The Emotional Objectification of Our Children

In Complicated Roots, Parenting-General by Louisa Leontiades

(or How Trump was created)

My son once had a tantrum because I contradicted his assertion that a doll from daycare was his and would therefore be coming home with us. I replied calmly,

‘The doll is not yours, it belongs to daycare and to take it would be stealing.’

And I took it away… sounds reasonable right? No.

Because although this was the greater truth, it was only from my perspective and I didn’t see the potential repercussions of my actions. The tantrum lasted a good half an hour and needless to say it wasn’t really about the doll. It was that I took control of his narrative, diminished his power and deprived him of something which was to his mind, rightfully his. He was not intentionally lying, he truly believed it was his. At four years old he doesn’t comprehend the nature of possession, nor does he have the capacity to do so. He doesn’t understand that possession implies that something must have been a gift, or that he made it, or that he bought it. Despite my best efforts at explaining the concept in words, it proved impossible because telling is far less powerful than what we show children who cannot grasp adult concepts.

What my young son appears to have internalized, is that we stake our claim on stuff all the time. For example I regularly say, ‘don’t touch my computer.’ To his four year old mind, he potentially sees that ‘ownership’ pivots on two actions:

  1. That I say it is mine (all the time)
  2. That I am the one who uses it most

Why does it not work that way for him? He’d played with the doll with the entire day, and said multiple times that it was his. How unfair life is that he replicates exactly the same things I do, and comes out with a different result! He does not see and is not able to comprehend money or property and to his mind therefore, it was me who stole the doll from him. Repeated actions of this nature will teach him that if you want something and you are powerful enough, you can simply take it. The only difference between he and I–and the determining factor–is that I have more power than he does. He may start to believe that power is the answer to getting what he wants and he will fight to get it. All things being equal, he will learn that he can take what he wants by gaining and asserting power over other people.

In adult relationship terms this is a false sense of entitlement and often results in violation of others property and/or bodies because actions follow beliefs. I crossed my son’s boundary and took control of his narrative. In adult relationship terms, it is called gaslighting and is commonly regarded as an abusive tactic to make someone feel controlled and crazy.

These are the type of behaviours we see in Trump. That he believes, for example, that he can default on small business owner debt and not pay his taxes because he has power. Most likely he learned it as an emotionally disempowered child, because he was shown that this is how the world works. And parts of the world continue to work this way, because we have created adults who operate according to these learned behaviours and enjoy them too much to question whether their actions are ethical.

“When you’re a star they let you do it, You can do anything.”

In my son’s case, I actively used my power to control his by taking away the doll; I physically and non-consensually objectified him. I also reduced his emotional agency by erasing his reality and the story he believed; I emotionally and non-consensually objectified him. If it isn’t obvious, I now believe my actions in that short interaction were harmful and hopefully that as a one off, they have not left lasting damage.

But I believe in chaos theory. I believe that consistent and repeatable actions during childhood, no matter how small, will build up mental models that we continue to follow as adults. The flaps of butterfly wings do indeed sometimes cause hurricanes. Calling out and correcting unhealthy parenting techniques in myself and others, even I seem pedantic in doing so, means that we can stop hurricanes before they start. Giving children agency and responsibility too early before they are ready to assume them, will result in a catastrophe. Too late, and we risk disempowering them. It is clear that for many concerned parents, the tendency is to relinquish our grip on our children’s physical and emotional agency and responsibility later rather than earlier, and out of our best intentions. We want them to be safe. And yet in both cases we can choose to take responsibility for how and when this happens. It needs to be a conscious choice.

What is Emotional Objectification?

The term emotional objectification is not intuitive. To reduce someone emotionally to the status of an object is to confuse and otherwise erase the boundaries which allow them to have power and responsibility over their own emotions (and no one else’s).

  • Emotional agency is the power to choose or define our own feelings/stories as they relate to ourselves (and no one else).
  • Emotional responsibility is the assumption of responsibility for our own feelings and stories (and no one else).

