Theme Pack 1: Birth Order
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How Position in the Family Constellation Influences Life-Style1
By Alfred Adler 
Chapter XXV in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 7
It is a common misconception that children of the same family experience the same environment. Of course, children in the same home share certain conditions, but the psychic situation of each child differs because of the order of their birth.
My classification based on position in the family has been somewhat misunderstood. The child’s number in the order of births does not influence his character, but rather the situation into which he is born and the way he interprets it. Thus, if the eldest child is feeble-minded or suppressed, the second child may acquire a style of life similar to that of an eldest child; and in a large family, if two are born much later than the rest, and grow up together separated from the older children, the elder of these may develop like a first child. This dynamic also sometimes occurs with twins.
Position of the First Child
Having been the only one at the beginning of his life and thus the central focus, the first child is generally spoiled. He resembles the only child in this respect, and spoiling is almost inevitable in both cases. The first child, however, usually suffers an important change of situation, being dethroned when the second baby is born. Typically unprepared for this change, the firstborn feels he has lost his position as the center of love and attention. Far from his goal, he suffers great tension and begins striving to regain favor. He uses all the means by which he has formerly attracted notice, of course, he would like to be beloved for his goodness; but good behavior often goes unnoticed when the newcomer keeps everyone busy. He is then likely to change his tactics and resort to old activities which previously attracted attention, even if it was unfavorable attention.
If intelligent, he acts intelligently, but not necessarily in harmony with the family’s demands. Antagonism, disobedience, attacks on the baby, or even attempts to play the part of a baby, compel the parents to give him renewed attention. A spoiled child must have the spotlight on himself, even at the cost of expressing weakness or imitating a return to babyhood. Thus, under the influence of the past, he attains his goal in the present by unsuitable means: a sudden inability to function alone, needing assistance in eating and excretion, and requiring constant watching by flirting with danger and terrifying the parents.
1 Published in the Int. J. Indiv. Psychol., Vol. 3, pages 211-227, 1937.
The appearance of such characteristics as jealousy, envy, or egotism has an obvious relation to the new circumstances, but he may also indulge in, or prolong, illnesses such as asthma and whooping cough. The tension in certain types (depending upon the bodily organization) may produce headache, migraine, stomach trouble, petit mal, or hysterical spasms. The child may also impress his parents with the slighter symptoms of a tired appearance and a general change of behavior for the worse. Naturally, the later the rival baby is born, the more intelligible and understandable will the methods appear which the first child uses in his change of behavior. If dethroned very early, the eldest child’s efforts are largely “instinctive” in character. The style of his striving will in any case be conditioned by the reaction of others in the environment and his evaluation of it. For instance, if the dethroned child finds that fighting does not pay, he may lose hope, become depressed, and score a success by worrying and frightening the parents. After succeeding with such methods, he will resort to ever more subtle uses of misfortune to gain this end.
An example of the type of adult activity based on the childhood prototype was shown in the case of a man who became afraid to swallow for fear of choking. Why did he select this symptom instead of another? The patient had an immediate social difficulty in the behavior of an intimate friend who attacked him violently. Both the patient and his wife concluded that he must put up with it no longer, but he did not feel strong enough to face the struggle. Inquiring about his childhood, I learned that he had had a similar difficulty with swallowing before. The eldest child, he had been surpassed by his younger brother, but by means of difficulty in eating, he had made his father and mother watch over him. Now faced with a personal defeat in later life and not knowing what to do about it, he fell back upon his old line of defense, as though it might make someone watch over him and help him.
