How Kids React to Parents' Mixed Messages

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In late 1987 and early 1988, a 9 year old girl named Sharon Batts, from an evangelical Protestant church group, got her 15 minutes of fame.  She sang on a record called Dear Mr. Jesus whose lyrics petitioned Jesus with a prayer to stop child abuse ("You cannot petition the Lord, with prayer!" - Jim Morrison, when he was a lad in seminary school).  The record, which was actually recorded three years earlier, received a lot of airplay leading to some notoriety for the girl.

She was interviewed on a news program with her mother and father.  The interviewerer asked the girl how she was handling her new-found fame.  The girl looked up at her parents before answering.  They asked her what would happen if she became too proud.  "I'll fall flat on my face," came the reply. 

In the back of the TV picture the parents sat smiling and were, as any child could see, absolutely beaming with pride. 

A bit of a double message, no?  If pride goeth before a fall, as the parents seemed to have coached the girl to say, then why were they availing themselves of it so readily? 

I believed that the girl was most likely coached to answer as she did because a short time later, on January 11, 1988, the girl was interviewed by People magazine.  In that interview she made the statement, "Sometimes whem peole get famous, they fall flat on their face."  Odd that she would make it a point to use the same words twice like that. 

Assume for the sake of argument that determining the parents' attitude towards the issue of pride was a pressing concern for this girl, and would function as an internal road map for how she would behave under a variety of circumstances. Let us further assume that a wrong determination would cause a tremendous uproar within her family. 

If this little girl were desperate to solve this problem, how would she go about making sense of her parents' behavior under these circumstances? How would she answer for herself the question of why there was such a discrepancy between their verbally expressed attitude towards the dangers of pride and their absolute pleasure in basking in it themselves? Would she think that she ought to be proud or humble?

First, could she come right out and ask them to explain the contradiction? In some families, this might be possible. However, I have reason to believe that in this family, it might not be possible. I of course could not prove it unless I had some form of verification from the family itself, but the very fact that an ambiguity exists, created by the mixed nature of the parents' behavior, might indicate that they were, unbeknownst to their daughter, highly conflicted about, and struggling over, the issue of pride themselves. 

Pride feels good, but I suspect it might be contrary to the group ethos expressed by the evangelical church to which this family belonged, where pride might be seen as hubris, an affront to God.

The rules by which the family operates might hinge on conforming to this view. It is indeed possible that family tranquility might be in part predicated on religious conformity and denying one's own specialness. On the other hand, the larger American culture, through the mass media and other methods, extols the virtues of unfettered individuality. Thus, pride might hold a bit of an allure. 

Under these circumstances, a question from the daughter concerning their apparent hypocrisy could create for the parents a state of anxiety, which could conceivably lead to a negative reaction. They might, for example, shift uncomfortably in their chairs and change the subject. Alternatively, they could get angry and deny any incongruity at all. They could become incensed that the girl would even dare question what was told to her verbally. Some parents in such a situation might even become abusive. If any of these responses were forthcoming, the girl would soon learn that direct questions are best avoided. She would need to come up with some other way to make a determination. 

Please keep in mind that a nine year old girl would be very unlikely to come up with the explanation that her parents were of two minds on the subject. Research indicates that the concept of ambivalence in human motivation does not begin to develop until the ages of 10-15, and that the practical application of such knowledge does not come into play until considerably later than that. Unfortunately, learned habits about role functioning in interpersonal relationships tend to develop far earlier in life, and tend to become almost reflexive or automatic in familiar-appearing situations.

Children and adults will tend to react to significant others as though they had only one goal or desire in each type of situation. This by no means indicates that adults function at the cognitive level of children, only that one often does not stop to think about habitual behavior.

So, how will our child decide which part of the double message to heed? I have found that the conclusions that children will reach in such a situation are rather predictable, and based on three general principles of hierarchically ranking mixed elements of a message. The first and perhaps the second of these principles may seem so obvious as to be truisms, but their axiomatic nature is belied by the ease with which they are forgotten in emotionally charged situations.

Principle #1:  As we all know, actions speak louder than words.  This is not as simple as it sounds, however, because the act of saying something is also an action itself.  Linguists talk about what they call speech acts.  If I come up to you and say, "I hear you're having a party next week," I am not only relaying to you what I heard about your plans for next week, but I am also fishing for an invitation.  So how can actions speak louder than words if words are also actions?

I will tell you. For example, say that a mother is constantly complaining about doing the housework, but faithfully and compulsively does it every single day, while consistently rejecting all offers of help. Children and other family members will draw not just one conclusion, but two conclusions: First, mother really does want to do the housework, and wants to do it all by herself. That's what she does.  Actions speak louder than words.  She also complains.  Therefore,  she must also enjoy complaining, even while doing things she likes to do. Actions speak louder than words.

No one will really think about the possibility that Mom really hates the work, but feels duty bound to perform it. Despite internal (intrapsychic) conflict being the mainstay of psychoanalysis, concepts from which are everywhere in our culture, this possibility does not seem to gain much traction in real life.

Now, having drawn these two conclusions, a problem is nonetheless created. If the children help with the housework, they may be stopped in their tracks, most usually with the verbal comment that they are not doing the housework well enough or correctly. If they do not help, they are criticized for not helping. Damned if they do; damned if they don't. What to do? 

One ingenous solutions is to not only refuse to help, but to make even more of a mess.  That way, their mother gets to do both more housework and more complaining.  Perfect! She should be so pleased. 

On the surface they may seem to be oppositional and defiant, but underneath that veneer they are actually giving their mother exactly what they think she needs from them.

I will cover Principles #2 and #3 in Part II of this series.