Angels in Childhood

Selma Fraiberg, author of a famous book, “The Magic Years,” wrote a paper called “Ghosts in the Nursery,” in which she described how negative experiences in a parent’s life may be repeated unknowingly as she raises her own child which then interferes with the child’s development. Fraiberg’s colleague, Alicia Lieberman, responded with another paper called, “Angels in the Nursery.” Her idea was that even under adverse circumstances, parents may provide children with positive experiences that can become a source of strength and can be used to overcome difficulties.

In much that is written about and for parents these days, we hear more about the ghosts than the angels. We read about what parents are doing wrong rather than about what they are doing right. Parents themselves worry about their own child-rearing skills and search for the “right” way to do things with the goal of doing the best possible for their children.

A child psychiatrist spoke with admiration about video research with mothers and babies showing the earliest instances of mothers’ failures to respond appropriately to their very young babies during feedings and other interactions. It seemed exciting to her to think of the potential for intervention early on in a child’s development.

Possibly such intervention might be useful in extreme circumstances of abusive or clearly destructive behavior. But thinking about the idea of the “angels” rather than the “ghosts” of development, it seems that we need to be careful in thinking about the influence of parents on their children as they develop. More often than we imagine children take from life experiences something different from reality as we remember it.

This happens because of the difference in children’s skills cognitively and emotionally at various stages of development which influence their perceptions and experience. It is always interesting to hear my adult children recounting incidents from their childhood that are not at all as I remember them, or to hear their interpretation of various events which clearly reflect the way they experienced them.

Often overlooked in the judgment made of parents by others, or the judgments we make of ourselves, is the adaptation made by both child and parent to each other in the course of the interactions between them. Babies at birth are unsocialized creatures and it falls to parents to bring them into a social world. The social world into which children first learn to adapt is their immediate family, meaning the characteristics and expectations of specific people.

From early infancy on parental expectations shape the experience of their children. Parents work towards specific intervals between feedings leading eventually to three meals a day. Sleep patterns are required that differentiate night and day. Other expectations lead to eating with utensils, drinking from a cup, using the toilet as well as other self-help skills.

Obviously, these parental expectations require increasing levels of competence on the part of children, but they also require a willing compliance. There is no perfect matching between expectation and competence and it is in the back and forth between parent and child, between expectation and compliance that conflicts may arise.

In the course of such interactions parent and child learn about each other. Parents try to take into consideration what they have learned about their children as they pursue their expectations but children bring their own will and wishes to bear. The point is that this process differs in every parent/child pair – even within the same family – because of the innate differences between children.

Parents and children learn to accommodate to each other’s personalities. Angels live in those interactions not only ghosts.