Childhood and identity

open-uri20120828-7303-1xpgydfIn a handful of weeks, I’ll be starting a module on Child development. Now a couple of years back, when I very first signed up to the course, I rolled my eyes at the idea of a module that dealt mainly with childhood and children. But since then I have had to deal with a lot of issues the root of which is to be found in my childhood. It has gifted me with a new perspective on the subject. As such, I find that I am rather looking forward to studying the psychology of children and how their environment  and the people around them have the power to impact on their personality.

Nurture isn’t the only factor at work, obviously, as nature plays its part as always, often unseen–or perhaps not so much unseen as not understood–and in a far different way to nurture. For example, I read a while back now (in an article that I can no longer find, unfortunately), that scientists have discovered that there exists a gene that is likely to make children behave more obediently towards their parents. Children lacking in that gene, seemed to be far more free-willed and likely to make their own decisions from a younger age, instead of obediently listening to what they’re told to do.

But nurture can definitely affect nature and influence the direction in which it develops. Several researches have demonstrated that children receiving higher level of care of attention from their parent or carer are likely to grow up healthier, smarter, and kinder (See article: Why spoiled babies grow up to be smarter, kinder kids). If you look at it on very simple term: if the baby is well looked after, the growing brain doesn’t need to waste resources on stress, crying, or other efforts to draw the attention of the ones it expects to be looked after by. So our personality, which will later contribute to the forming of our identity, is influenced by outside factors from the second we are born–and possibly even before that, when we’re still in our mother’s womb.

Obviously, the attention that our parents/carers give us as we grow up will not entirely decide who we are: nature still has a say in the matter and some people who have suffered horrendously neglectful and/or traumatic childhood can still turn out to be wonderful people capable of more empathy than most. On the converse, all the love in the world might not change the way the brain of a sociopath or a psychopath was wired to start with.

Nonetheless, childhood is the root of who we are, whether we like it or not: the person we are today has its roots in our childhood. As such, any baggage that we acquire through childhood, we are likely to drag with us for the rest of our life. Sometimes, even becoming aware of the issue and its origin, is not enough to drop the baggage; it might become lighter and easier to carry, but it never fully leaves us.

My childhood wasn’t an unhappy one, my parents were fairly attentive, and generally I was loved by the people around me. One of the greatest problem my family suffered from, was the incapacity to communicate with each other. When I was six, my mother started suffering from depression due to problems at work. As a child, I was well aware that something was different about my mother, although no-one ever told me what: my mum’s depression was only discussed in between her and my father behind closed doors, and even then, I don’t think they did much talking at all. I found out what was happening by eavesdropping at the kitchen door in an evening. But from this, and several very similar incidents, I learnt a lesson my parents had never thought they might be teaching me with their actions: talking about what is wrong with us personally is bad, something to be done in secret and, preferably, not to be done at all.

I have dragged this with me all the way to my adulthood. Even now, I am more than likely to not talk about something that is bothering or upsetting me. I bottle everything up inside, store it behind high walls and attempt to cope with it by myself. It very rarely works, unfortunately. Eventually, everything that builds up inside gets too much and I find myself crumbling under the weight of it all. I am lucky enough to have a special someone here to help me cope, but he–quite rightly–gets frustrated at my incapacity to talk about the things that get to me. I have been trying to improve since I very first admitted to this issue, but it’s still hard most days to not feel ashamed of some of the negative thoughts that go on in my head.

This is but one of the things that I have dragged from my childhood into my life as an adult, and it is but one example of how things can affect children on a level often unseen by the parents or carers. Received, or perceived, love or affection aren’t the only things that start to shape a child’s personality as they grow up. Children learn by watching and copying: when they play make-believe with their friends, they will more than likely copy the attitude of the adults around them. Although such games are unlikely to directly influence personality later on in life, they do set a basis of what the child perceives as normal behavior for an adult and their own expectations of themselves.

Not everyone will be affected the same, but it’s impossible to know what will and will not affect a child’s personality until it is too late. Where demanding parents may push their child’s ambitions and drive forward, it may just as well make them feel pressured, unworthy, and unable to cope. There is no hard and fast rule that decides how we are going to react to how the people closest to us act and how it will affect us once we are out of childhood. Some children may give clear signs of how they are affected whilst others are likely to bottle it up and hide behind a facade.

But one thing is for sure: there can never be too much love and care in a child’s life, and no-one has ever suffered from too much love in their childhood, and from having attentive parents.

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