“The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self”, by Alice Miller, was a great favorite book among the Unitarians -- whose children are always above average. The Above Average Child is a favorite trope of middle-class aspiring families who have read many Sunday supplement stories about prodigies who became famous -- and made a lot of money. These are the two favorite indices of success for people who want to be recognized and praised, but -- alas -- they aren’t always markers of true achievement, especially in today’s world. Today the book is selling very well in Japan where children are urged to score high on tests, attend the “best” schools, and get powerful jobs. The pressure goes up, along with the suicide rate.
The “this” child and the “that” child -- the Oversensitive Child, the Hurt Child, the Gifted Child, the Slow child. I was fooling around with Google trying to find out more about the child who is 6 to 9 (adrenarche) a relatively neglected research group but not in the storybooks I read at that age. Nearly all the heroes and heroines were about straight-sided (pre-adolescent), plucky, overmatched, but eventually triumphant children. The girls were equally tough and resourceful as the boys but I paid no attention to gender anyway. Often stories were about preadolescent kids caught in the extraordinary circumstances of the frontier or war. A favorite example was the group of seven children whose parents died on the Oregon Trail. Even when their oxen died, the children put the last of their belongings into a kind of wheelbarrow improvised from the wagon, and kept on until they made it.
My report cards from primary school label me a “Weeping Child.” No one asked me why I wept and no one did anything about it. Reading these stories helped. I can’t remember why I wept. They said I was Oversensitive. Some have suggested the trope of “the Hurt Child,” which seems to come from the disability community and maybe groups like cancer survivors. It suggests grief for one’s own physical losses and limitations, a sense of inadequacy, and a need to be understood. Now no doubt the Hurt Child would include sex abuse victims, which are such a surprisingly big proportion of survivors. Part of my problem was unrecognized near-sightedness. I was less hurt than aggrieved and pouting. I became an “Armored Child,” stoic and self-contained. I use myself as the main example because I can’t tell you about the people I know who share these roles, though they are legion.
The Overburdened Child is defined as the child trying to survive divorce, both by managing their own fear and confusion, by trying to parent younger siblings, and by trying hard to repair the marriage and the hurt of the parents. I have a hunch that the characteristics apply as well to the children of come-and-go battling marriages, addict or alcoholic marriages, loveless marriages, compromise marriages, and households that don’t involve any marriages, just a lot of passing-through non-contributing incompetent adults -- addicts or felons.
These days kids often try to take care of each other, believing that adults simply don’t understand -- which can be quite true. Anyway, adults work, sometimes two or three jobs, and are exhausted when they are home. Kids will try to counsel their adults, according to what they pick up from TV shows; try to broker peace agreements; try to enforce some kind of dependability and to exclude unwelcome sex partners.
Studies of the children of divorce that extended over decades revealed surprisingly harsh consequences for a long period of time -- not just for the children but also for the adults, especially women, partly because of the economic hit. The kids carried a deep fear of betrayal, because adults had let them down so many times. They were self-deprecating even when they were driven achievers, because they were so used to coming home proudly after winning a prize and then being torn down to the ground by jealous or controlling adults. Like a car stuck in mud, they rocked forward and backward between compliance and defiance but never escaped the trap.
By the time I was in high school, I was no longer a quiet weeper -- by then I sometimes exploded in desperate tantrums under the pressure of classwork, dramatics participation, and family tension. My day started at 5AM, listening for the fate of Hungary (this is the mid-Fifties) while I did homework. Then school (I walked two miles -- no snow, just rain), then rehearsal, and in the evening stage crew building sets. My father was baffled in his life by the unrecognized damage of a closed-skull head trauma. His job kept him on the road. My mother was resuming college, having realized she would probably have to support the family with a teaching degree. I was convinced that the atomic bomb would be dropped on Portland. My report cards were straight A’s with a few B’s and it was the B’s that were addressed. I felt responsible for it all, but helpless.
Adults who make demands on their children, even unspoken ones, but do not respond to the needs of the child, force the child to become the caretaker. In adulthood the children often continue to be rescuers, burdened rescuers who never feel as though they’ve managed to do enough. I think my parents were this way and passed it on. Their parents were part of the rural generation that moved to the city but never quite succeeded there. No one even considered divorce. I don’t think divorce is the only marker. My parents had a huge taboo on quarreling. I don’t think quarreling is the only marker. My parents never beat us or sexually abused us. That’s not the only marker.
The marker is subjective: the felt burden on the child to make things better. Bob Scriver certainly felt it. He was his “mother’s boy,” and when she was unhappy -- and consequently when I was unhappy -- he was almost fawning, offering small gifts. The rest of the time he was oblivious. His family was oblivious to everything but success (as socially defined) or trouble (also socially defined). They found him totally unmanageable and mysterious -- one of those “artist fellers.” Both of us were self-centered enough to protect ourselves with a shell (Armored Children), which didn’t work out when we tried to share lives. We were both workaholics to the point of damaging our health, him more than me. We became porcupine children, even skunk children sometimes, but always beavers.
Categories like “Hurt Child,” “Abandoned Child,” “Gifted Child,” and “Overburdened Child” are helpful to the extent they provide a way to combine and conceptualize observations and feelings so that they can be addressed. Shrugging them off with denial or exceptionalism (“that’s just the way they are”), keeps people stuck in place, always yearning for their “true self.” And the truth is that there are many ways to be true to yourself: they are as much built as found. Each child is a Unique Child.