Flashbacks November 2005

The Best Interests of the Child

Articles by Karl Menninger, Bruno Bettelheim, Caitlin Flanagan, and others on how to raise well-adjusted children.

Many parents today—especially upper-middle-class parents—seem to feel compelled to lavish tremendous energy and resources on perfecting their children. Indeed, parents who in the past might have left their children to their own devices—turning them out of doors to play with children down the street, for example, and trusting them to do their own schoolwork—now shuttle their children from one expensive lesson to the next and fuss over and assist them as they tackle their studies. And whereas in the past most parents simply interacted with their children in whatever way came most naturally to them, parents today obsessively study up on what attitude to take so as to foster their child's self esteem and social and academic prowess. While the level of parental obsessiveness seems to have ratcheted up of late, concern about how to raise children so that they will become well-adjusted, productive adults has always been with us. Over the years a number of Atlantic contributors have weighed in on the subject—many focusing especially on the question of whether emphasis should be on strict discipline or on nurturing acceptance.

In "Boys Will Be Boys" (November 2005 Atlantic), Caitlin Flanagan addressed what she perceives as a troubling new fad of dismissing fathers as irrelevant. She argued that affluent single women or lesbian couples who decide to have children tend to see themselves as such model parents that in their minds the presence of a father is unnecessary. But in fact, she suggested, no amount of carefully crafted maternal nurturing can substitute for a father figure in the household and what he can contribute in the way of discipline and a male role model. "The ramifications of this new attitude," she writes, "are going to be grave. Belittle men's responsibilities to their families, raise boys to believe that fatherhood is not a worthy aspiration, and the people who will suffer are women and children."

Just a few months earlier, in "Marshal Plan" (March 2005), Sandra Tsing Loh hailed what she saw as the beginnings of a fall from favor of the "soft-serve" style of parenting that seeks, above all else, to foster children's self-esteem. The old-fashioned, live-by-my-laws approach to parenting that aims to take charge of children rather than coddle them, she observed, may be making a comeback. Some parents, she suggested—as evidenced by a new spate of relatively laid-back parenting advice books—may be finally getting the message that they don't need to knock themselves out striving to be perfect nurturers; instead, the new conventional wisdom advises, parents should simply do the best they can and not be afraid to impose discipline as needed. After all, not every scenario involving the child, Tsing Loh pointed out, must have a warm and fuzzy ending.

Buckle your seat belts: the backlash is here. Those non-authoritarian, all-validating, all-encouraging, all-active, all-listening, all-providing, never-raise-a-voice-in-anger, teach-don't-punish, feel-good moms and dads now rate all the respect of yesterday's bees in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Today's cutting-edge parents manipulate, threaten, deprive, ignore, spank, and get mad and scream at their children, and—why not?—drink.

Tsing Loh suggested that over-programming the child's schedule with too many extra-curricular activities and intense supervision, however supportive, can actually make him less self reliant and less prepared for the big bad world. Her advice to parents was to step back a bit and worry less about perfection.

An article written twenty years earlier expressed similar misgivings about excessive lenience. In "A Letter to the Young (and to Their Parents)" (February 1975), Midge Decter lamented the well-intentioned but overly indulgent upbringing that she and her upper-middle-class peers had lavished upon their children. The hopes that these parents had harbored for their children—that they would find personal independence and security, and learn to live responsibly and effectively within the social fabric of work and family—seemed in her view to have come to naught.

The children, having every advantage pressed upon them, having suffered no hardship, beloved, encouraged, supported, sympathized with, heaped with largesse both of the pocketbook and of the spirit, the children yet cannot find themselves. The children are not, for some reason—may God please tell them what it is—in good shape.

Having come of age during a period of rebellion and revolution, Decter explained, this generation had become dismissive of any philosophy or art that was not immediately gratifying. And as parents, she lamented, she and her peers had failed to lay down the law and play the much-needed role of authority figure.

Believing you to be a new phenomenon among mankind—children raised exclusively on a principle of love, love unvaryingly acted out on our side and freely and voluntarily offered on yours—we enthroned you as such. We found our role more attractive this way, more suited to our self-image of enlightenment, and—though we would have died on the rack before confessing it—far easier to play. In other words, we refused to assume, partly on ideological grounds, but partly also, I think, on aesthetic grounds, one of the central obligations of parenthood: to make ourselves the final authority on good and bad, right and wrong, and to take the consequences of what might turn out to be a lifelong battle.

Still earlier, an article by Dr. Peter B. Neubauer sounded a similar refrain. In "The Century of the Child" (July 1961), he warned that many people were misinterpreting Freud's theories on child-rearing. Because some of Freud's work had revealed the significant psychic damage caused by the authoritarian parenting of the Victorian era and had emphasized the problems caused by the repression of instinctual drives (the id), lay people looking to psychological theory for parenting guidance tended to lean toward overly permissive parenting in which gratification and self-expression were the goals for children. Neubauer pointed out that in his later work, Freud had shifted focus to the ego, which seeks to balance internal drives with external reality. This shift was under-publicized and had therefore failed to make a sufficient impact on parenting techniques. In the end, Neubauer asserted, Freudian psychology did emphasize genuine parental love, but did not advocate "unqualified license."

Many parents are now well aware how much their presence or absence, their words, their actions, indeed their whole emotional state affect their children. This is an important gain. Unfortunately, it must be added that Freud's theories ... have often been taken to mean that discipline should be suspended, controls eliminated—in sum, that the child should be continuously gratified. Freud, on the contrary, pointed out that denial and conflict were as essential a part of the process of growth as gratification, and he never minimized the child's need for direction.

Though there are a host of factors that contribute to bad, out-of-control behavior among kids and teenagers, James Q. Wilson's article "Raising Kids" (October 1983) identified incompetence on the part of parents as one major cause. Some parents, he explained, simply do not have the skills needed to raise their children in a manner that conveys to them what is and isn't acceptable social conduct. In his article, Wilson described the approach taken by family therapist Gerald. R. Patterson at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene. The Learning Center, operational since the mid-1970s, taught parents how to use a "rewards" system to encourage good behavior and to penalize bad behavior.

The treatment at the Learning Center was to teach these troubled parents how to set clear rules, monitor behavior, and make rewards contingent on good behavior and punishment contingent on bad behavior. By rewards, the therapists meant not necessarily giving presents in exchange for some major instance of good conduct but routinely responding in pleasant and supportive ways, or with "points" exchangeable for small privileges (such as ice cream for dessert), to pleasant language and helpful behavior. And by punishment they meant not only assessing major penalties for major misdemeanors but promptly and consistently penalizing unpleasant and destructive language and conduct. An especially favored penalty, the value of which was established by repeated trials, was "time out"--that is, being sent, briefly, usually for five minutes, into seclusion in another room, usually the bathroom, without recriminations or long lectures.

Wilson watched a series of videotapes of a struggling single mother who was being taught how to employ these techniques to "rein in" her young, extremely badly behaved son. She eventually succeeded; these common-sense methods were very effective. The Learning Center also instructed parents that small, consistent penalties for minor misconduct are more effective than a severe spanking for the larger offense that often comes at the end of a series of smaller ones.

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Mary Ann Koruth was recently an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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