OVERIDENTIFYING

No, that isn’t the upshot. We can criticize parents who overidentify with their children without saying they shouldn’t identify with them at all. In fact, understanding identification as inherent in parenthood helps us explain and anticipate the tendency to overidentify. Consider, by analogy, the tendency to overprotect. Recognizing this as a common parental vice doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t protect their children at all. In fact, their role as protectors makes it more explicable that overprotecting is a common parental vice.

Identifying with kids as they negotiate the complicated task of transitioning to college is actually vital. Recall some of the attitudes that go into regarding your child as a second self: generosity is easy, unlike the full-blown altruism we sometimes extend to others; there is pride in their accomplishments (and shame in their failures); we feel noncompetitive with our children; we have a tendency to inflate their strengths. These are attitudes that are helpful to parents of young adults, at least up to a point. Nonaltruistic generosity and pride help the parent foot the bill for what can be an extraordinarily expensive four years. Shame sounds entirely negative, but feeling vicariously bad about a child’s low grades can motivate parents to hold kids to standards—reasonable ones—day after day, year after year. Noncompetition makes it possible to rejoice when our kids excel, rather than feeling intimidated by them. It also rules out rivalry; for example, it’s unusual for a mother to resent a daughter for being the recipient of her father’s financial largesse. Even inflation of a child’s strengths has its benefits, to the extent that parents’ overconfidence in their children can make up for a child’s lack of confidence. The identifying parent is helpful up to a point—until he or she starts to overidentify.

Overidentifying means ... what? Wanting for your children exactly what you would want for yourself. Being overinvolved in their successes to make up for the absence ofyour own. Caring about them primarily based on their achievements. Feeling devastated by their failures to the point that you can’t intervene constructively. Taking over the whole process, so kids can’t learn self-sufficiency or take pride in themselves. Treating a child too much as a second self and not enough as separate.

Deresiewicz’s advice to students—get rid ofyour parents!—will make many a parent flinch. We want our children to come into their own selves and achieve self-sufficiency, but we also want to have an ongoing relationship with them. The same alarming message can be found in "Don’t Pick Up: Why Kids Need to Separate from Their Parents,” a funny and profound essay by Stanford English professor Terry Castle. She notes how many protagonists of great novels are orphans and says that’s indicative of the fact that children can’t really begin interesting lives of their own as long as their parents are hanging around, keeping them safe. "[W]e often know them by a single name or nickname: Moll, Tom, Fanny, Becky, Heathcliff,

Jane, Pip, Oliver, Ishmael, Huck, Dorothea, Jude, Isabel, Milly, Lily, Lolly, Sula.” Children’s literature is also brimming with orphans and unsupervised children. The Boxcar Children come to mind, as does Sarah Crewe in The Little Princess, Pippi Longstocking, and Harry Potter. It’s typical that the fun begins in The Cat in the Hat when Mom leaves the house, and all the fun is over on the last page, when Mom’s leg comes into view. Castle expresses her own "twisty, fraught, and disloyal” view this way:

Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an "adult” life, a meaningful life, it is necessary,

I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning.

The ubiquitous orphan story teaches a lesson to budding adults and their parents:

[I] t is indeed the self-conscious abrogation of one’s inheritance, the "making strange” of received ideas, the cultivation of a willingness to defy, debunk, or just plain old disappoint one’s parents, that is the absolute precondition, now more than ever, for intellectual and emotional freedom.

For panicked parents reading this passage, the crucial word is "willingness.” I think I can agree that a child does have to cultivate a willingness to defy, debunk, disappoint. To live an adult, meaningful life, you have to be prepared to go where you must, even at the cost of self-orphaning, but why must that be the cost?

 
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