The following was syndicated from Quora for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].
What breeds the worst outcome: spoiling or neglect?
Well in some ways this was the first “in my face” awareness issue I had as a professional. I’d taken a job as a parole officer with the district court. Very quickly, I decided that in good conscience I needed to be more than a “rubber stamp” for 10 minutes once a month with my assigned parolees. I began to require actual counseling sessions each month to be a presence and change agent if possible, in their lives. Otherwise, it would be a ritual of dire warnings, perfunctory questions and then frequently the resignation as they broke their parole and were re-arrested and incarcerated. So these sessions allowed me to explore how they’d ended up in a chair across from me and figure out a way to change the course of their life during our required relationship. It became an interesting journey of discovery I can share elsewhere.
But I started noticing an interesting phenomenon as I acquired experience. Ironically, unlike my initial assumptions, the poor and the wealthy seemed to have similar problems. They just came at it from entirely opposite directions.
Any extreme sets up anxiety. Excess or scarcity unbalances nature which is undesirable. The poorer kids were oft times neglected. Almost all were yelled at and degraded or humiliated, even as toddlers. Their souls were burned with never being good enough, ever. They believed they had to be smarter, quieter, prettier, nicer, or the best, and because they couldn’t, it would seem better just not exist and their parent-Gods would be better off. All they were was a “piece of shite” that should have been flushed. An amazing number of them had actually been told that. So those kids concluded: “I don’t care. No one cares for me so I don’t care. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. You have to lie, steal, and cheat to get ahead. You are alone.”
That set up a lifetime of misery as they tended to con themselves as much as others, thinking of it as the only way to survive. They’d no idea the “not caring” is truly about themselves deep inside and that avoiding it would lead to their demise. They tended to think because the world was against them, the smarter thing was to act accordingly and fulfill their prophecy. I couldn’t “talk” them out of it.
These kids learned the only one they can rely on is themselves. That generally made them loners but often resilient. They tended not to trust others. Sometimes a few were lucky enough to have someone help them break out of the program. They started to trust others and learn honesty as the way out. Very, very difficult. A teacher, a boss, a neighbor; someone touched their life and offered an alternative.
They tended to think because the world was against them, the smarter thing was to act accordingly and fulfill their prophecy.
On the other hand were the kids who were over indulged and protected. These kids learned they were more important to their parents than anything they did. Spoiled is about fruit over-ripening so much it’s gone bad. In people, like in fruit, cloyingly sweet is not seen as a desired quality. Other kids don’t like them as they’d come to believe the world is there to serve only them. They expect to be catered to by the world, just like their parents have at home. They have no sense of urgency or real problems. Acquisitions were their way to relieve the boredom of repetitiveness. The newest, latest thing to possess or to let them believe they were winning.
When things broke, they simply got new ones. When they did something wrong, they only had to say “I’m sorry” and things went on as before. When they got in trouble, their parents would get them out of it. After having hundreds of thousands of those as experiences, they concluded: “I don’t care.” “I don’t have to care.” “I can lie, cheat or steal and not care because I will experience minimum or no consequences. I can talk my way out of anything so rules do not apply to me.”
These kids are seen as bullies but are weak without backup. They are dependent personalities who use externals to be okay be it parent’s money, prestige, or position of influence. Without it, they look pretty pathetic. They don’t know how to stand on their own. They’ve never had to develop their own character. They lack resilience as they’ve not had to really rely on themselves. So these kids don’t believe in themselves either but they somehow believe others owe them.
So despite the obvious advantages of being rich vs. poor, both ended up in my office. Often, the wealthy child had a much longer path to get there; so, ironically being older and having more misadventures before the consequences caught up with them, had a harder road to travel to reverse course.
So which developed the worst outcome? The question became really about when it is time to grow out of childhood training and be a responsible adult. Is going up or going down more difficult? Is it more difficult trusting others or trusting yourself? I’ve dealt with plenty of both as patients over the years. Both seem to have to hit the proverbial bottom in order to get well and advance.
In some ways the wealthy kids are easier because if their resources are cut off, they learn to rely on themselves, something they should have been doing all along. In addition, many, despite the silver spoon, did get a good education and had some aspect of life they found fascinating. They have other resources to capitalize on usually because they are networked including, many times, connections of people with the resources to assist them. More so, they know what the good life is like and want to get back there economically. Sometimes unfortunately it just resets their familiar trap.
It’s easier to retrain a narcissist than a sociopath.
The disadvantaged child has a different set of problems. Many times they didn’t get any love so trusting is an anathema to them. They only trust themselves so have difficulty networking outside their comfort zone, which usually means people like themselves. These are disenfranchised kids who tend to interact with institutions that have correcting behaviors as their goal. That tends to increase their distrust, not lessen it. Most seem to learn better manipulation skills rather than to decide to get well.
That said, there are kids in this group who just need a break; if one person genuinely shows them interest, will turn their life around. These kids have moxie and, given the right influence and help, become drivers who want to better themselves; to show the people who disparaged them at the beginning or reward the individual who did believe in them.
So the harder part is to show the deficit kids the world cares. That they are lovable for simply existing and don’t have to earn it. To get over abandonment enough they don’t become evil, isolated or users which is a common long term consequence. It’s easier to retrain a narcissist than a sociopath.
My time as a parole officer was an invaluable part of my professional training but also gave me the personal reward of being “that person” for many, many young people whose lives were changed by our time together.
Over the years, long after I’d left that job, I’d run into them while I was running errands or attending a movie or event and they would greet me like a long lost friend to update me on their life and progress. Not all of the stories were uninterrupted success but enough to remind me of how significant it can be to just have one person see you and take an interest, even if it’s your parole officer.
Mike Leary is a psychologist who primarily deals with relationships and parenting. You can read more from Quora here: