Many parents and teachers and others dealing with children have known for quite a long time that the early experiences we've been talking of do bring influence to bear on later behavior.
What they have not known clearly, however, is that it is not alone the actual happenings that count. It's how a child takes what happens and what he makes of it in his mind.
It is true, for instance, that if a child has been loved enough by his parents earlier, he will find it easier now to like himself. Still, it is possible for him to be loved and yet to imagine he isn't.
To cite an extreme case in point, Clarke's mother gave her life for him and yet Clarke grew up feeling she had not loved him. It had happened this way.
One day, when Clarke was three, he was playing on the sidewalk with his ball while his mother sat watching him on the front steps of their home. Suddenly, in a split second, the ball rolled into the street, Clarke dashed after it, and a car swerved around the corner. Quick as a flash, Clarke's mother ran out and shoved her baby roughly out of the way.
The brakes screeched. The car slid. But too late. Clarke's mother was struck, and died the next evening.
What had happened was one thing. What Clarke fantasied about it was another. His mother had pushed him. He imagined this showed anger and bespoke a lack of love. After all, hadn't she told him repeatedly not to run into the street? He fancied she'd been rough because he'd been naughty. And on top of this she had died and left him for good. He must indeed have been very "bad."
Many times, many children take lesser cues and interpet them as fancifully. Many times this starts in the first days of life.
No matter how much we thought we showed love to a baby, the baby himself may have felt that it was not enough. Different babies have different love requirements just as they have different food requirements. What is enough to nourish one baby is not enough to nourish another. Only the baby himself really knows.
When your particular teenager was a baby, he may have felt that he had less love than he craved. He may have wanted more holding and cuddling. But he couldn't tell you about this in words and you may not have known what his cry meant to say. And so this may have set off imaginings in him which grew as he grew.
Take Mary as example. Although fourteen, she kept clamoring for her mother to pick her up at school and drive her home. But when her mother was busy she insisted that Mary must take the bus.
One morning after the usual round of arguings, Mary grew furious. Glaring at her mother, she screamed with the malignant imp of hatred sparking from her eyes, "You! I hate you. You've never really loved me. You've never done anything for me. You've always been a mean old witch."
In telling about the episode later, Mary's mother said, "For an instant I felt very hurt and indignant. But suddenly memories began to flash into my mind. 'Way back in the days when Mary was a baby, her father and I were having an awful struggle financially. I was bothered and absorbed. I know I handled her absent-mindedly on many an occasion. She could well have caught some sort of message going from my muscles to her muscles when I bathed or dressed her, which told her I was abstracted. I'd leave her alone, too, to cry it out when the tears began.
"I remember, as I talk, how angry she got. She had temper tantrums that were dillies until her father and I punished them out of her. But I see she still harbored resentment. Her anger at my not picking her up at school now is worse because it has joined forces with the anger that she had when I didn't pick her up and hold her as much or as tenderly as she needed when she was a baby in order to feel that she was loved.
"What I did with Mary didn't mean that I was a bad parent. I was a worried parent, that's all. Only Mary interpreted it falsely. She imagined what she just threw up to me. She imagined I'd never really loved her. And she hated me for what she imagined much more than for what I actually did."
As a child grows, there are many rules imposed on him which have no rhyme or reason so far as he is concerned. He would rather be messy than clean. He wants to touch and explore and get into everything. However, he has to be trained and his parents have to do the training. Quite naturally, then, he takes them and not other people as the big ogres of denial and demand.
A great many of the child's wishes and thoughts, a great many of his desires and hostilities focus quite naturally then on his parents. They are the ones from whom he wants the most satisfactions. They are the ones to whom he feels most hostile. They are the ones around whom the pattern of his feelings and fantasies begins to take shape.
Whether fact or fancy, if a child felt a lack of love or trust or belonging in the beginning of life with his family, he will find it harder in adolescence to feel at home with his peers. If he felt himself a black sheep or an outcast, he will now feel more isolated and alone and less able to be like the friends with whom he wishes to identify. If he felt an inability to achieve what he was asked to do as a small child, he will feel less firm in tackling tasks that can now give him status. If he felt earlier that he could not gain deserved recognition, he will be more fearful now that belittlement may greet his efforts. If he came to feel that pleasurable sensations were condemnable, he will be less able to approach love and sex and marriage freely and with the smooth-flowing assurance that body and spirit can merge.
We need to realize how small slights can strike a child's sensitivities. His feeling unloved may or may not mean that he has been unloved. His feeling unwanted or incapable may not mean that he was unwanted or incapable. Nonetheless how he himself felt about it originally and how his imagination expanded his feelings--these are of paramount importance.