Friday, March 17, 2017

Overly critical maternal superego

One of my favourite blogs is The Last Psychiatrist. He writes long posts and uses a style of analysis favoured by Wittgenstein that not everyone likes. What that means is that he tends to analyze by circling around and trying out different perspectives rather than dissecting the subject. I find he's worth reading and can almost always find a gem in his pieces.

Like this one:
... an "overly critical maternal superego" which is different than a paternal superego because it yells at you not when you sin but when you fail. This is the mom who doesn't want you to have premarital sex, of course, but a girl like you should be dating the captain of the football team.
We were discussing narcissistic parenting styles on Facebook the other day and I wish I had this quote at my fingertips at the time. I leave it to readers to decide if it sounds like anyone they know.

Here’s a puzzle: when is it reasonable to treat poor performance on a math exam as a moral failure Perhaps the relationship is not clear?

On one level, doing well at arithmetic is simply a matter of skills accumulated. You learn to do the mental math, which consists of memorizing addition from 1+1 to 9+9 and multiplication tables from 1x1 to 9x9. Then you learn a series of steps to follow when doing more complex operations in addition and multiplication. At the same time you learn how to do it backwards so you can do subtraction and division.

But it’s also a moral task because learning how to do these things is a matter of self discipline. Assuming you don’t have to deal with special mental challenges, it’s expected that you will “get” arithmetic. That’s a moral expectation and your mother and father will see it as a moral failure if you don’t.

This requires that they make accurate assessments of what it is reasonable to expect from you. At some point, after passing calculus and linear algebra in my case, you’re allowed to stop. No more is expected of you unless you really want to do it. If you decide you want to do more, then it is reasonable to expect that you do it well.

There is classic child-parent encounter on the front of “I can’t do any more”. It starts with a walk in the park perhaps and the three-year-old says, “I can’t go on” and the parent either picks them up and carries them or insist that they keep pushing. The parent has no strict calculus to make this determination. They simply judge the child based on their experience.

And the parent might well fail morally here. She might cruelly drive the child to the point of injury but that is extremely unlikely. The more common occurrence is she will think it easier to just give in and carry the child rather than help them develop self-discipline. And so children grow up to be weaklings.

And what of the failure of the mother in the example above? The problem is not that she criticizes her daughter for failure rather than sin for failure can be a sin. No, what she has done is to establish an unrealistic explanation. She has failed to assess the situation.

The captain of the senior football team gets sex from the girl he dates. Perhaps not at a strict Christian high school but any other high school he does and no sex means you aren’t his girlfriend. To expect a daughter to meet both conditions of no premarital sex and captain of the football team is impossible and the mother who pushes for such a thing is cruel and heartless.

You could put together a whole list of such statements:
“Just stand up to bully, he’ll back down.” 
“When I was your age I was slim without ever dieting or exercising.” 
“Your cousin Archibald plays the piano beautifully and he never took a lesson.”
A parent who’d say such things does incredible damage to her children.

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