(1) A central fact about early childhood
is that babies are born into the world
entirely at the mercy of others. They have
no native strength, intelligence or utility,
they cannot fight or complain,
walk away or argue their case,
their survival depends solely on their
capacity to look up from their cots with vast,
innocent, beautiful eyes and charm their
parents into caring for them. It’s their
power to attract love that ensures they will
be fed and clothed, protected and kept alive.w
(2) In exchange for this nurture, young children
readily offer their parents or caregivers
unconditional admiration. They naturally adore
and are boundlessly impressed by those who pick
them up and bathe them, warm their milk and
change their sheets. They are in awe at these
giant people who know how to turn on a washing
machine and kick a ball over a tree. There
is – at this stage – no innate desire whatever
to question or doubt figures of authority.
(3) Given what is at stake, it follows
that small children are instinctively,
hugely sensitive to how well they are doing at
getting their admired protectors on their side.
If they feel they are loved, they can relax
into themselves and get on with the many other
pressing priorities of early childhood: working
out how to eat solids, figuring out what a plug
socket is, how a button functions, what
words are and how soap bubbles form.
(4) But if love is in more restricted supply,
the picture grows a whole lot more complicated.
There are childhoods in which, for a variety of
reasons, parents fail to be charmed as they might
be. They leave the baby to scream, they shout at
one another, there might be violence and hysteria,
lethargic despair and terror. The young child
knows instinctively it is in grave danger,
if the situation is not somehow corrected, in
extremis, it may be left on a hillside to die.
(5) At this point, our biology initiates a
desperate yet darkly logical process. The
young child starts to try a lot harder. It
redoubles its efforts to charm, to be good,
to do what could be expected of it,
to smile and to ingratiate itself.
It wonders what may be wrong with itself to
explain the parental disapproval and harm – and
doesn’t feel any alternative but to search in
its own character and behaviour for answers.
(6) At the same time, the child resists what
might – from an adult perspective – seem like
the obvious move: to get annoyed with and
blame the adults in the vicinity who are
not looking after it as they should. But
such a bold thought does not belong to the
defencelessness of the early years. We are in no
position to mount a challenge to our protectors
when we can hardly reach the door handle,
let alone turn on a tap; we need to have
our own front door key and bank account before
cynicism is a realistic option. It is far more
intuitive to wonder why we are horrid than to
complain of being unfairly and unkindly treated.
(7) Small children therefore naturally turn
injury done to them into dislike of themselves.
They ask not so much ‘Why does my parent fail to
care for me?’ as ‘How might I have failed this
admirable person?’ They hate themselves rather
than doubt those who should be protecting them,
shame replaces anger. It feels,
on balance, like the safer option.
(8) A vicious spiral of self- hatred then
sets in. The unloved growing child wonders
constantly about their faults. Their
parent may be alcoholic, narcissistic,
sadistic or depressed; they
may never cook a proper meal
or shout intemperately from their bedroom,
but none of that matters in the slightest.
The parent cannot be envisaged as anything other
than substantially impressive. To explain the
lack of love from the paragons of parenthood,
it must be that the child is an awful person,
they must be stupid and mean, selfish and slow,
physically repulsive and irritating and shallow.
(9) As childhood gets left behind,
much of this dynamic is forgotten.
The adolescent and young adult overlooks exactly
what went on, they cannot necessarily think
clearly of the early years – and parental
figures may be keen that they never do so.
The former child can’t tell any more that their
feeling of shame has specific origins, it can feel
like something they might have been born with, a
natural phenomenon, like bad weather or the flu.
(10) Liberation awaits us when we dare to
take on board a highly implausible idea:
that our self-hatred, far from being inevitable,
is an internalisation of early deprivation
and that far from needing to revere
and admire those who denied us love,
we are in a position to understand, to
question, to be annoyed and to mourn what we
did not receive. We are not so despicable after
all, we’ve just – till now – lacked any better
ideas to explain why we didn’t manage to charm
those who should have loved us from the start.