BEFORE CHILD PSYCHOLOGY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother was born in 1916 and was brought up before modern child psychology was a ‘thing’. Judging from her early experiences, no one in those days seemed to worry about damaging the psyches of impressionable young children.

For example, my mother was born left-handed. This was not acceptable at the time, so she was forced to switch to using her right hand as her dominant hand. She succeeded but as a result, developed a stutter. This is apparently common when you mess with the two sides of the brain. The expert my grandmother consulted told her that there was an easy cure. Just smack my mom in the face every time she stuttered! It did stop her stuttering. Let’s not even think about the psychological side effects.

At the age of around five or six, Mom developed a serious ear infection. It required a horribly painful draining procedure involving long needles. She had to go through this every few days for weeks. The doctor wouldn’t allow my grandmother to even be in the room with her terrified child during the procedures. Mom was literally ripped, screaming from her mother’s arms, held down by several adults, tortured and yelled at when she cried. Talk about trauma.

It sounds totally barbaric today. This may have just been a particularly sadistic doctor, or maybe that was how things were done then. Either way, my grandmother, a usually strong and vocal woman, was too intimidated by ‘the professional’ to challenge him.

But then my grandparents did some awful things too. As a child, my mother had a thick, black uni-brow. To me, she looked adorable, but in 1916-1926, she was considered ugly. So of course, all the relatives referred to her, in front of her as the ‘meiskheit’ or ‘ugly one’. Everyone said she was lucky she had such a great personality. She turned into a beautiful woman in her teens, but she never recovered from those early labels. For the rest of her life, her self-image was that of an ugly duckling.

Mom and her parents

Here’s another example of psychological obtuseness. My grandfather was a serious hypochondriac. He had made some money and he and his family were living comfortably. But over a seven-year period, he spent all of the family money on cures and spas for his imaginary illnesses. He even had an unnecessary surgery that actually almost killed him!

While Grandpa was ‘recovering’ in a sanatorium, Grandma had no money. She and Mom had to go live with relatives. One was my grandmother’s brother, Abe. For some reason it was decided that my mom, a young child, would sleep in a bed with Abe’s wife, who was a raging psychotic. She would regularly wake Mom up in the middle of the night and make her go to the roof. There Mom’s aunt would threaten to jump because she said that her eyes were falling out of her head. Mom would have to talk her down and get her back to bed. On her own. Who knows what these people were thinking putting a young child through an experience like that.

I’m just glad that by the time I was born there was some sensitivity to children’s emotional needs. When I had my tonsils out at the age of six, in 1955, the hospital didn’t automatically bring in cots like they do now so that parents could sleep with their children. But the hospital did let my mom sleep next to me in a chair all night. A far cry from my Mom’s horrific medical experiences.

Thank goodness for Doctors Freud and Spock!

10 thoughts on “BEFORE CHILD PSYCHOLOGY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • There are two issues in parenting. The knowledge issue – how much you know about how to best handle children at different stages of life, and the Emotional issue – how your own psychology determines how you treat your children. I can forgive the second. But it kills me when people don’t even make an effort to learn anything about child development and child psychology. They are not just mini adults.

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    • My son is also left handed and he is ambidextrous in many things. But funny story – when we realized that David was a lefty, we asked everyone who in the family was left handed. My Mom completely blocked out that she had been a lefty! It wasn’t till David was around two years old that she suddenly remembered that it was her genes that David had inherited! Understandable.

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      • My mother is the only person I ever knew who could do almost anything with either hand, including write, play games. Sew. If one arm got tired, she’d just switch arms. She was very into sports and in all the years I played against her, she ALWAYS beat me. With both hands.

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    • People just didn’t understand that children’s brains are different from adult brains. Also, people don’t take into account that different things develop in kids at different times. So a three year old will be able to do and understand things that a two year old can’t, etc. It seems obvious, but my ex husband just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that little kids couldn’t understand things the way he did. We fought constantly!

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        • No matter how much people “know” about child psychology, there is a very strong urge to do what your parents did, for better or for worse. A family therapist once asked my ex why he modeled many of his parenting practices on his father, who he admitted was a terrible father. Why would anyone knowingly do that? My ex was a smart man. His answer was that some of his father’s tyrannical behaviors “worked” to motivate my ex. So sometimes you see what you need to see from your own childhood.

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