Effects of Dethronement
The dethronement of the first child by another may make him turn away from the mother toward the father, and adopt a critical attitude toward the mother. Afraid of being “pushed back” all through life, a person of this type likes to make one step forward and one backward in all his affairs, so that nothing decisive can happen. He feels justified in fearing that a favorable situation will change. He will face all three life tasks with a hesitating attitude and neurotic tendencies. He will feel that problem behavior and symptoms are a form of help and security. For example, he may approach society with a hostile attitude; he may constantly change his occupation; and in his sexual life he may experience failure in functioning, and show promiscuous tendencies; if he falls in love with one person, he quickly falls in love with another. Skeptical and indecisive, he becomes a great procrastinator. I met a perfect example of this type once, and his earliest remembrance was this: “At three years of age I caught scarlet fever. By mistake my mother gave me carbolic acid for a gargle, and I nearly died.” He had a younger sister who was the favorite of his mother. Later in life, this patient developed a curious fantasy of a young girl ruling and bullying an older one. Sometimes he imagined her riding the old woman like a horse.
First Child May Keep Position
By virtue of his native endowment and development, or because of the second child’s inferiority, ugliness, organic handicap, or bad behavior, the eldest child may be so firmly fixed in his parent’s favor that he cannot be supplanted. Then, the second child becomes the problem, and the eldest may develop very well as in the following case.
Of two brothers four years apart, the elder had been strongly attached to the mother, and when the younger was born the father had been ill for some time. The mother spent all her time and most of her attention caring for the father. Trained in friendship and obedience to her, the elder boy tried to help her, and the younger boy was cared for by a nurse who spoiled him. This situation lasted for some years, leaving the younger child no reasonable chance to compete with the elder for the love of the mother. Soon abandoning the useful side of life, he became wild and disobedient. His behavior became still worse four years later, when a little sister was born, to whom the mother was able to devote herself because of the father’s death. Thus, twice excluded from his mother’s attention and spoiled by the nurse, this second child turned out to be the worst pupil in his class, while the elder boy was the best. Feeling hopelessly handicapped in competition with his brother, unloved at home, and reproached at the school (from which he was finally expelled), this second son could find no goal in life but to dominate his mother by worrying her. Physically stronger than either his brother or sister, he tyrannized them. Trifling away his time, at puberty he began to waste money and incur debts. His honest and well-meaning mother provided a strict tutor for him who did not, of course, grasp the situation, and dealt with it superficially by punishments. The boy grew into a man who tried to get rich quickly and easily. Easy prey to unscrupulous advisers, he followed them into fruitless enterprises, and not only lost his money but involved his mother in his dishonorable debts.
All the courage this man ever displayed resulted from his unsatisfied desire to conquer. He occasionally played an odd game, especially when things went against him. Now an old woman who earned her living in the family as a head servant, the nurse still worshipped the second boy and interceded for him in his numerous scrapes. The unusual sport in which he indulged was to lock her in a room with him and make her play soldiers, commanding her to march, fall, and jump up again at his orders; and sometimes he quickened her obedience by beating her with a stick. Although she screamed and resisted, she obeyed.
This singular sport revealed what he really wanted, the completest domination in the easiest way. Some writers would describe this as sadistic conduct, but I demur2 at the use of a word which implies a sexual interest, for I
2 The contemporary use of “sadism” differs from Adler’s. Today, it does not necessarily imply sexual interest, but refers primarily to the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others.
could discover nothing of the kind in it. In sexual matters the man was practically normal, except that he changed his partners too frequently and always chose inferiors. Genuine sadism is a domineering tendency expressed sexually, owing to the discouragement of the individual in other spheres.
This man ended in very bad circumstances, while the elder brother became successful and highly respected.
Attitude of Eldest Toward Authority
The eldest child, partly because he often acts as the representative of parental authority, usually believes strongly in power and the law. The ancient and persistent custom of primogeniture shows an intuitive perception of this fact. It is often observable in literature. Thus Theodore Fontane wrote of his perplexity at his father’s pleasure in hearing that ten thousand Poles had defeated twenty thousand Russians. His father was a French emigrant who had sided with the Poles, but to the writer it was inconceivable that the stronger could be beaten; he felt that the status quo should be preserved and that might must, and ought to, succeed. This was because Theodore Fontane was a first child. The lives of scientists, politicians, artists, and others show that the eldest is readier than most to recognize power, and likes to support it. Even revolutionaries harbor a conservative tendency, like Robespierre.
