Recently I visited a lovely open farm in rural East Anglia. During a brief interlude (a pee-break) I was standing there minding my own business, when I overheard the following conversation:
Boy, around 7/8 years old: "Dad, why didn't you feed the Alpacas too?"
Dad (disparagingly) "That's a children's activity!"
Boy: " (pauses)..... Mum fed the Alpacas......"
Dad: "Wash your hands."
For a long time, therapists have described people has having a young child within them. Of course every 'flavour' of therapist has their own way of describing this psychic structure, whether conscious or unconscious. But it turns up in therapeutic situations time after time, when someone experiences that familiar inner conflict between their natural spontaneous desires and the conditioning of the environment.
In Transactional Analysis, it's commonly described as the conflict between the Free (or Natural) Child ego state and the Adapted Child. The Natural Child is capable of uninhibited acts of joy (or aything else for that matter), and is spontaneous, creative, and free. The Adapted Child (as the name suggests) has learned what "works" in his/her environment - I can get good feedback for behaving like this.... and people don't love me if I do this.....
So begins a process where kids learn how to behave... and as grown-ups they find themselves holding back from certain acts of spontaneity.
The most obvious forms of parental shaping of the child in this context, then, are the positive reinforcement of 'acceptable' behaviours and the sanctions against unacceptable ones. The Adaptation takes place in the context of good or bad feedback.
When I overheard the conversation above, my heart sank. It reminded me how important it is for kids to be given Permission to have (and keep) their Natural Child. Otherwise, they risk becoming inhibited, too grown-up, and maybe unfulfilled in all kinds of ways.... in their work, in their relationships, in the bedroom, and elsewhere.
I realise now that I like working in this area. I often find myself asking people to consider their Natural Child needs, and inviting them to give themselves Permission if they need it. On other occasions, I have found myself offering it - usually in some irreverent comment, or playful act. (I remember once climbing up and standing on my desk, Dead Poets-style!).
When I heard that Dad speak, I would really have liked to have appealed to the Child in him - perhaps through humour - and invited him to go and PLAY with his kid. What a valuable Permission he would have been offering! One that he most likely lacked himself, of course....