Baa Baa Black Sheep

Nov 16 | Tony | No Comments |

Almost everyone who has siblings will say that someone in the family was a “golden child” and someone else was a “black sheep.” (“You were always dad’s favorite!” or “I stayed in trouble!”)

Who was (is) the golden child in your family? The black sheep? Have those dynamics changed over the years? Were you assigned the role, or did you seek it out? Do you know why?

Some black sheep say they felt unwelcome. (“It was like I was adopted and everybody knew it but me.”) Some golden children, as if by divine decree, are given the keys to the kingdom from the very beginning. But in most cases, the underlying dynamics are complex and operate on very subtle levels.

I wonder where black sheep come from in the first place? Most every family has one for at least some period of time. Do they only show up when the golden child starts to shine too brightly? Once a child has the high ground, does that sentence another to somehow feeling less than?

Realizing they can’t overthrow the golden child, does one of the children naturally just give up the fight and decide to look for new, unclaimed territory? A search for some psychological ground where there is no competition, or no place to measured and found lacking? Interestingly, black sheep territory is also a space where the light can shine just as brightly as it does on the golden child – albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Parents know that kids don’t care what kind of attention they get, just as long as they get some kind of attention. So, a golden child and a black sheep are really opposite sides of the same coin, and the currency of the realm is a parent’s attention. And kids will do anything to get it. A golden child constellates a black sheep, and a black sheep constellates a golden child. (The argument about the chicken or the egg will be left for another day!)

Is it possible to have a family where there are no black sheep? In order to eliminate the possibility of creating black sheep, do we have to do away with the notion of having a golden child? What might that look like?

The challenge is as old as parenting itself. Our mythologies, fairy tales, and sacred texts are littered with thousands of stories of sibling rivalry, princes and frogs, good witches and bad, and lost boys and prodigal sons.

Maybe the work of a parent is to create a flock of gray sheep. In truth, we are all a little bit of both, aren’t we? We have golden qualities that endear us to our loved ones, and we have darker sides that can make us quite prickly and harder to love.

So, as parents, maybe we need to make sure that a child marching toward gold status is held accountable for less than golden behavior, and a child wandering toward the darker side has a constant light shone on his or her golden qualities. Neither all good, nor all bad – just like the rest of us.