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Agency and Responsibility for your child’s emotions

Whilst you can and must take responsibility for small children’s actions for a time, because they cannot manage their physicality very well and are unaware of the dangers in the world, assuming the power to choose someone’s emotions (or giving them the power to choose yours) or taking responsibility for their emotions (or giving them the responsibility for yours) are very destructive things. And yet, as parents it is something we do all the time.

Assuming the agency to choose your child’s emotions, might look like this.

  • “Why are you crying?”
  • “I’m sad, because I want another ice cream.”
  • “You’re not crying because you’re sad, you’re just trying to get your own way. You should be happy you got one.”

In this case you are choosing how your child should feel and enforcing your version on their reality. In many cases this might be the ‘greater’ truth, your child may well be trying to get their own way—and to the adult mind, they should be grateful! If it’s the truth, why is it destructive?

Our worthy attempt to bring a child to realise the true motivations behind their hysterical crying because they can’t get the second ice-cream, destroys the very thing which will support their adult relationships. Trust in themselves. It is the attempt by one person—the parent—to overwrite the reality of someone else’s—the child’s—experience. Let’s look at how this may eventually play out.

Telling someone that they shouldn’t be ‘so sensitive’ or that they should be happy, grateful etc when they are sad is a form of gas-lighting and it is an abusive behaviour. Over time gas-lighting will undermine a person’s capacity to trust in what they feel and in what they experience and it will lead to diminished self-esteem and insecurity. Which lays them open in the future to accepting abuse from a partner, because they are not sure of what they feel and whether it is right for them or wrong for them. Not only this, but they will learn by example that this is an acceptable behaviour and may start to abuse other people.

Taking responsibility for your child’s emotions might look like this.

  • “Why are you crying?”
  • “I’m sad, because I want another ice cream.”
  • “Oh no, it’s my fault. I will buy you another. Will that make you happy?”

The child learns that someone else is responsible for their emotions, that is other people’s feelings are intrinsically linked to what they (the child) feel, that if they are sad, it might be either their responsibility to change something or even themselves in order to make others happy, or that the other person should change something to contribute to the child’s happiness. Once more, this lays the child open to abuse in the future. That they have to change themselves to make others happy. Or conversely that other people should change to make them happy.

Agency and Responsibility in Adult Relationships

In the advice I give to adults in their relationship challenges, I have found that the majority of problems stem from this confusion around how agency and responsibility interact. The patterns many follow are the ones they have adopted as unconscious children which have helped them survive and the impact of their unhealthily learned boundaries, is huge. To see better what situations you are trying to help your children avoid in the future, I’m going to take an example from a real-life adult relationship; let’s call them Amanda & Gary. Amanda writes,

I’ve lived with Gary for twenty years, and about a year ago we decided to open our marriage. It was the first time I realized that I didn’t have to put all my energy and effort into one other person, that I was allowed to care for myself and my own needs.

Sadly enough, taking responsibility for myself made me realize that I had been taking way too much responsibility for Gary, but when I tried to stop taking that responsibility, even to ease it slowly back to him, it didn’t go well. Most times when I try to take responsibility only for myself and not for him, when I suggest things to make our life and relationship better it ends up with me feeling shame or defending myself for my feelings or thoughts.

Gary chose to relinquish responsibility for his needs and/or happiness; because he had learned that this was the optimal way to survive. In all likelihood his parents/formative caregivers assumed responsibility for his happiness, tried to meet his every need and disempowered him by not teaching him to take responsibility for his own needs and/or happiness. He learned that for his parents to be happy, he was better off letting them do things for him and making them change their behaviours so that he was happier. Amanda was simply available to him to continue the pattern. It was familiar, he felt safe with her.

Amanda chose to assume responsibility for his happiness; she probably learned that she would be more acceptable to her parents’/formative caregivers if she made them happy. But what made her parents happy was if she actively did things for them, even if they were not what she wanted to do. Gary was simply available to her to continue the pattern she had learned. It was familiar, she felt safe with him. This is a position that many women find themselves in, because they are so often taught to sacrifice their needs for others.

Is Emotional Objectification always bad?

