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Who’s your favorite superhero? Is it Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Captain America? Whether you have a favorite or not, we all recognize these fantasy heroes. Fascinatingly, each one of these outsized, larger-than-life icons made their original debut during the doomy period of the Great Depression and World War ll, a time when millions felt helplessly oppressed by world-crumbling circumstances beyond their control. Stoked by the dual needs for escapism and an identifiable rescuing figure, real or not, someone who’d right all wrongs, these heroes filled the bill and the theater seats. And their appeal lives on.
Commemorating Our First Heroes
As a young, hero-worshipping child, I thought there wasn’t a thing my parents couldn’t do, fix, or remedy. My mother was an ever-resourceful Wonder Woman, and my father, a cape-less Superman. Most of us, as young children, were fortunate enough to have had “good enough” parents whom we could put on a pedestal. However, if our parents were our first heroes, what defined them as such and what exactly were they supposed to do with their lofty status and unbounded powers? Were they merely to provide a steady stream of creature comforts—a dependable stock of consumable goods, from iPads to Hot Pockets? And specifically, how were they to discharge their heroic duties, or less dramatically, their obligations to us?
Dispensing “Emotional Supplies”
Developmental theorists Borzomenyi-Nagy and James Masterson have proposed compelling, readily comprehensible answers to these pertinent questions. They convincingly reason that parents are obligated to deliver, in a timely and appropriate manner, “vital emotional supplies” that, in effect, facilitate an “activating environment” wherein the child’s inherent potentials can unfurl, come to life, and flourish. These vital emotional supplies are easily recognized; they are the expected parental bestowments of safety, trust, protection, communication, understanding, respect, emotional support, fun guidance, praise, encouragement, limit-setting, and so on.
But there’s one huge caveat: Parents rarely, if ever, dole out their “emotional nutrients” in a manner perfectly tailored to each of the developmental needs of their individual children. In fact, wouldn’t you agree that ideal parents are the temporary occupants of the imaginations of small children, otherwise, they are illusory, or visionary, and exist only in the abstract as to how parents should be? If their existence extends beyond the idealizations of early childhood, it’s because we’d like to see their perfection, not because it actually exists.
More likely than not, the child’s tendency to cast their parents in heroic roles slowly diminishes as young children mature into adolescence and adulthood. Indeed, adolescents and young adults are often notoriously quick to point out the flaws, foibles, and various peccadillos of their less-than-ideal parents. And justifiably so, as parental emotional provisions are, in fact, sine quo non for optimal emotional development. So, at the risk of sounding parent-condemning—which I believe is futile and a topic for a different post—weren’t we all short-changed at least one, and very likely more than one, of these emotional supplies?
Or, conversely, in many cases, one or more of these supplies was over-provided. For example, a child’s need for safety and protection when oversupplied can leave the child with a view of themself as personally vulnerable, inadequate, or both. Whether our emotional provisions were under- or over-supplied, either way, our development can be skewed, negatively impacted, or otherwise diverted off the path of optimal development.
“It Takes a Village”
In defense of us parents, clearly there is no economy of time and/or energy attending the humongous responsibilities of raising a child well. As rewarding as parenting is, and indeed, it rewards at one of the highest levels of fulfillment, nonetheless, parental resources are constantly under demand and easily depleted. Given the strength, depth, diversity, and the sometimes-complex nature of the needs of children bring to their parents, it might take a cadre of expert caregivers, even an entire community of them, to do the job ideally. Hence, the outcry among overwhelmed parents everywhere who wail, “Children don’t come with an instruction manual!” Further, do you think the job of parenting ever ends, gets done completely, or ideally? And how many other jobs come with these same towering expectations?
Survey the Damage From the Past
Because the job of parenting is rarely, if ever, complete or perfect, it is incumbent upon us as adults to thoroughly self-inspect as to what we were and were not given. Harder still, we must shoulder the “obligatory” responsibility of learning how to provide these missing ingredients to ourselves. In different terms, to further our growth and development, we must learn to become for ourselves the parent we never fully had, lest the past’s deficiencies retain their delimiting grip on us. Arguably, our parents only began the work of our development; they didn’t complete it. Further, those we’re now closest to, who know us best and do their best to love us, must live with, tolerate, or are forced to endure these underdeveloped or non-developed aspects of ourselves. Imagine their relief, but also their respect for us, as we take on this gargantuan, challenging, but very laudable task of repairing the defects of our past by donning the mantle of the optimal parent.
The Language of Love, a Metaphor
If your parents spoke more than one language and spoke each one to you as you grew up, chances are, because of the way our brains are hard-wired, you learned each of these languages and with relatively little, if any, effort. However, if you were exposed to only one language, as most of us were, learning a second language as an adult will probably require considerable effort. In a similar sense, our parents spoke to us in a “language of love” articulated through this critical dispensing of their growth-spurring emotional provisions. Now, as adults, it contributes significantly to how we “speak” to ourselves—our own “language of self-love.”
For example, if our parents were wise and generous in dosing us with their praise, it’s more likely than not that we’ll be proportionately praising of ourselves. Conversely, if parental praise was scarce or non-existent, we may not be capable of self-praise or we may downplay or dismiss the praise of others. Moreover, the lingering “hangovers” or aftereffects of these deficiencies and defects in the original parental supplies now become our maturational “unfinished business” and therefore our “duty” to rectify so that we might become an ideal parent to ourselves—the parent we didn’t ‘t fully have—again, our own heroes.
A Daunting But Highly Rewarding Task
So, exactly how do we tackle this challenging task of reparenting ourselves? It can be accomplished by taking upon ourselves a Socratic attitude of “know thyself,” beginning with this now-familiar question: “What did I need emotionally from my parents that I didn’t get or that I didn’t get enough?” For instance, one client reported, “My parents gave me plenty of encouragement, they told me I could accomplish anything, and I am grateful to them for their encouragement. However, they didn’t provide any guidance: this I’m learning to do for myself.”
Here’s another example, a personal case in point: My father, who was one of 12 children, grew up on a farm in Northern Utah. As you might imagine, parental attention was spread rather thinly over himself and his siblings. Unfortunately, but understandably, his portion was too often a meager rationing. Because, my father learned to be extraordinarily independent: he took great pride in his own initiatives and most often politely pushed aside any support or counsel from family or friends.
When it came to parenting me, this same value topped his list of the things he thought he needed to instill in me. I remember feeling the warm glow of his approval when he observed me acting independently or when I took initiatives of my own. While independence and initiative are positive qualities, when done in excess or when acted on in a manner that forecloses the invaluable input, feedback, or counsel of knowledgeable or caring others, it can become a personal liability. For instance, my long arduous journey through the rigors of academia would have been less bumpy, much smoother, and considerably faster had I availed myself of more support and guidance. Now, to be a more thorough parent to myself—my own hero—I very deliberately and purposely make a conscious effort to ask for feedback, suggestions, and any other form of help, especially from my wife, While not always easy, when successful, my efforts have paid off richly.
Survey the damage of your past. What did you need but may not have gotten or got enough? What do you need to do for yourself to complete your own parenting? And how might these efforts pay emotional dividends for both you and those you’re closest to?