Position of Second Child
Never having had the experience of being the only one, the second child is in a very different situation. Though at first, he is never the sole center of attention. From the beginning, life for him is more or less a race; the first child sets the pace, and the second tries to surpass him. What results from competition between two such children depends on their courage and self-confidence. If the elder becomes discouraged, he will be in a serious situation, especially if the younger is really strong and outstrips him.
If the second child loses hope of equality, he will try to shine more rather than be more. That is, if the elder proves too strong for him, the younger will tend to escape to the useless side of life. In many cases of problem children, laziness, lying, or stealing begin to pave the way toward neurosis, crime, and self-destruction.
As a rule, however, the second child is in a better position than the first. His pacemaker stimulates him to greater effort. Also, the first child often hastens his dethronement by fighting it with envy, jealousy, and belligerence, which lower him in parental favor. A brilliant child puts the second child in the worst situation.
Even when dethroned, however, the elder child does not always suffer most. I say this in the case of a girl who had been the center of attention and extremely spoiled until she reached the age of three, when a sister was born. After the birth of her sister, she became jealous and developed into a problem-child. With sweet and charming manners, the younger sister grew up the more beloved of the two. But when this younger sister went to school, she was no longer spoiled and being unprepared to encounter difficulties, was frightened and tried to withdraw. To escape defeat both in fact and in appearance, she adopted a common device among the discouraged, she never finished anything she started, escaping final judgment, and wasting as much time as possible. Time is the great enemy of discouraged people because under the pressure of the requirements of social living, they feel as if time continually persecutes them with the question, “How will you use me?” Hence their strange efforts to “kill time” with silly activities. This girl habitually came late and postponed every action. She did not antagonize anyone, even if reproved, but her charm and sweetness, maintained as before, did not prevent her from being a greater worry and burden than her aggressive sister.
When the elder sister became engaged to be married, the younger sister was desperately unhappy. Though she had won the first stage of the race with her rival by gentleness and obedience, she had given up in the later stages of school and social life. Feeling her sister’s marriage as a defeat, her only hope of regaining ground would be to also marry. However, she lacked enough courage to choose a suitable partner and automatically sought a second-best. First, she fell in love with a man suffering seriously from tuberculosis. Can we regard this action as a step forward? Does it contradict her preestablished custom of leaving every task unfinished? Not at all. The poor health of her lover and her parents’ natural resistance to the match provided sure causes of delay and frustration. She preferred an element of impossibility in her choice. Another scarcely eligible partner appeared later, in a man thirty years older than she was. He was senile, but did not die as the previous one had, and the marriage took place. However, it was not a great success for her because the attitude of hopelessness in which she had trained herself did not allow her any useful activity. It also inhibited her sexual life, which she considered disgusting, feeling humiliated and soiled by it. She used her usual methods to avoid love and postpone relations at the appropriate times. Not quite successful in these evasive maneuvers, however, she became pregnant, which she regarded as another hopeless state. From that time on, she not only rejected caresses but also complained that she felt soiled, and began to wash and clean all day long. She not only washed herself, but cleaned everything that had been touched by her husband, the maid servant, or the visitors, including furniture, linen, and shoes. Soon she allowed no one to touch any of the objects in her room, and lived under the stress of a neurosis, a washing-compulsion. Thus, she was excused from the solution of her problems, and attained a lofty goal of superiority, she felt more fastidiously clean than anyone else.
The neurosis of a “washing-compulsion” vividly expresses the exaggerated striving for an exalted goal of high distinctiveness. A person who feels that sex is “dirty” uses illness as a means of avoiding sexual relations. Invariably, it gives the fantastic compensation of feeling cleaner than everybody else.