Objectifying Alexander Skargsgård’s muscled body in Tarzan is physical objectification and whilst it may have further reaching ramifications on our ability to distinguish digital imagery from real people, broader implications on what Hollywood or the media decides sells best, and impacts on what we perceive to be the ideal body form, the essential point is that it is consensual. Such objectification does not reduce power or responsibility of Alexander and consequently is–at least–not directly harmful towards him. When we are aware of the behaviours that might follow, we can choose to be responsible for not acting upon any feelings of entitlement or possession that may arise.

Just as physical objectification can be consensual, so can emotional objectification. We can consent to having our emotional power and responsibility reduced and women in particular, have done so for centuries in exchange for money, safety and security. Examine the ‘don’t worry your head about it little lady’ tropes carefully and you will see that ‘the trophy wife’ and ‘the gold digger’ are often found the same person–with good reason. It is supposedly, a consensual exchange of power.

That people strike deals with one another about an exchange of power, can come as no surprise since we have invented money and imbued it with power for that very purpose. That Trump’s good looking wife accepts to reduce her emotional power and responsibility in return for power in a different form i.e. status and money, could be viewed as consensual, even if it’s part of a wider and more systemic problem where women rarely earn the same amount or status as men for doing the same job (an analysis that’s not for this post). Likewise that Trump supplies these things for the benefit of having a pretty woman on his arm, or in his bed, could be a business deal like any other.

But it’s a slippery slope because doing a deal is a functional exchange and to treat people as only functional beings, is likely to impact other areas.  With the exception of some BDSM contracts, it’s rare that the fine print spells out consent in detail, nor that the communication between two parties is so explicit that they agree to a precisely termed power exchange on a future which they cannot in any case predict… thus it often results in an imbalance and leads to abusive behaviours. In all likelihood, since Trump believes that he can grab any woman by the pussy, he probably feels entitled to his wife’s given that in his mind, he has ‘paid’ for it in an exchange of power. In his ex-wife Ivana’s sexual assault allegations, Trump allegedly attributed emotional responsibility to her for how bad he felt about his hair transplant and in order to take back in some way his own perceived loss of power, he raped her. The adult Trumpian form of what must have been learned at an early age is criminal and abhorrent behaviour.

As children we are not able to define our emotions, but we learn very early on the basics; fear, anger, joy etc. As is the case for physical objectification, the power to feel comes before we can take responsibility for our feelings. The power to define them comes next as we put labels to them, and the power to choose them comes last, is very difficult and often indirect (but can be hacked, for example by playing a happy song when we’re sad) and depends on a myriad of variables not least of which that we can only change them when we have chosen to assume responsibility for them. Thus the growth trajectory for what we call ’emotional intelligence’ i.e the ability to govern our emotions and our responses to them, is not fostered in our educational system.

Luckily those little minds are highly malleable. That means we can make mistakes but we can also help repair them, if we are aware of them. So how do we draw this line between protecting our children and giving them the ability to assume emotional agency and responsibility? Guidelines are straightforward but putting them into practice is more challenging.

  1. Don’t assume responsibility for your child’s emotions (in other words, don’t invalidate your child’s emotions, let them decide how they feel).
  2. Don’t hinge your own emotions to their actions (devastated at their performance in the school concert? Overjoyed that they performed well? Giving them extra kisses only because they’ve made you happy…beware!)

It’s a balance and one that is extremely difficult because our society structures actively restricts our choices in many cases, reduces our own agency and undermines our responsibility for our emotions. In law courts, jealousy can be and is used as a legitimate defence to reduce murder to manslaughter. The person is ‘not responsible for what they do’ because it is implied, that they cannot be responsible for their emotions. And yet, this ability can—and I believe should—be taught from a young age.

So in the case of my son and the doll, what could I have done differently? The next day I saw him with the same doll and changed the paradigm.

‘What a beautiful doll!’ I said. ‘Have you been playing with her a lot today?’ My son nodded and clutched her tighter. Where does she usually live then? My son pointed to a corner where other dolls were. ‘Since she lives there, I said, ‘you must ask the person in charge here whether the doll can visit us just for tonight.’

He did, and achieved what he wanted without inadvertently lying, or stealing. I didn’t give him the opportunity to assert a false narrative which I might then have had to undermine. The doll now ‘visits’ us regularly… and goes back to daycare in the morning.