THE BLOG
06/19/2011 09:59 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2011

A Father's Day Flashback: The Magic Quarter and the 'Adult' Inside the Child

Father's Day seems to have morphed into just another opportunity for merchants to encourage shopping. But for me it's bringing to mind a memory involving my daughter, from long ago. It was triggered by a call from her recently, telling me about a medical scare she was facing. She assured me that she was handling it, had the best doctor and was confident about the outcome. Of course, I sensed her concern beneath her calm and confident veneer. I wanted to be able to do something and felt helpless knowing I couldn't. But I also felt heartened by the inner strength she displayed, and that's what stirred my recalling an event from more than two decades ago.

It happened one morning, in early spring. We were sitting at the airport, waiting for her plane to begin boarding. My daughter was going fly alone. This wouldn't be the first time she had flown, but on this trip she'd be unaccompanied and would meet up with her mother at the other end. She was excited but also pretty scared about flying all by herself.

We sat side by side in the airport lounge, looking through the large windows at the baggage loading and refueling activity outside. Soon she began peppering me with unnerving questions -- like why planes crashed, how frequently and if I knew for certain this one would be safe (this was long before 9/11).

But here's the odd thing: Each time she voiced her anxieties, I thought I detected a faint, sly grin, followed by a quick, sideways glance at me with her twinkling, blue eyes. I sensed that in addition to her fears, she was feeling something she couldn't quite express. It seemed to be more than just wanting reassurance, but I wasn't sure what it meant.

Now it was boarding time. We rose together, and she hugged me tightly. "I'm still scared, Daddy," she murmured quietly. I had to think of something, and fast. So I reached into my pocket and found a quarter. I told her that this was a Magic Quarter; that as long as she held it in her hand, she'd be totally safe. Then she'd be free to have fun on the trip.

She gripped it tightly in her little fist, and with a solemn look, yet still with that odd glint in her eye, she marched down the boarding ramp. She continued looking back at me, waving until she was out of sight.

As I drove along the Potomac River back into Washington, I thought about what her sly grin might have signified. Perhaps she wanted to be able to think of the trip as a new adventure to embrace, not just a bundle of fears to be managed. Looking back, the Magic Quarter might have been the bridge that I unwittingly supplied.

That is, perhaps it helped her awaken a bit to realizing that the real "magic" was her own nascent, growing powers. In fact, I think we tend to overlook that innate "adult" powers exist within every child -- capacities for empathy, self-definition and resilience, for example. They're there from birth. They are the elements of psychological health, to the extent that they can flower. But unfortunately, some forms of parenting -- along with many of the social norms and values held by culture or society -- can deform or stunt those powers. The result: well-adapted but frightened, constricted adult lives. Features include the gaps between public personas and interior lives I described in my last post, or the confusion about feeling lost in the quest for "life purpose," as I wrote in another.

We focus a great deal on the wounded, "inner child" within many adults. But a psychologically healthy, meaningful and fulfilling life requires more than healing early traumas, more than building good coping skills or successful adjustment to your circumstances. Those provide an essential foundation. But they, alone, don't help you grow beyond the human "default mode" of self-centeredness and self-absorption. Examples abound in the news each day.

What does help includes building the capacity for embracing new possibilities and unpredictable challenges in life. A spirit of adventure, fun and confidence in the face of the unknowns that lie ahead. Going against the grain of convention in decisions and values that are right for you. Creating positive, mutually supportive connections with diverse people. And valuing who you are inside, especially if your life path brings you external reward but also feels alien and inauthentic.

In short, we need to revise the notion that there's an "inner child" within every adult. Consider, in addition, that there's an adult within the child.

From this perspective, I think my daughter was trying to let me know, albeit with a dim awareness that she wasn't yet able to express, that she really wanted to embrace the trip as a fun adventure, not just an anxiety-arousing experience that she needed to cope with. I'm glad I didn't give her the message that fear should be her main focus. Or that she could contain the fears, but without any spirit of fun or adventure that could trump them. Or worse, imply that life is just one long series of anxieties.

I'd like to think that the Magic Quarter did more than ease her anxieties, though it was accidental on my part. I hope that her sly expression was a small acknowledgment that she was onto the "magic," and that it meant she had opened the door a bit to drawing on her own budding "adult" capacities.

Interestingly, there was a poignant conclusion to the Magic Quarter episode, which I'll mention later. But I think recognizing inherent adult powers in the child is important, and it's leading to a new paradigm about envisioning personal "evolution" through life. Think of how the seeds of a flower contain everything that's needed to sprout, grow and bloom into its full form -- if it's properly tended, that is. Clinical work and new research about how people develop supports this, in several ways.

For example, there is evidence that empathy is hard-wired, in "mirror neurons," and can be observed in the behavior of infants and small children. That's the foundation for adult compassion, mutuality and service to something larger than your narrow self-interest. Another is rebounding from adversity, even among abused and severely damaged children. Children who heal construct a vision of hope and possibility that lies beyond the damaging experience, often with the help of someone who provides inspiration. That's the basis for adult resiliency, including creative flexibility and proactive behavior in the face of change.

Research also shows that a child is capable of recognizing the boundaries between his or her emotional states, needs and desires and those of others. That's the foundation for adult self-definition -- for becoming the "author" your own life story. And that's an important basis for defining your own goals and values, independent of the pull from social pressures or rewards.

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that youth is "life as yet untouched by tragedy." Well, youth seems to end awfully early these days, for so many children. Sadly, so often those innate powers for a vibrant, creative and engaged life -- one that also contributes to the well-being of all -- becomes deformed, arrested or squashed. Empathy can be short-circuited by abusive experiences or social reward, so often visible in the behavior of some politicians, celebrities or sports stars, for example.

If a child can't visualize a hopeful possibility for the future, or is treated with indifference or ridicule, the outcome may be hopelessness and despair rather than resilience. And if the child is overly pressured or rewarded too much for complying with choices that are stifling or disappointing, the adult that emerges is likely to be plagued with a "secret self" that longs to be free.

Epilogue:

My daughter traversed her own ups and downs as she moved into her adult years. And her medical crisis did resolve -- without any "magic." And that Magic Quarter? She kept it for several years in a little box, along with other coins and items accumulated through her childhood and adolescence. Eventually, though -- as in Chris Van Allsburg's classic children's book "The Polar Express," when the boy was no longer able to hear the Christmas bell that only young children could hear -- a time came when she could no longer tell, or cared, which quarter had once been the "magic" one. As it should be.

Happy Father's Day.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may email him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org.