However, because he feels life is a race, the second child usually trains himself more rigorously and, if his courage holds, is well on the way to overcoming the eldest on his own ground. If he has a little less courage, he will choose to surpass the eldest in another field, and if still less, he will become more critical and antagonistic than usual, not in an objective but in a personal manner. In childhood, this attitude appears in relation to trifles: he will want the window shut when the elder opens it, turn on the light when the other wants it extinguished, and be consistently contrary.
The Bible story of Esau and Jacob describes this sibling situation clearly when Jacob succeeds in usurping the privileges of the eldest. The second child lives in a condition similar to an engine under a constantly excessive head of steam. A little boy of four expressed it well when he cried out, weeping, “I am so unhappy because I can never be as old as my brother.”
Some writers attribute children’s repetition of the psychic behavior of older siblings and parents to an imitation “instinct” or “identification” of the self with another; but it is explained better when we see that a child imitates only that behavior which offers him a successful way of asserting an equality denied to him on other grounds. Psychic resemblances to the conduct of ancestors or even of savages do not signify that the pattern of psychic reaction is hereditary, but rather that individuals use the same means of offense and defense in similar situations. When we find so much resemblance between all first children, all second, and all youngest children, we may well ask what part remains for heredity to play in determining those similarities. Thus, as psychologists we lack sufficient evidence to accept that the mental development of the individual ought to repeat the development of the race of mankind in successive stages.
In later life, the second child is rarely able to endure the strict leadership of others or to accept the idea of “eternal laws.” He will be much more inclined to believe, rightly or wrongly, that no power in the world is invincible. Beware of his revolutionary subtleties! I have known many cases in which the second child used the strangest means to undermine the power of ruling persons or traditions. Not everybody, certainly not these rebels themselves, would easily agree with my views of their behavior. For though it is possible to endanger a ruling power with slander, more insidious ways exist. For example, excessive praise may idealize and glorify someone until the reality cannot stand up to it, as illustrated in Mark Anthony’s oration in Julius Caesar. Dostoyevsky also successfully used these methods, perhaps unconsciously, to undermine the pillars of old Russia. Those who remember Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, and also recall that he was a second son, will have little difficulty accepting the influence played by position in the family.
Of course, the style of life of a second child, like that of the first, may also appear in a child in a different chronological position, if the situation involves a similar pattern.
Position of Youngest Child
The baby of the family, the youngest child, has never known the tragedy of being dispossessed by a younger, the fate shared by most other children. In this respect, he finds himself in a favored situation and often better educated, as the economic position of the family generally improves in later years. The older children frequently join the parents in spoiling the youngest, who thus becomes too indulged. On the other hand, the youngest may also be too stimulated by his elders. In the former case of over-indulgence, the child will strive throughout life to be supported by others. In the latter case, the child will instead resemble a second child, competitively striving to overtake those setting the pace for him, and in many cases failing to do so. Therefore, he often looks for a field of activity remote from the other members of the family, revealing a sign of hidden cowardice. If the family is business-oriented, for instance, the youngest often inclines to art or poetry; if scientific, he wants to be a salesman. Many of the most successful men of our time were youngest children, and I am convinced this is also the case in other ages. In Biblical history, we find a remarkable number of youngest children among the leading characters, such as David, Saul, and Joseph. A particularly good example, the story of Joseph illustrates many of the views we have presented. Because his younger brother, Benjamin, was seventeen years his junior, he played little part in Joseph’s development. Joseph’s psychological position, therefore, was that of a youngest child.
Interestingly, Joseph’s brothers fully understood his dreams. More precisely, they understood the emotion of the dreamer. The purpose of a dream is not to be understood, but to create a mood and a feeling.
In the fairy tales of all cultures, the youngest child plays the role of a conqueror. I infer that in earlier times, when both circumstances and men’s apprehension of them were simpler, it was easier to collect experiences and to understand the coherent pattern of the life of the latest-born. This traditional grasp of character survives in folklore, although the actual experiences have been forgotten.
