Those who grow up in a high demand religious group classify as a “Second Generation Adults” (SGAs) – adults who grew up under parenting that was dictated by and within a closed ideological system. The needs of “SGAs” are very different from those of the adults who make the choice as adults to yield themselves to such a system. These children who are born or inducted into a group never had the luxury of making such an independent choice. Depending on the group, many of these SGAs find that the parenting they received fell well below a “good enough” standard.
If you’re not acquainted with someone who is an SGA, think of people you know who were reared in a family where they had very strict standards for appearance, behavior, talking, not talking, work, outside activities, etc. For instance, that kind of profile of rules and regulations has often been seen in the families of pastors or missionaries. It can often have a crippling effect on children, leaving them overly compliant – or perhaps the opposite: out of control and self-destructive.
Finding the Gaps: Defining “Not Good Enough”
As a nurse, I learned how Eric Erikson's framework of mental growth and development is especially important when caring for those who are ill, especially children. Not only does this assessment help to identify learning issues or delays, it also provides a critical measure of the child’s coping. If a child reverts back into the struggles associated with an earlier stage, that loss of competency and regression becomes an adjunct to the clinical findings, serving as an indicator of how well (or poorly) the medical team has met the child’s needs. Stress and illness also interfere with normal growth and development – as do the harsh demands that high demand groups place on chldren.
For the sake of illustration, let us consider a toddler in early childhood. Children of this age should be busy learning where they begin and where they end, how to control themselves, and how to tolerate frustration from the constraints of life. The parent’s job involves setting limits for toddlers while nurturing and rewarding their ability to be patient, all while mastering basic skills that are often frustrating for them which initially feels uncomfortable as opposed to pain. Now, think of children who have been conditioned to be silent through blanket training or through use of the “Biblical rod” often and several times before breakfast. Their experience of learning mastery can very well become unbalanced, and they internalize far more shame and guilt as opposed to healthy independence as the basis for initiative.
As a young adult, I worked on my deficits that arose because of the themes and problems in my life. I quickly realized that instead of focusing on and mastering intimate relationships, I had to go back to work on issues of trust versus mistrust – core issues of infancy. And I still contend with this remedial work but make progress by sticking with healthy self-care. In the long run, this need did direct me back to “fill in the gaps,” and that has been a marvelous impetus to develop my character. I had to “reframe” the deficits that had created some debilitation. They became opportunities to purposely work at becoming the best person that I could be.
Unreasonable Expectations for Kids in High Demand Groups
We all have gaps, but those with “good enough” parenting don’t suffer debilitation. Those from totalist environments usually suffer with a degree of impairment that requires soul searching and skill development later in life. But making peace with the idea that I even needed to do this because my circumstances robbed me of “what should have been” was also a developmental challenge. It was yet another area of acceptance and work – on top of everything else. I also did much grieving, for my anger voiced that grief. (Always remember that anger is not a sin in itself but is a symptom of a problem or a challenge. It is often a function of discernment and safety.)
Though this is another large subject, parents who raise their children within a high-demand system tend to develop unreasonable expectations for them. This series of posts discusses the more common pitfalls that parents fall into, often because their religious group denied that healthy children manifest immaturity. The primary qualities that parents must nurture in children and must give to them include value, a sense of human vulnerability (especially for children), imperfection, and the quality of immaturity which is normal for children. High-demand groups tend to see these qualities as sinful self-centeredness.