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We are used to thinking of many of the psychological
problems of adulthood as stemming from a lack

of adequate love in our early years. We grow
mentally unwell – prey to underconfidence,

anxiety, paranoia and shame – because, somewhere
in the past, we were denied the necessary

warmth, care and sympathy. But there is another,
more curious, and more subtle problem that

may arise from childhood years: what we can
term the Golden Child syndrome. We may wind

up mentally unwell not so much because we
were ignored or maltreated but because we

were loved with a distinctive and troubling
over-intensity, because we were praised for

capacities that we did not possess and could
not identify with and because we were asked

– with apparent kindness but underlying
unwitting manipulation – to shoulder the

hopes and longings of our carers rather than
our own deep selves. There are childhoods

where, upon arrival, the infant is quickly
described by one or more of its parents as

profoundly exceptional. It is grandly declared
uncommonly beautiful, intelligent, talented

and resolutely set for a special destiny.
Not for this child the ordinary sorrows and

stumblings of an average life. While perhaps
still no taller than a chair, the offspring

is firmly described as a figure whose name
will reverberate down the centuries. On the

surface, this could seem to offer a route
to enormous self-confidence and security.

But to place such expectations on someone
who still struggles with their coat buttons

can, paradoxically, leave a child feeling
hollow and particularly incapable. Unable

to sense any resources within itself to honour
the hopes of those it loves and depends on,

the child grows up with a latent sense of
fraudulence – and a consistent fear that

it will be unmasked. It winds up at once grandly
expecting that others will recognise its sensational

destiny – and entirely unsure as to why
or how they might in fact do so. The Golden

Child cannot shake off a sense that it is
very special – and yet can’t identify

within itself any real grounds why it should
be so. Its underlying longing is not to revolutionise

nations and be honoured across the ages; it
is to be accepted and loved for who it is,

in all its often unimpressive and faltering
realities. Image result for john singer sargent

It wishes, as we all do, to be seen and accepted
for itself; to have its faults and frailties

forgiven and acknowledged, rather than denied
or glossed over. It is in the end as much

of an insult to one’s authentic reality
– and as psychologically painful – to

be praised for great things one hasn’t done
and could never do, as to be attacked and

blamed for sins one is innocent of. The phenomenon
suggests that true love should involve an

agnosticism around a child’s eventual level
of worldly success. It should ideally not

matter to the parent where a child ends up
– or rather, it should matter only in so

far as, and no further than, it matters to
the child. Parents who see their child in

golden terms are not – of course – consciously
cruel. They are merely, with tragic fervour,

misdirecting energies that have failed to
find a better destination, the child covertly

being asked to redeem a career that did not
go as expected, a depressed mood that did

not lift or a marriage that proved unusually
intolerable. The Golden Child is, over time,

destined for a moment of breakdown when the
hopes invested in it fail to be realised.

The Golden Future will, it starts to be clear,
never materialise, but a bigger prize awaits:

a feeling of liberation from expectations
that were always disconnected from reality.

The Golden Child is freed to enjoy a momentous
truth: that a life does not need to be golden

in order to be valuable; that we can live
in baser metal forms, in pewter or iron, and

still be worthy of love and adequate self-esteem.
And, even though this has nothing to do with

the original expectations one was asked to
shoulder, that realisation will be the truly

exceptional achievement.
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The Golden Child Syndrome

516 Folder Collection
Samuel published on October 4, 2018
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