I found a strange type of spoiled youngest child in the case of a physician with a “begging” style of life. Difficulties with his mouth had made him fearful of cancer. Unable to swallow normally for twenty years, he could take only liquid food. He had recently had a dental plate made for him, which he continually pushed up and down with his tongue, causing pain and soreness of the tongue, so that he feared he was developing cancer.
The youngest of a family of three with two older sisters, he had been sickly and much indulged. At the age of forty, he could eat only alone or with his sisters. Every approach to society had been difficult for him. He had no friends, and merely a few associates whom he met weekly in a restaurant. Because he faced the tasks of life with an attitude of fear and trembling, the presence of other people created tension which made him unable to swallow food. Living in a kind of stage fright, he feared not making a sufficiently good impression.
This man responded to the life task of occupation with tolerable competence, because his parents had been poor and he could not live without earning, but he suffered exceedingly in his profession and nearly fainted during his examinations. His ambition as a general practitioner was to obtain a position with a fixed salary and later, a pension. This great attraction to a safe official position reveals a feeling of insecurity. People with a deep sense of inadequacy often aspire to a “safe job.” For years, he surrendered to his symptoms. When he became older and lost some of his teeth, he decided to have a plate made, which led to the development of his latest symptom.
When he came to me, the patient was sixty years old and still living in the care of his two sisters. Both suffered from their advanced years, and this aging man, spoiled by two unmarried and much older women, faced a new situation. He feared his sisters would die. Needing to be continually watched over, what would he do in that case? Unable to find a woman whom he could trust with his fragile happiness, he had never been in love. How could he believe that anyone would spoil him as his mother and older sisters had done? It was easy to guess the form of his sexuality, masturbation, and some petting affairs with girls. But recently an older woman had wanted to marry him, so he wished to appear more pleasant and attractive in behavior. The beginning of a struggle seemed imminent, but his new dental plate came to the rescue. In the nick of time, he became anxious about contracting cancer of the tongue.
As a doctor, he doubted the reality of this cancer. The many surgeons and physicians he consulted all tried to dissuade him from belief in it; but he persisted in his uncertainty, continued to press his tongue against the plate until it hurt, then consulted another doctor.
Such preoccupations, “overvalued ideas” as Eernicke calls them, are carefully cherished in a neurosis. The patient shies away from the right objective by fixing his glances more and more firmly upon a point some distance from a good, productive course. He does this in order to swerve away from a direction beginning to be required by logical necessity. The correct solution of his problem contradicts his style of life, and because the style of life rules (as the only approach to life he has learned), he has to establish emotions and feelings which will support his life-style and will insure his escape.
In spite of this man being sixty years old, the only logical solution was to find a trustworthy substitute for his spoiling sisters before their departure. His distrustful mind could not hope to achieve this possibility; nor could logic dispel his doubts, because throughout his life he had built up appearance, the dental plate should have been a help, but he turned it into an insuperable impediment.
In treating this case, it was useless to attack his belief in the cancer. When he understood the coherence of his behavior, the patient’s symptoms were greatly alleviated. The next day he told me of a dream: “I was sitting in the house of a third sister at a birthday celebration of her thirteen-year-old son. I was entirely healthy, felt no pain, and could swallow anything.” But this dream was related to an episode in his life which took place fifteen years before. Its meaning is very obvious: “If only I were fifteen years younger.” Thus, the life-style is maintained.
Difficulties of an Only Child
The only child also has his typical difficulties. Retaining the center of the stage without effort and generally pampered, he forms a style of life based on being supported by others and at the same time ruling them. Very often, he grows up in a sheltered environment. The parents may be fearful people and afraid to have more children. Sometimes the mother, neurotic before his birth, does not feel equal to rearing more children, and develops such behavior that everyone must feel, “It is a blessing that this woman has no more children.” Birth control may absorb much of the family’s attention, leading to tension and anxiety for both parents. The care then devoted to the only child never ceases, and often impresses him with a belief that not being watched or guarded is a mortal danger. Such children often grow up cautious, and sooner or later may become successful, gaining the esteem and attention they desire. But if they confront different conditions where life is difficult for them, the may show striking insufficiency.
