The One Subject You Really Need to Study Your Own Childhood – Free Ebook

There is perhaps no greater priority in childhood
than to acquire an education: it’s in the

early years that we have to push ourselves
with special vigour to learn the lessons,

and acquire the experience, that will help
us successfully manoeuvre around the pitfalls

of adult life. By studying hard and intelligently,
we’ll have the best chance of avoiding a

middle-age of confusion and resignation, regret
and sorrow. The clue to a successful adult

life – we’re repeatedly told – lies
in childhood education.

It’s for this reason that we send weary
children out into the world on dark winter

mornings with full rucksacks in order to spend
the day studying coordinate geometry and indefinite

articles, the social impact of religious and
economic changes under Edward VI and the place

of Aristotle’s philosophy in Dante’s Inferno.
But there is one very striking detail to note

in our approach. The one subject that almost
certainly has the most to teach us in terms

of its capacity to help us skirt adult dangers
and guide us to fulfilment, the subject that

far more than any other has the decisive power
to liberate us, this subject is not taught

in any school or college anywhere on the planet.
A further irony is that this unstudied subject

is one that we nevertheless live through every
day of our early years, it is part of our

palpable experience, unfolding all around
us, as invisible as air and as hard to touch

as time. The missing subject is, of course,
our childhood itself.

We can sum up its importance like this: our
chances of leading a fulfilled adult life

depend overwhelmingly on our knowledge of,
and engagement with, the nature of our own

childhoods, for it is in this period that
the dominant share of our adult identity is

moulded and our characteristic expectations
and responses set. We will spend some 25,000

hours in the company of our parents by the
age of eighteen, a span which ends up determining

how we think of relationships and of sex,
how we approach work, ambition and success,

what we think of ourselves (especially whether
we can like or must abhor who we are), what

we should assume of strangers and friends
and how much happiness we believe we deserve

and could plausibly attain.
More tragically, and without anyone necessarily

having meant ill, our childhoods will have
been, to put it nicely, complicated. The expectations

that will have formed in those years about
who we are, what relationships can be like

and what the world might want to give us will
have been marked by a range of what could

be termed ‘distortions’ – departures
from reality and an ideal of mental health

and maturity. Something or indeed many things
will have gone slightly wrong or developed

in questionable directions – leaving us
in areas less than we might have been and

more scared and cowed than is practical. We
may, for example, have picked up a sense that

being sexual was incompatible with being a
good person; or that we had to lie about our

interests in order to be loved. We could have
acquired an impression that succeeding would

incite the rivalry of a parent. Or that we
would need always to be funny and lighthearted

so as to buoy up a depressive adult we adored
but feared for.

From our experiences, we will then acquire
expectations, internal ‘scripts’ and patterns

of behaviour that we play out unknowingly
across adulthood. Certain key people didn’t

take us seriously back then: now we tend to
believe (but don’t notice ourselves believing)

that no one can. We needed to try to fix an
adult on whom we depended: now we are drawn

(but don’t realise we are drawn) to rescuing
all those we love. We admired a parent who

didn’t care much for us: now we repeatedly
(but unconsciously) throw ourselves at distant

and indifferent candidates.

One of the problems of our childhoods is that
they are usually surrounded by a misleading

implication that they might have been sane.
What goes on in the kitchen and in the car,

on holidays and in the bedroom can seem beyond
remark or reflection. For a long time, we

have nothing to compare our life against.
It’s just reality in our eyes, rather than

a very peculiar desperately harmful version
of it filled with unique slants and outright

dangers. For many years, it can seem almost
normal that dad lies slumped in his chair

in quiet despair, that mum is often crying
or that we’ve been labelled the unworthy

one. It can seem normal that every challenge
is a catastrophe or that every hope is destroyed

by cynicism. There’s nothing to alert us
to the oddity of a seven year old having to

cheer up a parent because of the difficulties
of her relationship with the other parent.

Unfortunately, the last thing that the oddest
parents will ever tell you is that they are

odd; the most bizzare adults are most heavily
invested in thinking of themselves, and being

known to others as normal. It’s in the nature
of madness to strive very hard not to be thought

about.
This drift towards unthinking normalisation

is compounded by children’s natural urge
to think well of their parents, even at the

cost of looking after their own interests.
It is always – strangely – preferable

for a child to think of themselves as unworthy
and deficient than to acknowledge their parent

as unstable and unfair.
The legacy of a difficult childhood – by

which one really means a typical childhood
– spreads into every corner of adult life.

For decades, it can seem as though unhappiness
and grief are the norm. It may take until

a person is deep into adulthood, and might
have messed up their career substantially

or gone through a string of frustrating relationships,
that they may become able to think about the

connection between what happened to them in
the past and how they are living as grown

ups. Slowly, they may see the debt that their
habit of trying fix their adult lovers owes

to a dynamic with an alcoholic mother. Over
many hours of discussion, they may realise

that there need be no conflict between being
successful and being a good person – contrary

to what a disappointed father had once imputed.

The system tells us that
we will finally and optimally have succeeded

when we grasp the laws of the universe and
the history of humanity. But in order properly

to thrive, we will also need to know something
far closer to home. Without a proper understanding

of childhood, it won’t matter how many fortunes
we have made, how stellar our reputation or

outwardly cheerful our families, we will be
doomed to founder on the rocks of our own

psychological complexities; we will probably
be sunk by anxiety, lack of trust, dread,

paranoia, rage and self-loathing, those widespread
legacies of distorted and misunderstood pasts.

Well meaning people sometimes wonder, with
considerable hope, if Freud has not after

all by now been proved ‘wrong’. The tricky
and humiliating answer is that he never will

be, in the substance of his insight. His eternal
contribution has been to alert us to the many

ways in which adult emotional lives sit on
top of childhood experiences – and how we

are made sick by not knowing our own histories.
In a saner world, we would be left in no doubt

– and even partially alerted while we were
living through them – that our childhoods

held the secrets to our identities. We would
know that the one subject we need to excel

at above all is one not yet flagged up by
the school system called ‘My Childhood’,

and the sign that we have graduated in the
topic with honours is when at last we can

know and think non-defensively about how we
are (in small ways and large) a little mad,

and what exactly in the distant past
might have made us so.

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