Giving his child the freedom to create his own messy, imperfect reality is a father's most precious gift
DURING the past few weeks, much has been said and written about Hawaii's Super-Kids. You know who they are. We love them when they perform well for all the world to see. But when they stumble or let their guard down and act like the kids they really are, the media and public get in a tizzy.
Why are we so obsessed with these young sports phenoms? And what does any of this have to do with addictions?
Everything. Because from the moment we're born, whether we're conscious of it or not, life is about performing up to expectations. Heck, it starts even before we're conceived, with dad and mom imagining what their children will be like.
Some envision a future star athlete -- the next Colt Brennan, Tadd Fujikawa or Michelle Wie. Others hope their kids will be successful in business or the arts. Few think, "Gee, maybe my boy will turn out to be an alcoholic or addict who'll wind up in jail some day!" But it happens, nonetheless.
So when we see talented youngsters doing great things, I believe there's a certain amount of wish-fulfillment going on -- not for our kids, but for ourselves. Grown-ups like to fantasize about making tons of money for playing games we loved as children, without having adult responsibilities. In reality, there is tremendous pressure on these Super-Kids to act like mature adults, while having to stick to rigid schedules set by others. It is anything but child's play.
The buzz about Wie's recent struggles on the links reminded me of an article I read, titled "Worshiping Illusions" (Parabola magazine, Vol. 12-2, available at www.parabola.org). In the interview, Jungian analyst Marion Woodman discusses her book "Addiction to Perfection," which starts with the premise that everyone has a concept of the perfect child, and this causes parents to center their child's whole life around "performance." They want kids to fulfill an idealized vision they have, and anything that doesn't fit into that image gets quashed or repressed. Spontaneity is replaced by routines. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes.
The problem though is most children fall short of those lofty goals that parents have for them. If you're just an average kid, or have no special talent, how do you cope with being ordinary?
Woodman says you fixate on the illusion of what life should be like. That's why we worship sports heroes and American Idols. They embody our fantasies about youth, money and fame. But when we're confronted with failure or rejection, those illusions are destroyed. This is where addiction comes in.
If you've been living in a dream world and someone wakes you up with a cold dose of reality, Woodman says the natural reaction is: "I want my dreams back!" or "Give me spirit!" Drugs and booze ease the pain and allow the user to re-enter that dream-world state.
She believes substances we become addicted to are symbols for specific issues. For instance, the desire for "spirit" or light equates to a need for alcohol to fill the void. That makes sense. Alcohol is often referred to as "spirits," and spirit comes from the Latin word for "air" or "to breathe." Many alcoholics are trying to fill a spiritual emptiness inside. Likewise, food symbolizes feelings of insecurity about material things, according to Woodman.
She also asserts that perfection is a "patriarchal word" related to the masculine "power principle." It forces us to see things in black and white, as right or wrong, good or bad. I have to agree with Woodman. That winning-is-everything mentality really is a guy thing.
Which is sad, when we're talking about kids. Too many well-meaning dads drill young children in "perfect" technique and forget sports are supposed to be fun. As a perfectionist myself, I understand their desire to teach the "correct" way of doing things. But as I learned in recovery from 12-Step groups, perhaps it's better to emphasize "progress, not perfection." Otherwise, the fear of failure can become paralyzing for any child who wants to please their parents.
On this Father's Day, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my dad. Back in January, when he heard that I'd be writing a column for the Star-Bulletin, his immediate reaction was, "Don't write about me!" I'll never forget the look of horror in his eyes.
He'd be the first to tell you he wasn't a perfect father. And I admit to being every parent's worst nightmare: the good kid who goes bad -- then writes about it in tell-all confessionals that threaten to expose family secrets.
Relax, Dad. This piece isn't about what you did wrong. It's about what you did right. You taught me to think for myself, to fight for the things I believe in, and to pick myself up if I fell or got knocked down. Unfortunately, when I used to drink and party too much, I fell a lot.
Every parent of an addict wonders if they could have done anything to prevent their son or daughter from developing a problem. Maybe, but I doubt it. Each of us has to discover who we are on our own terms and timetable. My life has been far from perfect. But it's mine. And for that, I thank my dad for letting me be myself, which might be the hardest thing for any parent to do.
Rich Figel is a screenwriter who lives in Kailua. He has been clean and sober for 18 years. His column appears periodically in the Insight section. firstname.lastname@example.org