Only children are often sweet and affectionate, and later in life may develop charming manners in order to appeal to others, because they have trained themselves this way. Usually closer to the more indulgent parent, generally the mother, they sometimes develop a hostile attitude toward the other parent.
While the proper upbringing of an only child is not easy, parents can conceivably understand the problem and solve it correctly. Although we do not regard the only child’s situation as dangerous, without the best educational methods, bad results frequently occur which having brothers and sisters would have avoided.
Case of Homosexual Development3
I now present a case of the development of an only child, a boy attached entirely to his mother. Although the father contributed materially, he was of no importance in the family, and obviously without interest in the child. The mother was a dressmaker who worked at home, and the little boy spent all his time with her, sitting or playing beside her. He played at sewing, imitating his mother’s activity, and ultimately became extremely proficient at it, but he never took part in any boy’s games. The mother left the house each day at five p.m. to deliver her work, returning punctually at six. During that time, the boy was left with an older
3 Whereas Adler’s views on the equality of women were ahead of his time, his criticism of homosexuality here (and elsewhere) reflects the common bias of his time and place. These opinions, coming out of the early 1900’s in Vienna, do not represent contemporary Classical Adlerian psychotherapy. While we respect every individual’s sexual choice, we apply the same psychological criteria to all relationships, promoting increased cooperation, respect, equality, mutual benefit and empathy, and working to eliminate domination, subordination, depreciation, exploitation, or abuse. Adler’s comments have been retained in the text in the interest of scholarship and historical accuracy.
girl cousin and played with sewing materials. Always looking for his mother’s return, he became interested in timepieces. He could tell the time when he was merely three years old.
The cousin played games with him in which she was the bridegroom and he was the bride, and he looked significantly more like a girl than she did. He came to school unprepared to associate with boys, but he established himself as a favored exception because others liked his mild, courteous disposition. He began to approach his goal of superiority by being attractive, especially to boys and men. At fourteen, he acted the part of a girl in a school play. The audience had not the slightest doubt that he was a girl; a young fellow began to flirt with him and he was very pleased to have excited such admiration.
He had worn girlish clothes during his first four years, and until the age of ten he did not know whether he was a boy or a girl. When he learned his gender, he began to masturbate, and in his fantasy he soon connected sexual desire with what he had felt when boys touched or kissed him. To be admired and wooed became his goal in life; to this end he used all his capacities in such a way that he might be admired especially by boys. The only girl he had known, his older cousin was gentle and sweet, but she had played the man’s role in their games and otherwise had ruled him like his mother. His mother’s overindulgent, excessive care led to his great feeling of inferiority. Married late at the age of thirty-eight, she did not wish to have more children by the husband she disliked. Her anxiety, undoubtedly of earlier origin, and her late marriage indicate a hesitant attitude toward life. Strict in sexual matters, she wanted her child to be educated in ignorance of sex.
At the age of sixteen this patient looked and walked like a flirtatious girl, and soon fell into the snare of homosexuality. In order to comprehend this development, we must remember that he had had, in a psychological sense, the education of a girl, and that the difference between the sexes had been made clear to him much too late in his development. He had experienced his triumphs in the feminine role, with no certainty of gaining as much by playing a man. Clearly he saw the open road to his goal of superiority in the imitation of girlish behavior.
In my experience, boys with this type of upbringing look like girls. The growth of the organs and probably the glands is partially ruled by the environment and the child’s attitude toward it; and they adapt to them. Thus, if early environmental training toward femininity is succeeded by a personal goal of the same tendency, the wish to be a favored girl will influence not only the mind, but also the carriage and even the body.
