Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 6

Chapter 8


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Chapter 7: Nurture and Notion

            Thus far, we have focused on unlocking the meanings in the metaphors of early memories. When seeking to uncover the lifestyle, it is also important to consider what type of factors might have led to the development of a particular lifestyle. Chapter 18 will provide a list of interview questions that examine formative events in early life. For the time being, it is worthwhile to note that as you move forward in uncovering lifestyles, you will focus, initially, on two variables:

1) The scenarios presented in early memories themselves.
2) The factors in childhood that might lead a person to develop a certain type of lifestyle.

According to Adler, heredity plays no role in character development. Personality is formed by the childhood environment and by the lessons an individual draws from that environment.

            Hereditary influences on character play no part in Individual Psychology. In the nature versus nurture debate, Adler takes a strong stance. “Traits of character are not inherited,” he writes, “nor are they congenitally present.”[1] While physical attributes may be inherited, personality traits, according to Adler, are not.
            Rather than nature and nurture, Adler believes in nurture and notion (my term): that is, an individual's notions, or beliefs, about life. Our adult personalities, he maintains, are most significantly formed by two interrelated factors: The environment we grow up in, and our own creative powers that interpret and attach meanings to this environment. Our childhood environment affects our emerging beliefs, and our beliefs, in turn, color our perceptions of this environment.


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Interpretation of Environment

            In his writings, Adler devotes significant attention to how the circumstances of early childhood help to form the adult lifestyle. He sees three factors in childhood as playing the most significant roles in character development: treatment by parents; birth order; and childhood health problems.

Parental treatment, childhood health, and birth order are the most significant environmental influences, according to Adler.

1) Treatment by Parents

            Adler sees the ideal role of the parent as one of encouraging children to develop a sense of social interest and an ability to cooperate with other people. When parents do not succeed in this task, he points to two common mistakes that they may make. The first is to “pamper” or spoil their children. This is the case where “…a child experienced, developed, and secured for himself during several years of his life an enriched and elevated position by obtaining everything easily, with the help of others, and by expecting everything from others.”[2] Adler finds that adults who were spoiled as children are unlikely to develop an independent, proactive lifestyle. They will probably, he maintains, continue to look to others to solve their problems for them, either through neurosis, manipulation or egotism.
            The second mistake parents can make with their children is to neglect them. In the category of neglect, Adler also includes abuse. “Such a child,” says Adler, “has never known what love and cooperation can be. He constructs an interpretation of life that simply does not include these positive forces.”[3] A deep cynicism may reside in a person who has been raised without enough love. He or she will struggle to learn how to give and receive love among others.

2) Birth Order       

Adler devoted significant attention to the role that birth order plays in character development. According to historic accounts, he could guess “almost instantaneously any person’s position in the sibling constellation.”[4] In his writings, he notes that, “it is a common fallacy to imagine that children of the same family are formed in the same environment.”[5] Each child’s birth order places her in a unique set of circumstances that helps to shape her character.

Adler could almost instantaneously guess a person’s position in the family birth order.

            Of first-born children, Adler writes that they are “generally given a good deal of attention and spoiling.” Consequently, they may start their early life developing the characteristics of a pampered child. At a certain time, however, when the family becomes larger, the oldest child goes through a dramatic transition.:

The first-born is in a unique situation; for a while he is an only child, and sometime later he is ‘dethroned.’ If the child has not been prepared for the arrival of a new sibling, the results may be tendencies toward envy or resentment. On the other hand, oldest children who ‘feel sure’ of the affection of their parents may grow into adults who tend to feel a responsibility for the welfare of others.[6] 

A later-born child, by contrast, must always share the attention with another child and, “…if the oldest is not fighting against him and pushing him back, he is very well situated” to learn cooperation. Because a later born child is always striving to keep up with his older siblings, he is, says Adler, “…very easy to recognize. He behaves as if he were in a race, is under full steam all the time, and trains continually to surpass his older brother and conquer him.” With the example of the later-born child, Adler describes very clearly how relationships in early life come to be mirrored in adult life: “Even when he is grown up and outside the family circle, he often still makes use of a pacemaker by comparing himself with someone whom he thinks more advantageously placed, and he tries to go beyond him.”[7]

            Writing about the youngest child, Adler states:

All other children can be dethroned, but never the youngest. He has no followers but many pacemakers. He is always the baby of the family, and probably the most pampered, and faces the difficulties of a pampered child. But, because he is so much stimulated and has many chances for competition, he often develops in an extraordinary way, runs faster than the other children, and overcomes them all. [8]

If not carefully trained in cooperation, youngest children may show tendencies toward egotism.

            While Adler viewed the place in the childhood constellation as merely suggestive of certain personality traits and not completely deterministic, his writings on only children are, nonetheless, extremely pessimistic:

The only child has a problem of his own. His rival is not a brother or a sister; his feelings of competition are directed against his father. An only child is pampered by his mother. She is afraid of losing him and wants to keep him under her attention. He develops what is called a “mother complex”; he is tied to his mother’s apron strings and wishes to push his father out of the family picture. Often an only child is scared to death lest he should have brothers and sisters following him … He wants to be the center of attention all the time. [9]

            Of course, no one is ever completely hostage to his or her childhood. To balance this pessimistic view, I thought it important to offer here examples of some only children who have greatly impacted our world: Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani; Tipper Gore, mental health activist and wife of Nobel Prize Laureate Al Gore; Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, basketball great and fervent charity worker; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, widely recognized as one of this country’s greatest presidents. [10]

3) Childhood Health Problems

            Finally, Adler points to childhood health problems as playing a potentially significant role in personality development. A person may be influenced positively or negatively by poor childhood health:

Many of the most influential people, people who made great contributions to our culture, began life with physical imperfections; many suffered from ill health and some died young. It is often from those people who struggled hard against difficulties, both physical and material, that advances and inventions have come. The struggle strengthened them, and they went further than they would otherwise have done. [11]

            Thus, a child with an illness or disability may turn to defeatism, or he may be challenged to try hard and to succeed despite his disability. This caveat applies to all realms of memory interpretation. What has happened to a particular person in his life is not, by itself, significant. What matters most is the person’s notion of events: what he believes about and how he has chosen to respond to these events:

Unhappy experiences in childhood may be given quite opposite meanings. One person with unhappy experiences will think, “We must make an effort to ensure that our children grow up under better conditions.” Another person with similar experiences may feel, “Life is unfair. Other people always have the best of it. If the world treated me like that, why should I treat the world any better?” [12]

            Chapters 14 to 20 will marry our interpretations of early memories with questions and techniques to explore (1) formative events in early childhood and (2) instances of the lifestyle in adult life. As you master the complete technique for exploring the lifestyle, you will be learning how to uncover a subjective truth. The circumstances that surround a person in childhood are not completely formative and are not nearly as telling as the meaning that the person applies to those childhood influences. Always, you will be exploring What happened to this person? specifically in order to uncover What lesson did this person apply to these events?

1. Understanding Human Nature, 143-144.
2. Individual Psychology, 241.
3. What Life Could Mean to You, 13.
4. Ellenberger, 594.
5. Individual Psychology, 376.
6. Individual Psychology, 377-378.
7. Individual Psychology, 379.
8. Individual Psychology, 380.
9. Individual Psychology, 381.
10. Retrieved May 9, 2008 from www.onlychild.com.
11. What Life Could Mean to You, 11.
12.What Life Could Mean to You, 9-10.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)