In her wise book The Conscious Parent, Dr. Shefali Tsabary describes how we displace our own psychic conflicts onto our kids. She depicts such a dynamic between mom Anya, whose parents held her to impossible standards, and Anya’s daughter Jessica, who in adolescence began acting out her mother’s unresolved pain. “She was the flag bearer for her mother’s unfought war,” writes Tsabary poetically (2014, p. 30).
C.G. Jung noted this tendency to pass psychic struggles down through the generations. “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically… on children than the unlived life of the parent,” Jung wrote (CW 14, para 21). In other words, our children will inherit what we have not made conscious.
Sometimes we pass on to our children unmetabolized trauma from our own life. We unconsciously bequeath it to them for them to work through as they may. Sometimes, however, the psychological inheritance we have to offer our children includes insights and strengths that we have gained as a result of wrestling with our demons.
The African American tale “Wiley and the Hairy Man” illustrates just such a situation. Young Wiley lives near a swamp with his mother. His father disappeared years ago, and when he asked his mother what happened, his mother said that the Hairy Man got him.
Wiley’s mom always warned him to bring his dogs with him when he was out in the swamp so that they could protect him from the Hairy Man. One day, however, Wiley left his dogs tied up on his porch. The Hairy Man appeared to him in a fearsome shape and threatened to eat him, but Wiley tricked the Hairy Man into making all of the rope in the county disappear. In a moment, Wiley heard the baying of his dogs as they headed straight for him, and the Hairy Man disappeared in a flash. That was the first time Wiley tricked the Hairy Man.
The next time Wiley forgot his dogs at home, the Hairy Man came back for him. This time, Wiley tricked the Hairy Man into turning himself into a possum. Wiley grabbed him, stuck him in a sack his mother had given him, and threw the Hairy Man in the river. And that was the second time he tricked the Hairy Man. But as Wiley was heading home, he heard the Hairy Man’s voice calling after him, “I’m coming to get you … tonight!”
Wiley went straight home and told his mother all about what had happened. “Wiley,” said his mother. “You tricked the Hairy Man twice. If you can trick him a third time, he will have to stay away from you forever.” Wiley’s mother told him to fetch the baby pig from the barn and put it in his own bed with the covers heaped on top. Then she told him to hide. Soon there was a knock on the door. Wiley’s mother answered.
“I’m the Hairy Man and I’ve come to get your little one!” Wiley’s mother made him promise to go away and never come back if she gave him her baby. The Hairy Man promised. Then Wiley’s mom stepped aside and pointed to the bed. “He’s over there,” she said. The Hairy Man went to Wiley’s bed, tore the covers off – and stopped short, staring at the baby pig! The Hairy Man stomped, gnashed his teeth, and growled, but he had been tricked three times, and had to go away forever.
Young Wiley faces a frightening life challenge that defeated his father before him, but his mother uses her experience and wisdom to ensure her son’s fate is different from his father’s. In fact, many of the Hairy Men that we meet in our lives are versions of the same demons that haunted our parents, as psychological challenges are often passed down the generations. If we can become conscious as parents of ancestral patterns, we may be able to give our children tools to overcome conflict of ancient origin.
My client Neil had carried a heavy ancestral burden of failure and loss. His grandfather had been a wealthy businessman in Austria before World War II, but the family lost everything when the Nazis came to power. When Neil’s father arrived in the United States, he was determined to right the wrongs committed against his family by becoming a millionaire, thus restoring his family’s fortune and prestige. He failed in this goal, however, and instead slipped into alcoholism. Neil was tasked with carrying forward the family quest for restitution. He felt pressured to compensate for both his father’s failure, and his grandfather’s unjust treatment, and therefore strove for achievement in a compulsive, unhealthy way that left him divorced and depressed by the time he was forty.
Neil decided he wanted to pass on a different legacy to his son. After doing his own work and coming to realize how unconscious ancestral agendas had been running his life, Neil set about transmitting very different values to his child, teaching him to value family, nature, solitude, and learning. Neil has been proud and happy to watch his son move out into life with joy and aliveness, relatively unencumbered by generations of family expectations.
Sierra, J., & Pinkney, J. B. (1996). Wiley and the Hairy Man. New York: Lodestar Books.
Jung, C. G. (1963). Collected works of C.G. Jung volume 14: mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry in separation and synthesis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Tsabary, S. (2014). The conscious parent. London: Yellow Kite.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.