The Job of Parents

by Dr. Marc Gafni

What is the role of parents in the Unique Self development of the child? The parent’s ultimate mission is to ensure that the child knows — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that they are infinitely special, that their ray of light is unique and precious to the planet. The parent needs to reflect the child’s gorgeousness back to them in a loving gaze or quiet words of confirmation, to be a prism that refracts to the child the infinite love that God feels for them.

Parents and lovers can’t and don’t need to make us beautiful — but they can and must remind us that we already are. Being so reminded, we become even more beautiful than before. In reminding us, they move us through the ultimately motivating power of love, to express our beauty in our every step.

God had partners in making God’s myriad masterpieces — God’s partners are parents. “Three partners are there in creation,” read the wisdom texts, “mother, father, and God.”

Our first lovers in this world are our parents. Parents are at center stage of our love lives for many crucial years. A parent’s obligation to a child is, above all, love.

“What to do with a child who has fallen under negative influence?” the parents asked Master Israel of the Good name. “Love them more,” the master responded.

Ideally, the goal of the parent is to provide the child with the certainty of Being necessary to find their own Unique Self. To recognize the Unique Self of the child is often beyond the ken of the parent. A stable and loving environment is the parents’ responsibility, but Unique Self perception may be beyond even their loving scope.

This is what Kahlil Gibran was getting at in his oft-cited verse from The Prophet:

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
 For they have their own thoughts. 
 You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
 For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Letting Alone — Like Soil for the Soul

In what I regard as one of the most important psychological essays of the twentieth century, Donald Winnicott writes that the job of a parent is to make the child feel safe in their aloneness. I remember growing up with a great dread of bedtime, a horror of the dark, and the terror of being left alone. My mother tells me that when she tucked me in, I would beg her, “Talk! Talk!” even after the exhaustion of every subject, I would think of ploy after ploy to get her to stay. Finally, we would agree that she would sit in the hallway outside of my door until I was sleeping.

Such scenes feature in hallways the world over. Slowly, lovingly, the parent must move away from the bedside, allowing the alone space into their child’s life. “Love” is the critical word here. If the child feels loved by the parents independently of all the parents’ agendas — if the child feels loved and not used — then the child will feel safe in their alone space.

If the parents cannot communicate a sense of loving safety to the child, then this alone space will be terrifying. The child will be in constant need of parental presence, and will learn to behave in a way that will ensure that attention. The child then begins to be motivated by the need to win the approval of Mom and Dad. This unleashes a dynamic that is one of the great underminers of Unique Self. Winning behavior, which keeps Mom and Dad close, is repeated time after time, until it becomes a second skin.

Eventually, the child — who is us not so long ago — develops a false self. The motivating goal of this false self is to be embraced by the parents in a special way, to know that the parents are proud of them and will keep them safe. This is the hope that if I am good enough, my parent won’t leave my bedside — that the embrace will always be there. The false self is the polar opposite of a Unique Self. It is not the self of the child — it is the persona that the child sees reflected in the parents’ eyes.

Being alone — beyond the reach of the parents’ eyes yet not beyond the reach of their love — is seen by Winnicott as critical to the individuation of the child. It is only under these circumstances that authentic uniqueness can emerge. Winnicott intuitively understands Unique Self theory. Although he does not phrase it in this language, he implicitly understands that the role of the parent is to provide a safe context for the child to unfold their Unique Self.

Can I Make My Children Happy?

The weakness, however, in Winnicott’s argument is the all-too-accepted premise that Unique Self is formed exclusively in the early years of life. Here, Unique Self pull theory takes issue, and suggests that just as every baby is born with a unique DNA code and fingerprints, every baby is also born with a Unique Self. The role of the parents therefore is neither to be a decisive factor in Unique Self formation nor even to bear the essential responsibility of Unique Self perception. The parents are superfluous in Unique Self formation, for the child is already born with a Unique Self.

Moreover, the parents cannot be expected to hear the call of the child’s muse. It is, after all, the child’s muse and not the parents’. The sole and critical job of the parents is to provide a framework in which the child feels sufficiently powerful, adequate, and dignified to hear the call themselves. The call of the parent is not the call of the daemon.

Parents are not responsible or capable of ensuring their children’s happiness. The idea that they are is simply not true. The empirical evidence for this is overwhelming. We all know kids from genuinely good families who are miserably unhappy, sometimes even tragically ending their own lives. We also know of many children raised in the most unhappy circumstances who are able to build productive, stable, and happy lives.

Happiness is a function of whether we are living our Unique Self, and not who our parents might be. I am happy if I am living my Unique Self. Remember our earlier discussion in the chapter on joy. Joy is a natural by-product of living your Unique Self. I am unhappy if I am living a false soul print, foisted on me by my parents or anyone else, for that matter. There is nothing more dangerous to children than the unlived lives of parents.

The poet Rilke writes this about parents’ unlived personalities: “Since they have several faces, you might wonder what they do with the other ones. They keep them in storage. Their children will wear them.”

If we don’t want our children to be saddled with our unexpressed faces, the most important present we can give them is the alone space to choose their path, seek their soul, and make their own faces.

Erich Fromm wrote on this subject that “the mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”

The kabbalists referred to this loving movement as tzim tzum, which means “contraction” or “withdrawal.” To paraphrase the mystical tradition:

Just as an all-powerful God stepped back to allow the world to choose, even if the world chose against God, so too must all-powerful parents step back to allow the child to choose, even if the child chooses against the parent.

Or as John Wolfenden said, “parents exist to be grown out of.”

The essence of biblical-myth thought on this aspect of the child/parent dynamic is captured in two short citations. The psalmist writes, “Mother and father leave me, and God gathers me up.” This refers not to the tragedy of abandonment and the comforting succor of God in tragic circumstances. It rather describes the necessary and healthy process of development. Mother and father must leave me “alone” — in the Winnicott sense of the word — in order for me to respond to my call of divinity. And I must let them leave. I must begin that bedside conversation with the daemon that enters the room as soon as my parent steps into the hall.

This is an excerpt from Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment by Dr. Marc Gafni
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