Source Book for Social Psychology


374 Sociology; Social Psychology

97. The Projection of Parents’ Ambitions upon Their Children1

The present chapter consists largely of case studies intended to illustrate certain factors of social conditioning in the rise and direction of personality. The particular life organization of the boy or girl is limited by factors of original nature: physical conditions, emotions, instinctive tendencies, and intellectual capacities. But the specific organization and development of one’s traits is quite within the influence of the environment.

The quotation from Groves sketches the main stages in the development of the personality of the boy. It is shown that the fundamental attachment is at the outset to the mother, that is heterosexual, and then later the boy moves in his affection over toward the father, and then again in adolescence to the other sex. Specifically, however, this is but a general outline. Circumstances play a considerable part in modifying this general pattern. This is nicely illustrated in the second paper which shows that in the absence of a father at home, the boy’s attachment to the mother persists and is later moved over to the sisters. The third paper from a man who was raised in a very orthodox family shows the interplay of family attitudes and a certain resistence to authority which later led to complete break with the family and with the traditional religion leading to membership in socialistic groupings. The projection of class standards upon the child, the intellectual analysis by the boy of certain inconsistencies of attitude, as seen in his defense of the Boers and in his growing disgust with the artificiality of his social status, are well shown. The fourth paper shows the development of an inferiority complex in the presence of physical retardation and ill-health.

Following these life histories of boys is another selection from Groves tracing briefly the personality development of the girl from attachment to the mother to heterosexual attachment of adolescence. As Groves points out, the course of development for the girl is often more difficult than for the boy, owing to the fundamental homosexual nature of her first fixation on the mother. There is always some danger that this fundamental conditioning may be so excessive or else so incomplete that difficulty in normal development arises later.

The paper by Miss Taft is a very valuable analysis of the development of a life-organization, wherein the roots of the behavior are traced backwards through childhood to early infancy. The maladjustment of the mother-daughter relation is well portrayed. The paper on projection of ambitions of parents on their children reveals another phase of parent-child relationship.

It should not be imagined, of course, that these few histories give more than a meagre sample of the variety of life organizations in terms of social conditioning. Every personality is a unique combination of original nature and acquirement welded together into a more or less harmonious whole. The reader should extend his acquaintance with the variety of personal life histories by following the bibliographic suggestions.

We are all agreed in recognizing the fact that the human being lives not unto himself alone but is at all times, more or less, under the influence of some particular group of his fellows, be it family, play group, occupational confraternity, or some other sort. Moreover, it has been well pointed out to us that the family, as well as other groups, may be thought of as a configuration of interacting units. One may say that ideally in a well-balanced family these interrelating members should be thought of as in a multiple circular response condition. There would be an interplay of personalities one with the other,—the give and take of co-equals. It is rarely true, however, that a family of parents and children so organizes itself. This type of mutual influence is more apt to exist in play groups and is especially evident in so-called congenial groups of intimates,—those interesting but little studied groups of two, three or four persons united in close bonds of friendship. Very frequently the circularity of the family group resolves itself into other forms of interstimulation. The natural circularity is broken at a number of points by attitudes of authority, domination and sense of superiority of parents toward children, of elder children toward younger, or of near relatives toward children. In other words, various kinds of stoppage arises to the free play of person on person in the family such as might exist in other sorts of socializing groups. Very often in families, in fact, the relationship of parent to child is more in the nature of linear than circular response. The father or mother commands, the child obeys. Very little reciprocal Stimulation is permitted. Even in question-answer intercourse the domination of the elder over the younger member of the family prevents the most wholesome learning process of analysis and discovery from taking place in the child. This condition of dominance is probably less common today than in other societies organized about different cultural norms than our own. Yet it still persists, particularly in reference to the younger children. The whole "reality of authority" of which Miller writes is too frequently induced by a linear stimulation.

In the case of projection of ambitions upon children we find just this change from natural circularity to linear relationship. Instead of a 375 gradual arousal and development of ambitions out of more normal family relationships, out of the stimulation of play groups and school experience, there is a cutting across this process when the parent projects his personal ambitions upon one or more of his own children. The child, rather than developing his talents and interests out of innate trends and through normal development in various social media, is brought under the domination of a fixed idea of the parent. Too often the parent has harbored some unfulfilled desire or ambition for fame, money, education, social status or what not which is worked over on to the child.

