The Naughty Citizen

Is the effect of the transgressive behaviour of impotent parents on children comparable to that of impotent leaders on the population?

Powerless Parents

How do children react to dysfunctional parents? Some parents are unable to give their children the love, attention, and stability they need. Sometimes this impotence takes cross-border forms such as neglect, emotional or physical violence, threats or long-term insecurity.

Children always relate this impotence to themselves because they cannot choose their parents themselves or leave. They are materially and emotionally dependent on their parents. The child who has to deal with cross-border parental impotence will always project the experienced pain onto himself: “Daddy is so busy, I must have been naughty that he is so angry”. The child feels guilty despite the parent acting and being responsible. Because of this dependence, children are also infinitely loyal: as the parents become more impotent, their loyalty and admiration will grow. After all, it is in the child’s interest to counterbalance the chaos to keep the system in equilibrium. The regularly heard observations that children “adapt easily” when it comes to masks or vaccinations completely ignore this. And, of course, these are unconscious processes in the child. The child who is made unreasonable demands enters a catch-22. It will either behave and be humiliated or break the rule and be punished. The aggression in such a family system, children do not direct towards the parents. Their dependence on them leads them to direct their attack towards each other or to something or someone else in the outside world, or they direct the aggression to themselves.

Powerless Leaders

It is highly plausible that these system dynamics in “mature systems”, i.e. in (parts of) society, especially when the leadership becomes more authoritarian and less democratic and empathetic, will show similar group dynamics. In fact, at the system level, the parent-child relationship is mimicked, which is enhanced by the regressive effect of the collective fear.

The government that bases its policies on the fact that the majority of the population seems to support those policies (aside from the fact that this is determined by tiny samples) ignores the phenomenon that the traumatized child prefers to be loyal to the parent rather than to resist. That is not a free choice but a dependent choice. As the child gets more reproached, it will be even obedient. A government that unusually authoritatively addresses the population’s irresponsible behaviour will reap an even more obedient and docile people that – adult after all – will say that out of “commitment to the other”.

As the policy becomes more unreasonable and irrational, more individuals and institutions will call out that it is all so obvious and understandable what those placed above us do. They will call on authorities against which we – in good Catholic practice – are not supposed to enter into the discussion.

Last but not least, the media, the eldest son who normally does not want to be good but now believes that he has to take responsibility and is therefore rather incredible, fully support this strategy.

The government that creates chaos, moralizes and admonishes, and blames groups does not create revolution and protest – at least not in the first instance – but population groups that start rioting, and if necessary fight each other. And the warring parties will again be admonished, and especially the disobedient child will be fought extra fiercely. Now, the leadership’s impotence has become so great that there is no longer any room for understanding, empathy, and distance.

By enacting rules – such as a maximum of 4 people visiting at Christmas – with directivity and randomness that has not been tolerated in any childcare facility since the 1970s, citizens are robbed of their reason, insight, and judgment and thus made complicit in any fiasco. The child either loses his self-esteem or is “naughty”.

One thing that seems to stand out in line with this hypothesis is that despite the capriciousness and unpredictability of policies and the continued ministerial irritation at our irresponsible behaviour, the docility of the vast majority of the population, including the youth, is remarkable. The child will feel guilty because of the impotence of the parents, and so will many citizens if they do not “listen”.

The word parental “impotence” has been used to avoid reproaching our leaders who face an unbelievably dire task. However, there can be no doubt that the dynamics unleashed in society by this impotence will leave great and lasting traumas. Just as in the parent-child relationship, it hardly matters whether the parental impotence is understandable, or even plausible. It is the systemic power dynamic that “works” and not the presence or absence of moral intent.

I hope to have made a case for enhanced leadership attention for these aspects of our societal crisis to avoid creating great social damage.