This process clearly illustrates how a homosexual trains himself mentally for his abnormal attitude toward sex. We do not need to postulate an inborn or hereditary, organic deviation.
When the boy in question came to me, he had a relationship with another boy who was the neglected second child of a domineering mother. This other boy’s striving was to overcome men by his personal charm, which he used successfully to rule his weak father. When he reached the age of sexual expression, he was shocked. He had based his notion of women on his domineering mother, who had neglected him. Although he felt the need to control, he entertained no hope of ruling women because, in accordance with his early experience of a strong and aggressive mother, he felt that a woman was too powerful to control. His only chance to be the victor was in a relationship with men, so he became homosexual. Consider then the hopeless situation of my patient! He wanted to conquer by female means, with the charm of a girl, but his friend wanted to conquer men.
I helped my patient realize that, whatever he thought or felt in this liaison, his friend considered himself a conquering man-charmer. Therefore, my patient could not be sure that his was the real conquest, so his homosexuality was accordingly checked. By this means I was able to break off the relationship, for he saw that it was stupid to enter into such a fruitless competition. This also made it easier for him to understand that his abnormality was due to lack of interest in others, and that his feeling of inadequacy, the result of being pampered, had led him to measure everything in terms of personal triumph. He then left me for some months; when he visited me again he had had sexual relations with a girl, but had tried to play a masochistic role with her. In order to prove to himself that his original view of the world was correct, he obviously wished to experience with her the same inferiority that he had felt with his mother and cousin. This masochistic attitude showed when his goal of superiority required the girl to do to him what he commanded. He then wished to complete the act at this point without achieving sexual intercourse, so that the normal was still excluded.
The great difficulty of changing a homosexual lies not only in his lack of general social adjustment, but also in the invariable absence of correct training in the sexual role, which must begin in early childhood. The attitude toward the other sex is strained in a mistaken direction almost from the beginning of life. In order to realize this fact, we must note the kind of intelligence, behavior, and expectations such a case exhibits. Compare normal persons walking in the street or mixing in society with a homosexual in the same situations. The normal majority are interested primarily in the opposite sex, the homosexuals only in their own. The latter evade normal sexuality also in dreams. The patient I have just described used to dream frequently that he was climbing a mountain by a serpentine road. The dream expresses his discouraged, circuitous approach to life. (He moved rather like a snake, bending his head and shoulders at every step.)
In conclusion, I will summarize some of the most disastrous cases I have known among only children. A woman asked me to help her and her husband in the case of their only boy, who tyrannized them terribly. He was then sixteen, a very good pupil at school, but quarrelsome and insulting. He was especially combative toward his father, who had been stricter with him than his mother. Antagonizing both parents, if he could not get what he wanted he attacked, sometimes wrestling with his father, spitting at him, and using bad language. Such development is possible with a pampered only child who is trained to give nothing but to expect everything, until the indulgence can continue no longer. In such cases, treating the patient in his old environment is difficult, because it revives too many old recollections which disturb the harmony of the family.
In another case, a boy of eighteen had been accused of murdering his father. An only spoiled child, he had stopped his education and was wasting, in bad company, all the money he could extort from his parents. One day when his father refused to give him money, the boy killed him by hitting him on the head with a hammer. No one but the lawyer defending him knew that he had killed another person several months before. Consequently, he felt perfectly sure of escaping discovery this second time.
In yet another case of criminal development, an only boy was brought up by a very well-educated woman who wanted him to be a genius. At her death, another experienced woman continued nurturing him in the same way, until she became aware of his tyrannical tendencies. Believing sexual repression to be the cause of his aggressiveness, she had him analyzed. His tyrannical attitude did not cease, however, so she then wished to be rid of him. But he broke into her house one night intending to rob her, and strangled her.
