This tension colours all our lives. It has led to the development of various techniques to make things easier. Long ago, much to the surprise of Italian and French visitors, it was noticed that many of the English sent their children off very young (from the age of seven onwards) to be brought up in another household. If they were rich, they were pages or ladies in waiting, if poor, servants or apprentices. The English said they did this because unrelated strangers or friends could exercise good discipline in a way which parents found very difficult.
Later this developed into the sort of education which I had, boarding schools from the age of eight to eighteen with parents abroad in India whom I hardly saw. My grand-parents with whom I lived disciplined me. Meanwhile my parents were like grand-parents who could show an uncomplicated and high level of affection.
The other way of proceeding, used in most societies, is effectively to keep a member of the family as a ‘child’ until his parents die. Thus in parts of Ireland in the nineteenth century a grown man in his fifties might be referred to as ‘the boy’ in the presence of his parents. Such a system has the advantage that there is no doubt about where authority lies. A father is like a king. On the other hand, it makes it difficult for people to break free into becoming fully responsible adults and mature citizens. Often the only way to achieve this is to go right away, as many Irish, people in India, Chinese or other migrants have done when they have experienced the separateness (and loneliness), of ‘escaping’ from their families.
These clashes and tensions vary with the times. A rise in the cost of housing can mean that instead of leaving home and setting up separately, children are forced to stay in their parent’s houses in their twenties or thirties. Or again, the rising costs of old age provision in a separate home means that children have to bring their elderly parents to live with them, or move into their parent’s home.
Both these situations can cause exhausting tensions. For they produce a direct clash between the fundamental ideal of the individualistic and egalitarian relations of modern society, and the need for some kind of hierarchy and discipline within an organization. They can ferment a deadly struggle between love for parents or children and self-love and self esteem. Old age is a country that cannot be understood until it is reached.