We know full well that parents live in their children quite as do the children in them. "Identification," as it is often called, is by no means a one-sided affair. Not long ago in discussing a certain regimen for children with a mother, she remarked regarding some indulgences She had granted them, "If I have to have the children, I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy them." It has, of course, been long recognized that many mothers derive a distinct erotic pleasure from nursing their babies. But we should not imagine that any pleasure which a mother may take in her children ends there. It is evident everywhere that women do look upon their children as their own in a very intimate, dare one say selfish, sense, in which their own delight in caring for, playing with, and planning for the child becomes highly significant for themselves.

Not only mothers but fathers find tremendous satisfaction in watching over and planning for their children.

Thus, for parents there is afforded them in their children an easy duplication of another childhood and youth wherein their own ambitions, plans, and desires may be thrust upon the next generation. The motives for this projection vary greatly, for the particular type of ambition projected on the child depends, certainly, upon the specific history of the parent. Since a "good" identification concerns a one-to-one relationship, it is usual for one member of the family to be selected to play the ràle the parent lays down, though this is not always the case. A projection may take on a very generalized form for a whole family of children, just as it may take on a generalized form of a leader thrusting his wishes upon his group.

In order to indicate more concretely the mechanism of projection, let us turn our attention upon some illustrative examples drawn from a number of varying situations.

There is no doubt that Clara B. is a very capable child. But it is also evident that the mother who has had a rather stultified life with a mediocre professional man has identified her own cravings for fame in 376 the possibilities of her daughter. The child has been kept under an intense regimen of reading and writing. The mother looks forward to a great literary career for her daughter. The child is the object of considerable over-stimulation to literary production by the parent. As one psychologist, who worked with the child, remarked, "One moment in Clara’s life in which she was left laissez faire to form a mental association of her own was a moment lost in the eyes of her mother." I do not wish to create the impression that I am unsympathetic with the selection and special education of superior children, but without doubt the forcing of the process may prove detrimental to the more normal development of the child while affording an unfortunate stimulation to the parent’s own ego expansion.

Turning now to a discussion of those projections in which the unfulfilled wishes of the parents are more evidently thrust upon the children, let us examine a number of illustrative cases to point out some of the features of family relationship in this more serious kind of influence of parent upon child.

The following history deals with a combination of thwarted ambition coupled with an unhappy marriage.

The mother of Louise M. married when she was very young. This had meant for her the foregoing of three desires: (1) a college education; (2) the study of music in which she had a great interest; and (3) experience as a teacher. The marriage proved an unhappy one with considerable conflict between parents. Two children were born, one a son "much like his father" whom the mother "could influence very little," the other a daughter who became the "pride" of the mother’s life. For Louise the mother wished all the things which her own inhibited life had lacked. The girl was forced to take music lessons although she was not musically inclined. She was also sent to college quite as much because the mother had failed to secure this privilege as for any other reason. Moreover, the mother decided the daughter should be a school teacher as she had once wished to be.

In college Louise fell in love much as co-eds are likely to do. She wished to discontinue her education and to marry. Although the mother now admits that she had nothing against the young man who courted her daughter, in fact she now says she rather liked him, she refused to permit the marriage. Louise was, to her mind, too young. She herself had married too early which had spoiled her own life and she simply would not allow her daughter to duplicate her own sad experience. The marriage must be indefinitely postponed and Louise continue her education 377 until she might teach. The young man was unwilling to defer matrimony in this indeterminate manner while the daughter, obedient to the mother’s wishes, began teaching school not long after, only to make a rather miserable failure of it all. Louise has been utterly unhappy. She is now at home doing nothing in particular, broken in spirit and unable to organize herself for any kind of valuable activity.

