time to be children.

Michael Gove’s (the Education Minister) drive to test, test, test so that teachers and schools can be kept under the cosh of their latest test results, puts even more pressure on children.   Isn’t this, however well-intentioned,  a manifestation of the Victorian workhouse mentality?

I’ve just been reading David Copperfield, in which David’s ability to learn is reduced in accordance with the pressure that is put on him.  If there are tests that matter to schools and teachers, children will be taught to pass them.  The more frequent the tests, the more school time and effort is devoted to this.

Has Michael Gove come to think that teaching children to pass tests is real education?

For of course, this isn’t the case. Real education involves enabling people to free themselves from the “They,” from what “one” does and thinks.  Real education enables people to think and feel for themselves.  Sadly, it’s not something governments, or frequently parents, rate or prize.

In Memory of Sigmund Freud

To my shame, I never knew about this poem by W.H. Auden, until I heard Alexander McCall Smith talk about it today on Radio 4.   In the interests of not perpetuating my ignorance, I’m posting it here:

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
     to the critique of a whole epoch
   the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
     who knew it was never enough but
   hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
     so many plausible young futures
   with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
     of problems like relatives gathered
   puzzled and jealous about our dying. 

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
     and shades that still waited to enter
   the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
     to go back to the earth in London,
   an important Jew who died in exile.

Only Hate was happy, hoping to augment
his practice now, and his dingy clientele
     who think they can be cured by killing
   and covering the garden with ashes.

They are still alive, but in a world he changed
simply by looking back with no false regrets;
     all he did was to remember
   like the old and be honest like children.

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past
     like a poetry lesson till sooner
   or later it faltered at the line where

long ago the accusations had begun,
and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
     how rich life had been and how silly,
   and was life-forgiven and more humble,

able to approach the Future as a friend
without a wardrobe of excuses, without
     a set mask of rectitude or an 
   embarrassing over-familiar gesture.

No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
in his technique of unsettlement foresaw
     the fall of princes, the collapse of
   their lucrative patterns of frustration:

if he succeeded, why, the Generalised Life
would become impossible, the monolith
     of State be broken and prevented
   the co-operation of avengers.

Of course they called on God, but he went his way
down among the lost people like Dante, down
     to the stinking fosse where the injured
   lead the ugly life of the rejected,

and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
     our dishonest mood of denial,
   the concupiscence of the oppressor.

If some traces of the autocratic pose,
the paternal strictness he distrusted, still
     clung to his utterance and features,
   it was a protective coloration

for one who'd lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
     to us he is no more a person
   now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives:
Like weather he can only hinder or help,
     the proud can still be proud but find it
   a little harder, the tyrant tries to

make do with him but doesn't care for him much:
he quietly surrounds all our habits of growth
     and extends, till the tired in even
   the remotest miserable duchy

have felt the change in their bones and are cheered
till the child, unlucky in his little State,
     some hearth where freedom is excluded,
   a hive whose honey is fear and worry,

feels calmer now and somehow assured of escape,
while, as they lie in the grass of our neglect, 
     so many long-forgotten objects
   revealed by his undiscouraged shining

are returned to us and made precious again;
games we had thought we must drop as we grew up,
     little noises we dared not laugh at,
   faces we made when no one was looking.

But he wishes us more than this. To be free
is often to be lonely. He would unite
     the unequal moieties fractured
   by our own well-meaning sense of justice,

would restore to the larger the wit and will 
the smaller possesses but can only use
     for arid disputes, would give back to
   the son the mother's richness of feeling:

but he would have us remember most of all 
to be enthusiastic over the night,
     not only for the sense of wonder
   it alone has to offer, but also

because it needs our love. With large sad eyes
its delectable creatures look up and beg
     us dumbly to ask them to follow:
   they are exiles who long for the future

that lives in our power, they too would rejoice
if allowed to serve enlightenment like him,
     even to bear our cry of 'Judas', 
   as he did and all must bear who serve it.One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
     sad is Eros, builder of cities,
   and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

Out of Lock Step: Saving your Marriage From the Past

In my last blog, (http://wp.me/p3ryZ0-1F) I spoke about how couples can find themselves glued together in a shared and anguished mutual misery, both partners repeating (and attempting to resolve) earlier experiences with founding others.

A large part of this experience is of desperate incomprehension, incomprehension that one can be treated this way. Especially by someone you love.  This incomprehension (like most incomprehension) is a defence against taking on the reality that something is being acted out between the two partners, which has very little to do with their actual relationship, and much more to do with their past models of love.

It’s not that couples in this state don’t have glimpses of this truth.  They’ll often say to one another “I’m not your mother!”  or “you’re acting just like a child/my father!”

But these moments of insight don’t deepen and widen. Rather, they seem to end up encapsulated in this limited accusation, not leading to a larger awareness which could make a difference.  I’ve always been interested in the mechanism that keeps these moments of insight contained.

Because if it wasn’t there, couples would experience an increasing consciousness of the larger state of affairs, and a beginning of a possibility of different action.

A big part of the problem is a demand that partners in a couple can easily get caught up in — the demand that the other person change.  This is what often brings people to couples therapy.  There will be lip service given to the idea that it takes two to tango and that both parties might be making some contribution to the difficulty between them — but there will be a stated or unstated demand from both partners that you agree that the other is to blame and therefore needs to change.

If your desired outcome is that the other take all responsibility and change — not act like your mother/father/sibling etc. — then an awareness that you might be contributing to them acting out this role is surplus to requirements.  It goes against one’s primal desire to have the founding other recognize their harmful actions and make restitution for them.  (This primal desire for the restoration of no less than Justice is powerful portrayed in Greek tragedies like Euripides’ Orestes.) And so moments of insight — “I feel just like when I was a child with my wife…” — get shredded and disposed of.

It’s important to see the power behind the process of getting rid of the evidence of one’s own culpability, because it is this same power that makes it difficult to really take on the responsibility for one’s action of projecting one’s past onto one’s partner and the ways one “brings out” the worse in one’s partner.  It’s what makes couples therapy difficult — otherwise you could just point out to a couple the obvious patterns they’re replaying and the matter would be done with.  (Or both partners could simply read this blog — much cheaper and less painful!)

In couples therapy, as indeed in all therapy, it isn’t just knowledge of what is going on that is required.  There has to be a recognition that being caught up in the demand that the other change disempowers you, making you a child and a plaything of your unconscious wishes.  It makes you stupid, unempathetic, unloving.

The more you see this, the more you want to take back the power you’ve given away, so that you can become again the loving, sympathetic partner you were at the start of the relationship.

After that, it’s just hard work, and hard-won and small revelations and victories. These take the form of an accumulation of ordinary moments where you are able to make different choices — choices that are not determined by the past but by the future you want to create. The gradual self-empowering that enables you to win the ability to make these different choices allows you to rediscover the partner with whom you originally wanted to spend time, and a sense of proportion and humour.

This is what therapists call “working through,” and it’s the bulk of a couples therapy.