Old Ghosts

Most parents have seen or read Selma Fraiberg’s book, “The Magic Years.” If it has escaped you, make sure to find it as it is the best you can find about the development of young children. Fraiberg has also written many papers, one in particular called “Ghosts in the Nursery.”

The “ghosts in the nursery” are things we experienced when we ourselves were children, which sometimes pop up to haunt us when we become parents. Those ghosts may have to do with relationships we had with our own parents, or things about ourselves that may have caused us difficulty. Without realizing it, those old ghosts can influence the way we see our own children and the way we interact with them.

Old ghosts can also impact on our relationships with others as well as on our own behavior in general. When writing something recently I found myself remembering many things from the past that seemed to explain more contemporary behavior. For instance, I become very upset when losing something. I suddenly remembered as a child having left a book out in the rain. My mother’s anger about that has remained with me and probably influenced my insistence that my children take care of their things.

On the other hand, my children always teased their father about remembering things that had never happened. Those always seemed to me to be memories that created wished for events, or “I wish I had done that” moments. The point is that ghosts are often something we imagined, or events that as children we experienced in particular ways that may not have been what was intended.

Parents, in talking to me about a child’s behavior that is of concern to them often focus on social behavior, particularly “shyness.” One mother told me how her daughter retreats in social situations, unable to deal with them as easily as do other children. In the course of the discussion I asked her if her daughter reminded her of anyone. This led to her revelation that she was like that as a child and she remembers it causing her great misery.

Trying to solve her own difficulty as a child she was inadvertently putting pressure on her child, increasing the very behavior she was trying to change. Unhappily, that is what we often do when trying to get rid of our own childhood ghosts, which are haunting our present-day interactions with our children. At times, our old ghosts are not as clear to us and the connection is not so readily made with our current behavior. Thinking about our own growing-up years can help us make those connections.

When parents to be are expecting a child, part of pregnancy is imagining what that expected child will be like. A connection is made with that imagined child. When the real baby arrives, part of the challenge for parents is dealing with the difference between the real and the imagined child. And that challenge recurs at various times as a child grows and develops.

Our imagined children are always perfect. Our real children never are. The “ghosts” may make their appearance when we react to what we may see as our children’s “imperfections”. Of course, our own upbringing plays a big role in how we raise our children. But in thinking about our own lives, it helps to recognize that our children are entitled to their own. You are not your mother or father and your child is not you. Her life will be different from yours.

Ghosts are often invisible. Bringing them into view is what makes it possible to sweep them away.