Here is an unfortunate situation indeed. The mother, hiding behind current rationalizations, of course, wished her daughter to have the best of an education and professional preparation. Then, when confronted with a wish on the part of the daughter for the most natural step in her life, marriage, the whole emotional conflict of the mother’s marriage, her own realization of blocked ambitions and unhappy life came to the front to lead her to prevent it. There is illustrated in this case a common feature, no doubt, of many of these family histories. Had the mother’s own married life proved a wholesome one, had her relations with the father been satisfying, it is extremely doubtful if the projection would have assumed such an over-powering influence in the mother’s reaction to her daughter, if indeed the projection would have developed at all. But having failed at the level of marriage, the mother herself was thrown back, for emotional balance, upon her earlier wishes for an education and for professional status. These wishes being denied their fulfillment in her, they are fastened upon the daughter with whom the mother has identified herself. With the coming of the probability of marriage for the daughter before these projected ambitions had worked out at all well, from the mother’s angle, an even more intense crisis arises. If Louise is permitted to marry, it means that the projection will fail. An important hope for the mother’s balance will be gone. She can not face it. The daughter complies, only herself to be disintegrated emotionally thereby. Thus the vicious circle of parent-child relationship is completed, and none of the participants is satisfied. The drama ends not in a dénouement, but in a stalemate.

The last family drama which I shall narrate is perhaps less common than the others, but is fraught with greater misapplication in some ways than the others. And it again illustrates the nature of a fixed idea on the part of a parent in contradiction to the most patent reality.

The father is a very wealthy and prominent person in one of our major industrial cities. He was educated in a well-known eastern school. His wife is a very pleasant, cultured person who plays a very minor part in this family tragedy. The father, it seems clear, has wanted to fulfil in his son the cultural and economic ambitions of his own youth. He has 378 wished his son’s preparation for a profession to be easier and more luxurious than anything he could have, even though his own youth was not a hard one. There is also a very considerable amount of desire for maintenance of social superiority through his child.

There are two boys in the family, both of them feeble-minded. One of them is already in an institution. The second boy, George, has a "middle moron intelligence" to use the phrase of a very competent psychologist who examined him. George is a docile, sweet-dispositioned boy with the usual small chatter about automobiles, movies and the like, but years of tutoring and high-grade instruction in private schools have not been able to prepare him for college. The father was determined that his son should master Latin and the other requisite subjects in order that he might enter a certain professional school. The father was furious at the diagnosis of the psychologist that his son had reached the limit of his educability. In truth, the father’s whole manner toward the accumulated evidence of teachers, psychologists, and friends has the air of a certain compulsive trend in himself. He pounded on the table in anger at the suggestions of the psychologist. He has attempted to coerce the boy into learning, but coercion does not produce nicety of mental associations. He has threatened the authorities of the private school to whom he had given large sums of money if they did not educate his boy as he thought fit. The judgment of experts and of common sense make no impression on him. He has a definite fixed idea, almost an obsession about his son. It is a distinct mental image that bears no relation to reality. It is almost paranoiac in its violence. And a gentle personality of low mentality must suffer through it all. There is no evidence of anti-social trends. It is a tragedy without a single redeeming note. The drama is still in process. What the outcome will be we can not say. It is evident that the boy has reached the saturation point so far as training goes. Whether the father can be brought out of his delusional system is not so certain.

Although I have by no means exhausted the variety of ambition projection in family situations, these few histories indicate the essentials of the problem in a tentative way. Projection is perhaps more or less inevitable in a society of open classes where there is intense desire to improve the family status in each succeeding generation.

The problem of projection in parent-child relationships is self evident. The more spontaneous development is interrupted to give place to the formulation of life-organization in terms of patterns possessed by the parent that may not be altogether wholesome and sound for the child.



A. Questions and Exercises

1. What is the course of attachments through which the usual boy passes from infancy to manhood? What are the attachments through which the girl passes?

2. The brother of the writer of document No. 93 remained within the patterns laid down by his social class, while the writer revolted and left home to become a socialist. How may one account for the difference in development?

3. What effect may inferiority feelings have upon development of unusual capacities?

4. Write out cases of parents’ projections upon their children.

B. Topics for Class Reports

1. Write out your own life history tracing the early social influences and show how they have colored your attitudes, ideas and habits.

2. Illustrate from your own history or from that of others:

a) inferiority complexes;

b) over-attachment of girls upon their fathers;

c) undue attachment of boys upon their mothers;

d) substitution of another person for a parent attachment;

e) other atypical features of personality development.

