The Family, The World
Identity Co-Created in Childhood
My mother-in-law gazed with me at the hilarious delighted crawling of our 9-month old. She said, “It’s so nice watching them now – they become self-conscious so soon”. She was right. Soon that new little person began looking at us to see if we were watching her, and we reinforced the habit because we usually were. She could make us laugh, or get a hug, or occasionally a redirect if she got too near the cat food dish.
Our reflection back to her was a comment on her behaviour. Enough times repeated and it became, for both her and for us as parents, a shared statement about who she is. Mutual smiles, or words: “What a smart girl”, “what a funny girl”, and on and on. So the identity laid on the child with facial expressions and words (some call them ‘labels’), was co-created as the child interacts with a consistent caregiver.
Beginning to Try Out New Identities
Children play-act all sorts of identities. Big strong man, pirate, builder, king; princess, mother, shopkeeper, teacher. “You be the dog”, was always a bit of a put-down but in a generous crowd, you eventually got to be father.
There may come a point, and the timing varies greatly, when the child begins to unilaterally and more self-consciously try a wider range of behaviours. A vignette comes to mind: we came upon a 9-year old we knew well, in a location blocks from home, who was talking eye-to-eye with a squirrel, in the pose of a keen-eyed observer. He glanced over, didn’t acknowledge us, and continued the earnestly interested pose, slightly exaggerated. His father was a radio personality, known for taking an interest in a great range of everyday experiences. I was sure the boy was trying out his father’s public persona – but was doing it away from family scrutiny. For years more he could be seen acting out different roles. I don’t know if he’s yet comfortable with himself – or with what self.
Family As The Main Stage – For a Time
For some, shaping an identity never seems to become that important. From early days, there are people who seem simply comfortable in their own skins. I think of this as a wonderful innocence; to not feel compelled to try out a different guise.
This urge to add a different persona – when it becomes more than a game – varies in its timing. If the child is unhappy with how people respond to him/her, and believes herself to not be very acceptable, she’ll probably get started as soon as a model of ‘how to be’ presents itself. In effect, the culture of the family, and its emotional environment, can push him or her to work on having a more rewarding identity.
The family culture remains the key early ‘shaper’. Warm supportive families of people comfortable with their strengths and faults may make it easier for their young to live amongst them, not feeling compelled to be different.
Less supportive or appreciative families may push the young one to try new shapes earlier. There are so many ways to be uncomfortable within even a reasonably caring family.
Strong identification with the parent is tested in many ways. Not being able to take a parent for granted (through physical or emotional distance) can push a child to try to imitate and ‘be’ the prized parent. In an insecure environment, the parent who has provided food and comfort is the refuge, even if she becomes less hospitable with time. Baby monkeys turn repeatedly to a mother-figure who has fed them, clinging for comfort even if the mother‘s behaviour becomes alarming (noisy, erratic, menacing). It takes a long time to learn that the mother is the source of discomfort. While initially finding comfort in the parental images, we may hit the limit to wanting to identify with that parent and turn sharply against her. Here’s one point where a child may choose to try out an identity as far from the parent’s as he can imagine getting. Amazingly, parents are often not aware of how much their children are either imitating them or trying out an opposing identity.
Some Social Manipulators That Are Hard to Resist
The physical changes of puberty are big energizers toward change – even as they make some active kids seem lazy. All is crazy for a while.
But there are also strong social influences on how much self-shaping work one is encouraged to do: (1) within different cultures and communities, historically powerful expectations about identity emerge and demand obedience (2) high-school culture demands compliance, forcing one to find a safe persona, avoid group censure, and survive the four years (more about high school next week); (3) any gender confusion will drive one to identify with people who are likely to be supportive.
Then add in the multiplicity of images of models served up by TV, video games, and sheer cultural diversity – so many ways to be!
Ah, but is not high school the identity cauldron of our uneasy dreams? Please join me for next week’s edition. And Comment upon your own experiences!