SF Counseling Center

Rock, Paper, Scissors and the Intergenerational Transmission of Character

Well, you might be asking yourself what does the game Rock, Paper, Scissors have to do with the intergenerational transmission of character? What follows is a brief vignette and then insights gathered from my reflections afterward.

A number of years ago, I was the training supervisor in charge of a school-based therapy program.  During a clinical case conference, one of the staff was presenting a case.  A notable fact was that the child had stolen the teacher’s prized rock off of her desk. On another occasion, the child went into the teacher’s drawer and stole some of her nice paper.  I turned to the Clinical Director and whispered, “I know what she is going to steal next.”  She looked puzzled and asked me what I said.  I repeated myself and clarified, she was going to steal the teacher’s scissors.  Initially puzzled, I clarified to the Clinical Director by making the familiar hand gestures for rock-paper-scissors.  You could see the moment it clicked for the Clinical Director and we both started laughing.  At this point, the entire case conference stopped and looked at us. The Clinical Director asked me to repeat what I had said.  I did and everyone laughed.  Eventually, we got back on track and discussed the case in depth.

Grandma’s Nanny and the Intergenerational Transmission of Character

After the conference, I found myself wondering why I had made that joke. I knew that I have a somewhat subversive sense of humor and that I believe I got that sense of humor from my grandmother.  She would have me play little pranks on my mother while growing up, such as bending the pronunciation of various words (to sound like naughty words) and then disavow that I had said such a thing.  As I reflected further, I questioned where my grandmother would have developed a subversive sense of humor.  She grew up with privilege, and reportedly, her parents were very proper.  However, she was largely raised by a nanny.  Suddenly, it dawned on me.  My great-grandparents would have no reason to subvert their position, in fact that would be counter-productive.  However, a nanny could gain at least some satisfaction in teaching a privileged child to be subversive.  Everything clicked!  I also realized that I have inherited some of my sense of humor from a woman I have never met, who lived over 100 years ago and who was likely working out some difficult feelings about her place in life.

Intergenerational Transmission of Character and Our Interconnectedness

I think it is interesting to think about how we came to be as we are.  Moreover, this insight led me to ponder the interconnectedness we share with others in ways we can never fully know. We can have characteristics, such as sense of humor transmitted intergenerationally, without our ever being aware of the connection. After this event and my insight, I became aware of a growing literature on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, but I had not seen others’ thoughts on this broader topic. Nonetheless, I believe it is all around us. Perhaps the clearest example is the gentle, loving preschool or kindergarten teacher who helps the child feel comfortable in a new world of school and group interactions.  In all likelihood, her/his name(s) will be forgotten, but their warmth and generosity will live on in the child.  With a little luck, this gentleness will help that child in the future, as a parent.


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