“The Armor of a Happy Childhood” — Subtle Messages About Parenting in Game of Thrones

Writing in Slate, Anna Nordberg notes that beneath the feudal politics, violence and magic that drive the plot of Game of Thrones, the show quietly demonstrates the importance and lasting power of growing up in a stable home with loving parents.

She’s referring to the Starks. For the uninitiated: the Stark family is one of the most powerful in this fictional realm. The Starks, generally, are the “good guys,” the most relatable characters — and the most egregiously victimized by their rivals. Patriarch Ned is betrayed and executed early in the story, and his wife Catelyn and oldest son meet a similar fate two seasons later. His other children narrowly avoid death but suffer grievously in other ways.

“For years,” Nordberg writes, “the show suggested that Ned’s brand of idealism came at a terrible cost.” But then she points out how the surviving Stark children endured:

To understand how Ned’s legacy has defined his children, it’s essential to look at him and Catelyn as parents. They brought these kids up, and whatever you might say about their mistakes, how they raised their children was not one of them. The Starks, including Jon and even Theon, who was fostered at Winterfell, are resilient—just look at what Sansa and Arya have overcome, or Theon, who has the only truly redemptive arc on the entire show. They have the armor of a happy childhood.

Almost from birth, we begin learning from our caregivers the skills that will help us navigate the unpredictable, demanding, sometimes terrifying world. Those who don’t learn those skills early are more vulnerable — unarmored.

Jaak Panksepp, a pioneer in the study of affect (the experience of emotions), presented overwhelming evidence that all mammals, including humans, are driven and shaped by seven affective processes. One of them is care, our natural capacity and desire to protect and nurture others, especially the young. Care is the single most important element for building resilience in children. The ability to cope with stress and recover from trauma is learned in, and rejuvenated by, caring relationships — first with parents and other caregivers, and later with an array of people. There is no other source for this skill.

We can increase resilience throughout our lives, but childhood is critical. Infancy is when we begin to learn to regulate our responses to stress, through co-regulation with our caregivers. This literally shapes the brain (80 percent of brain development occurs in the first four years). A child growing up in a stressful environment, and lacking nurturing relationships, will grow up with a propensity to perceive threats everywhere and to overreact to them. (Returning to the Game of Thrones essay, this is Daenerys Targaryen: “Pose a threat or question her authority, and you will be crushed.”) And stress, as you probably know, has been linked to a wide range of diseases and chronic conditions. Stories help is make sense of the world, and can impart wisdom in ways no speech or textbook could. I’m pleased to learn that a TV show notorious for savage treatment of its characters also offers insight into the importance of safe, stable, loving homes.

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