Your University of Relationships
- Monday, May 17, 2004
We all started off in some sort of family.
Perhaps yours was the typical American family with 2.3 kids, a mom and a dad. Perhaps you were raised by your older sister or your grandparents. Perhaps you haven't seen your father for 20 years. Perhaps your mother became both mom and dad to you. Or maybe yours was a blended family with stepbrothers and stepsisters.
Whatever your family portrait, typical or not, it's had a powerful imprint on you since day one. Literally. Learning begins in life's earliest moments, and continues throughout childhood.
Our family is our University of Relationships. It teaches us whether or not people can be trusted. It teaches us what emotions are safe to express. It teaches us to count on other people, or not. The bottom line: How parents treat a child over the years imparts basic emotional lessons about how to interact with others.
We were recently invited to the home of a couple who had just installed a brand-new video game for their five year-old son, Wesley. We sat in their living room after dinner so they could show us how it worked. What we saw next, however, revealed more about their family than it did about their new toy.
Wesley started to play while his parents, almost instantly, displayed overly eager attempts to "help" him. "Not so fast, honey. More to the right, to the right!" his mother shouted. Her urgings were intent and anxious while Wesley stared wide-eyed at the video screen trying to follow her directives.
"You've got to line it up, son," the father chimed in. "It won't work unless you have it in line and you've got to get ready to shoot." He started to grab the controls from Wesley but then suddenly jerked his own hands away and clasped them behind his back as if to say "I'm not going to interfere."
Wesley's mom meanwhile rolled her eyes in frustration. "Now, you've got to move it to the left. You're not doing the stick right ... stop. Stop. Stop!"
Wesley bites his bottom lip and hands the controls to his dad. At this point, mom and dad start bickering about how to work the game as Wesley's eyes well up with tears.
They fiddle with the game for a while until the father gives up and tosses the controls to his wife. "Here, you do it," he says. "Hey, where'd Wesley go?"
These are the moments where deep lessons are taught. Not intentionally, mind you, but taught just the same. And what did Wesley learn? Most likely, that he's incapable of doing things himself, that it's hard to please people and that his feelings don't really matter.
All that from a single incident with a video game? Not exactly. But if similar moments are repeated again and again over the course of his childhood (where mom and dad are routinely overbearing, raise their voices in exasperation, and lose their patience), a clear and enduring message is sent.
The point is that small exchanges between you and the family you grew up in had emotional subtexts, and the messages, if left unexamined, will last a lifetime and shape every relationship you try to cultivate.
So if you want to shed some light on your current relationships, give some time to exploring lessons learned—whether good or bad—from your family of origin.
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