“ My 15 year old son Alex is beginning to study for his GCSEs. His range of subjects includes history - my own specialist subject - as a Head of Department in an academic school. I really enjoyed this at the beginning but now I find myself getting irritated as he professes great surprise that I should be aware of the basic things he is studying and clearly considers himself the real expert. My wife says I should be flattered he is trying to be like me but I find it very difficult”.
Through love and attachment we identify as small children with the skills and behaviour of the adults who bring us up. This is largely an unconscious invisible form of identification. Indeed, child psychotherapist Anne Alvarez, author of “Live Company” (Routledge) considers that this force needs to be invisible. “However, hidden behind the invisibility I find that the child’s capacity to freely identify is linked to the parent’s permission for the child to be like them”.
Where something in the child or the parent impedes this process something different becomes visible and we can distinguish between identification and “copying”. Small children are very aware of this difference. 7-year-old Sara knew quite well that when her classmate Ben tried to draw a house the way she did it was because he appreciated the fact that she was a better artist. “Here. You haven’t done the chimney properly” she said, pushing her drawing nearer to him. However, when another pupil, Tom, drew a house like hers she angrily said “Stop copying!”. She knew emotionally that the intention behind his action - the very same action as Ben’s - was different.
Sometimes the same action can contain both features. It is therefore possible that both the W.G’s are correct. A few days ago I observed 15-year-old Maria, who had a severe learning disability, copy the shopping list her mother had handed to her. “The shops will be closed if you don’t go out now”, said her mother, trying not to sound irritated. The girl carried on until she had completed copying the list, threw her mother’s list in the dustbin and proudly walked out with her own list & the shopping bag. The mother burst into tears. Maria did indeed want to be able to be like her mother but had disowned her mother’s knowledge. There was a poignant extra twist in that because of her learning disability she knew she would never be able to write as well as her mother. Therefore she could angrily try to make her mother’s writing meaningless by throwing it away at the same time as trying to proudly own it as her own invention. Whilst Alex can write complex essays he and Maria are struggling with similar issues. In mid adolescence how do you evolve your own voice?
Psychotherapist Anne Alvarez comments “14 & 15 year olds are notoriously ungrateful - are only just discovering their own interests and the parent should feel flattered and shut up for the time being and try not be too hurt. Every parent of an adolescent feels hurt that they are not acknowledged but Mr W.G would feel more hurt if the child hated history and let us hope that in his 20s the young man will see the links between his thinking and his father’s. On the more pathological level there are narcissistic kids and people who never feel gratitude or own the source of their inspiration and a balanced state is to own what is yours and your variation and where you got it from in the first place”.
Roger Kennedy, training analyst and consultant psychotherapist to the Family Unit at the Cassell Hospital agrees. “It is flattering that a son wants to be like his father at an age where he is also struggling for his own identity. I would also be wondering if he was trying to work out his own opinion or my opinion. A further point I would make is that intellectual identification could also be easier than a physical or sexual one. In teens it can be safer to identify with ideas rather than worry about bodies or boys and girls”.
So far we have concentrated on hypotheses concerning Alex. However, it is not possible to tell from the letter whether the problem is more linked to Alex or to Mr W.G. Are there factors in his background that would make him feel threatened by a growing son? BAP Adult psychotherapist & child psychotherapist Mrs Wendy Feldman comments “It is always painful to have to realise that a child is growing up and becoming a man and entering into direct rivalry with the master of the house and mastering certain tasks-like his task of getting an O level in history. Mr W.G. seems to lack the necessary pride in his son that could mitigate his feeling of being ousted. His wife says he should feel proud but he just feels robbed of something and perhaps he should look a little bit inward as to what he has been robbed of as well the fact that his son might outstrip him as an adult.”
These issues do not disappear in young adulthood - they are just played out with different people - including teachers. Novelist Irving Weinmann who teaches creative writing at City Literary Institute and University is used to “galloping guruism”. This is how he names the process whereby “Students tell you that something you said was useful and you find it coming back at you in a raw way. You want to say-look-this comes from me and it is alright but it is also a distortion of me which is not so alright so here is what you do. And then you talk about how to acknowledge ideas that are not direct quotes and that is a far more common kind of plagiarism. If you are teaching well and have a good relationship you can work that out with them”.
In later adulthood many work problems come from such “ownership” difficulties. Even where an academic paper tries to serve as a patent envy can make such knowledge invisible. Estela Welldon, Consultant Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist at the Portman Clinic who has been a pioneer in the field of female perversion is used to seeing a process in which her ideas are copied without acknowledgement. “Pioneering work can be flattered as a disguise for hidden envy that is only discovered when plagiarism takes place. I find that everyone wants to create a baby, an original idea, but the bringing up of the baby is much more difficult.”
Parents, like the W.Gs have the task of bringing up the baby and staying with it through all the life changes that follow. Mr and Mrs W.G. need to consider together their differing perspectives. What has caused Mr W.G’s changed views? Is Mrs W.G. helpfully aiding her husband or siding with her son in an attack on Mr W.G. Is Alex happily oblivious to these processes or struggling with feelings of vulnerability? We can all remember the fable of the mouse on the elephant’s back who said “Boy- didn’t we shake that bridge!” There is a time when the elephant needs to allow the mouse that illusion and a time for gently pointing out that it is not the whole story although it might be in the future.