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Society of Mind

17.8 attachment-images

Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. —Jewish proverb

All people talk of goals and dreams, of personal priorities, of goods and bads, rights and wrongs, virtues and depravities. What makes our ethics and ideals develop in our children's minds?

In one of the theories of Sigmund Freud, an infant becomes enamored of one or both parents, and somehow this leads the baby into absorbing or, as Freud put it, introjecting the goals and values of those love-objects. Thenceforth, throughout later life, those parent-images persist inside the grown-up child's mind, to influence whatever thoughts and goals are considered worthy of pursuit. We are not compelled to agree with all of Freud's account, but we have to explain why children develop models of their parents' values at all.

So far as the child's safety is concerned, it would suffice for attachment to keep the child in the parents' physical vicinity. What could be the biological and psychological functions of developing complicated self-ideals?

The answer seems quite clear to me. Consider that our models of ourselves are so complex that even adults can't explain them. How could a fragmentary infant mind know enough to build such a complicated thing — without some model upon which to base it? We aren't horn with built-in Selves — but most of us are fortunate enough to he born with human caretakers. Then, our attachment mechanisms force us to focus on our parents' ways, and this leads us to build crude images of what those parents themselves are like. That way, the values and goals of a culture pass from one generation to the next. They are not learned the way skills are learned. We learn our earliest values under the influence of attachment-related signals that represent, not our own success or failure, but our parents' love or rejection. When we maintain our standards, we feel virtuous rather than merely successful. When we violate those standards, we feel shame and guilt rather than mere disappointment. This is not just a matter of words: those things are not the same; it is like the difference between ends and means.

How could coherence be imposed upon a multitude of mindless agencies? Freud may have been the first to see that this could emerge from the effects of infant attachment. It was several more decades before psychologists recognized that separating children from their attachments can have devastating effects on the growth of their personalities. Freud also observed that children frequently reject one parent in favor of the other, in a process that suggests the cross-exclusiveness of sexual jealousy; he called this the Oedipus complex. It seems plausible that something of this sort ought to happen regardless of any connection between attachment and sexuality. If a developing identity is based upon that of another person, it must become confusing to be attached to two dissimilar adult models. This might lead a child to try to simplify the situation by rejecting or removing one of them from the scene.

Many people dislike the thought of being dominated from within by the image of a parent's wish. Yet, in exchange, that slavery is just what makes us relatively free (as compared with other animals) from being forced to obey so many other kinds of unlearned, built-in instinct-goals.