3. Report on Forsyth’s paper cited in bibliography.

4. Report on Burgess’ paper on the family. (Cf. bibliography.)

5. Report on Spaulding’s paper on delinquent personality. (Cf. bibliography.)

6. Report on Van Water’s papers in the Survey cited in bibliography.

C. Suggestions for Longer Written Papers

1. Leadership as a Compensation for Inferiority.

2. The Social Conditioning to Delinquency.

3. The Historical and the Quantitative Methods of Investigating Personality.


Adler, A. "The Study of Organic Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation" Nerv. & Ment. Disease Monog. 1917: No. 24.

Adler, A. The Neurotic Constitution. New York, 1917.

Burgess, E. W. "The Family as a Unity of Interacting Personalities." The Family 1926: VII: 1–9.

Case, C. M. Outlines of Introductory Sociology. New York, 1924. (Ch. IV.)

Clark, L. P. "Unconscious Motives Underlying the Personalities of Great Statesmen, etc. I. Abraham Lincoln." Psychoanalytic Rev. 1921: VIII: 1–21.


Donovan, F. The Woman Who Waits. Boston, 1920.

Forsyth, D. "The Rudiments of Character" Psychoanalytic Rev. 1921: VIII: 117–43.

Freud, S. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. New York, 1920.

Freud, S. Dream Psychology. New York, 1920.

Groves, E. R. Personality and Social Adjustment. New York, 1923. (Good bibliography.)

Healy, W. The Individual Delinquent. Boston, 1915.

Healy, W. Mental Conflicts and Misconduct. Boston, 1917.

Healy, W. and Bronner, A. F. Judge Baker Foundation Case Studies. Series I. Boston, 1921–22.

Low, B. Psychoanalysis. (2nd ed.) New York, 1921.

Mowrer, E. Family Disorganization. Chicago, 1926. (Cf. life story of Miriam Donoven.)

Park, R. E. & Burgess, E. W. Introduction to Science of Sociology. Chicago, 1921. (Chs. II, Sec. C; X, Sec. D. Contains valuable bibliography.)

Sands, I. J. & Blanchard, P. Abnormal Behavior. New York, 1923.

Sayles, N. B. The Problem Child in School. Joint Committee on Prevention of Delinquency. New York, n. d.

Southard, E. E. and Jarret, M. C. The Kingdom of Evils. New York, 1922.

Spaulding, E. "The Rôle of Personality Development in the Reconstruction of the Delinquent" J. Abn. & Soc. Psy. 1921–22: XVI: 97–114.

Taft, J. "The Effect of an Unsatisfactory Mother-Daughter Relationship upon the Development of a Personality" The Family. 1926: VII: 10–17.

Tanner, A. "Adler’s Theory of Minderwertigkeit" Ped. Sem. 1915: XXII: 204–17.

Thomas, W. I. The Unadjusted Girl. Boston, 1923.

Thomas, W. I. and Znaniecki, F. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, New York, 1927. (Contains an autobiography and an excellent theoretical discussion of personality and social milieu.)

Van Waters, M. Youth in Conflict. New York, 1925.

Van Waters, M. "I would Rather Die than Go Home" Survey 1927: LVII: 565–69.

Van Waters, M. "Parents in a Changing World" Survey 1926: LVII: 135–40.

White, W. A. Mechanisms of Character Formation. New York, 1926.

Wile, I. S. The Challenge of Childhood. New York, 1923.

Wolfe, A. B. "Motivations of Radicalism" Psy. Rev. 1921: XXVIII: 280–300.

Woolley, H. T. "Personality Studies of Three-Year Olds" J. Exp. Psy. 1922: V: 381–91.

Young, K. "The Integration of the Personality" Ped. Sem. 1923: XXX: 264–85.


Young, K. "Parent-Child Relationship: Projection of Ambition" The Family May, 1927: VIII: 67–73.

Young, K. "Personality Studies" Am. J. Soc. 1927: XXXII: 953–71.

Young, K. "The Measurement of Personal and Social Traits." Pub. Am. Social. Society. 1927. Cf. Am. J. Soc. July, 1927: XXXIII: Pt. II.

Three Problem Children. Joint Committee on Prevention of Delinquency. New York, n. d.

The Child, the Clinic and the Court (Symposium) New York, 1925.

1 Reprinted by permission from K. Young "Parent-Child Relationship: Projection of Ambition" The Family, 1927: VIII: pp. 67–69; 69; 70–71; 72–73.


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