Dorothy Martyn’s Beyond Deserving (see previous posts 1 | 2) includes the most convincing expositions I’ve come across of what Dr Martyn describes as “the great open secret known from antiquity”, namely:

The struggle that ensues from the child’s secret, unconscious wishes to displace the parent of the same sex and to enjoy the spoils of priority in the affections of the other parent.

In other words: the Oedipus and Elektra complexes. Dr Martyn acknowledges that these concepts are not always popular:

There is something about this timeless drama that we do not want to believe and that keeps slipping out of the awareness of parents and educators. We do not seem to like this ancient story, and we keep pretending that it is not true, even though it resounds through the literature of all cultures and all ages and lives in the heart of every child.

One of the ways in which we neutralise “this ancient story” is to caricature it. The Oedipus complex in particular is crudely summarised as “wanting to kill your father and have sex with your mother”, and as such is easily dismissed as ludicrous Freudian overreaching, reading (perhaps one might even say: projecting?) adult sexuality back into the lives of young children. Which would never do, would it?

However, Dr Martyn explains these complexes in terms of wanting to “possess the position of priority with the mother or father”, which makes much more sense than the popular caricature. She explains how this “primeval wish to overcome one’s parent and even unconsciously wish this parent dead and gone” carries with it “enormous dangers” for the child’s mind:

Children always have an instinctive understanding that possessing the position of priority with mother or father does not rightfully belong to them, and that therefore their wishes, if fulfilled, involve not only stealing but also what amounts to murder.

This therefore leads to a “deep fear of the retribution that would seem appropriate to the crime”, a problem exacerbated by two factors. First, “the degree to which [children] are still subject to magical thinking, especially the thought that the wish is the same as the deed”. Second:

…the primitive moral sense that children have not yet refined – witness their resonance with the extreme retributive “justice” of fairy tales – requires “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a toot”. Their unconscious impulses to possess the longed-for but illicit treasure of pre-eminence with the adored parent are matched in intensity by a profound fear of retribution in kind. If one wishes one’s mother or father dead, then one deserves to be punished.

Yet another example of how parents scarcely need to go out of their way to teach their children about the Law’s penalty, or the “this for that” circular exchange that is the world’s default pattern of existence.