Christian psychologist on how childhood memories shape us
“What if your childhood memories aren’t random? What if they are there for a reason? And what if understanding who you are, revealed through those memories, has everything to do with how you live in the present and how successfully you are able to take control of your future?”
—Dr. Kevin Leman, What Your Childhood Memories Say About You–and What You Can Do About It
All the eight-year-old boy had to do was run out on the basketball court and perform the five-second Williamsville Billies cheer: “Basket, basket! Score, score, score! Williamsville Central, we want more!” Somehow, young Kevin Leman, the eight-year-old mascot, wearing his sweatshirt that displayed a billy goat, forgot his lines. Mortified, at first he froze. Then a surprising thing happened: When everyone started laughing, Kevin realized that he loved the attention and the ability to make people laugh. It’s that childhood memory, the heady thrill of willing people to laugh, that helps define Dr. Kevin Leman today.
A renowned Christian psychologist, author, speaker, and humorist, Dr. Leman continues to lace his talks and teachings with the same humor. Dr. Leman has written more than thirty books, including Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours; The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are; Have a New Kid by Friday; and What Your Childhood Memories Say About You—And What You Can Do About It. Dr. Leman has appeared on programs including CNN, Oprah, Good Morning America, LIVE with Regis and Kelly, CBS’ The Early Show, The View, and Today.
The youngest of three children, Dr. Leman grew up in the shadow of a “perfect sister” and a good-looking brother who excelled at every sport he attempted. Leman graduated high school fourth from the bottom of his class. “If you were going to bet money on us, I was not a good bet,” Leman says. “I became the best at being the worst. Looking back, that’s how I coped with feeling like I didn’t measure up.”
Like many children who feel disenfranchised, Leman coped by acting out. In addition, making his classmates laugh fed his hunger for recognition and adoration. So he expanded his humorous repertoire, adding daring antics such as setting the classroom trash can on fire and zapping unsuspecting teachers with a water gun.
These childhood memories are the most poignant for Dr. Leman and help explain who he is today. However, instead of cutting up in the classroom, he now uses his humor to help others understand how our childhood memories affect who we are as adults.
Dr. Leman conducted parenting workshops earlier this year at First Baptist Church in Georgetown, and the View took the opportunity to interview him.
Some of your childhood memories include growing up in a home with an alcoholic father. How did that situation affect you?
When you don’t have a relationship you should have had with the dad, you pay for it in the long run. It’s sort of like making a cake and leaving one main ingredient out. Now what happens to the cake? It falls flat. So you end up with ways of coping with that missing piece. So you become a survivor; you’re in survivor mode. You go “I’ll show ’em.” That happens to a lot of people.
How do you explain why some people who grew up in challenging home environments defeat the odds by making good of their lives?
How did I deal with a dad who was an alcoholic and drank too many brewskies most of his life? I never drank a beer. You see in families that lots of times an alcoholic father produces the alcoholic son, the alcoholic daughter. So you either fight them or join them. Part of that is the resiliency that’s in their personality.
It becomes their thing to do things well, to pursue excellence, to be different from whatever [they] had to grow up with. Some people will turn their back on that [dysfunction] and live a life that is exemplary. Others won’t. I don’t have a magic answer to that. Some fall by the wayside. Some suck it up and go a different direction.
Some people who have unpleasant childhood memories have grown into adults with a strong need to control their surroundings. How do you explain that?
A defensive controller is one who controls not because he or she enjoys controlling, but they do it for defensive purposes. Why? Because they’ve been hurt, hurt by people. So they’re really guarded. Very few people get close to them. You become a defensive controller to protect yourself from getting hurt. It’s a coping mechanism; it helps you get through the day. It helps you get through the year. It helps you get through life. Men are specialists at that because men thrive at arm’s length in relationships, where women want to hug everything that moves.
You’ve talked about parents who overcompensate in their parenting because they feel bad about their own upbringing. What impact does overcompensation have on parenting?
Number one, guilt is the propellant for most of the lousy decisions you’ll make in life. There are certainly more guilt gatherers who are females than males. Men generally don’t run on guilt. Lots of women do. Because they feel bad about the circumstances they bring to their family with their children, they overcompensate. “I’m just going to love Little Buford, love him, love him, love him.” Which ends up creating a little monster because she doesn’t have the guidelines she needs to have. She doesn’t have the firmness she needs to have. So that combination of guilt with no model to really follow in her family—she survived and she’s coping, and now she’s got kids and she doesn’t know what to do.
What advice do you have for parents who may not have had healthy role models?
Parenting is not a popularity contest. Every kid needs vitamin “N,” which is “No,” and vitamin “E,” which is encouragement. Kids don’t need praise. Praise is actually destructive. Praise should be reserved for God. It’s the false praise that gets me. I mean, the kid strikes out at little league, and the parents are screaming “Great at bat!” I’ve got news for you. It wasn’t great at bat. “Everybody wins, everybody gets a trophy.” That’s the mentality today. It’s crazy. Failure is important. Talk to anyone who has done it in life. Ben Carson: His mother was illiterate but made him write a book report every week. I love that. She was a domestic, cleaning people’s houses. Ben Carson is the top neurosurgeon at John Hopkins Hospital. Those kinds of stories inspire me.
To view Dr. Leman’s full line of teaching materials, visit his website at www.birthorderguy.com.