The characteristics typical of certain positions in the family can, of course, be modified by circumstances. Despite the many possibilities of variation, however, the outlines of these patterns will remain substantially correct. Among the possibilities, we may include the position of a boy growing up among girls. If he is older than they are, he develops the same as an elder brother close to a younger sister. The individual pattern of behavior will reflect differences in age, in the affection of the parents, and in the preparation for life.
Where a female majority and feminine influence dominate the environment, a single boy is likely to have a goal of superiority and a style of life directed toward femininity. This dynamic occurs in various degrees and ways: in a humble devotion to and worship of women, in an attitude imitating women, in a tendency toward homosexuality, or in a tyrannical attitude toward women. People usually avoid educating boys in an overly feminine environment because such children develop toward one of two extremes: either exaggerated vanity or aggressiveness. In the story of Achilles, many points reveal that the latter case was well understood in antiquity.
Importance of Evaluation of Men and Women
We find the same contradictory possibilities in the cases of only girls who grow up among boys or in an entirely masculine environment. In such circumstances a girl may, of course, be spoiled with too much attention and affection, but she may also adopt boys’ attitudes and wish to avoid looking like a girl. In any case, the result largely depends on how men and women are valued in the environment. Every environment has a prevailing attitude in regard to this issue. Therefore, the child will wish to assume the role of a man or a woman in accordance with the relative value given to men and women in that attitude.
Other views of life prevailing in the family may also influence the pattern of a child’s behavior, or lead to difficulties, as for example the superstition about character being inherited, and the belief in fanatical methods of education. Any exaggerated method of education will probably harm the child, as we can often trace in the children of teachers, psychologists, doctors, and people engaged in the administration of laws: policemen, lawyers, officers, and clergymen. Educational exaggerations surface in the life-histories of many problem children, delinquents, and neurotics. The influence of both the superstition regarding heredity and a fanatical mode of training appear in the following case.
A woman came to me with a daughter of nine, both of them in tears and desperation. The mother told me that the girl had only recently come to live with her, after spending years with foster parents in the country. Because she had completed the third grade of her schooling there, she entered the fourth grade in the city school, but her work became so bad that her teacher had her put back into the third grade. Soon afterwards her work became still worse, so she was demoted again and put in the second grade. Thoroughly upset, the mother was obsessed with the idea that her daughter’s deficiency was inherited from the father.
From the beginning, I could see that the mother treated the child with exaggerated educational insistence, which was particularly unfortunate because the girl had been brought up in a congenial environment and expected still greater kindness from the mother. But in her eagerness that her child should not fail the mother was overstrict, keenly disappointing the girl. She developed a great emotional tension, blocking her progress both at school and at home. Exhortation, reproaches, criticism, and spanking only intensified the emotion, with consequent hopelessness on both sides. To confirm my impression, I spoke with the girl alone about her foster parents. She told me how happy her life with them had been. Then, bursting into tears, she also told me how she had enjoyed being with her mother at first.
I had to make the mother understand her mistakes. The girl could not be expected to put up with such harsh training. Putting myself in her place, I could perfectly understand her conduct as an intelligent reaction, that is, as a form of accusation and revenge. In a situation of this type, with less social feeling, a child may easily become delinquent, neurotic, or even suicidal. But in this case, I was sure the girl could improve if the mother were convinced of the truth, and impressed the child with a sufficient change of attitude. Therefore, I explained to the mother that the belief in inheritance was nothing but a nuisance, after which I helped her realize what her daughter had reasonably expected when she came to live with her, and how she must have been disappointed and shaken by such disciplinary treatment, to the point of utter inability to do what was expected of her. I wanted the mother to confess to the child that she had been mistaken and would like to reform her method, so I told her I did not really believe she could bring herself to do it, but that it was what I would do in the circumstances. She answered decidedly, “I will do it.” In my presence and with my help, she explained her mistake to the child. They kissed, embraced, and cried together. Two weeks later they both visited me, smiling and well satisfied. The mother brought me a message from the third-grade teacher: “a miracle must have happened. The girl is the best pupil in the class.”
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