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.

While penalties for inappropriate conduct can be helpful in curbing mischievous tendencies, one writer emphasized the importance of not taking the urge to penalize too far. In "Punishment versus Discipline" (November 1985), Bruno Bettelheim, an eminent child psychologist whose career has since become the subject of controversy, touted this view, maintaining that harsh punishment is traumatic and serves only to weaken the child's belief in his parent's benevolence. To bring about long-term behavioral change, he argued, it is best to alert the child to the discomfort he is causing his parents by his bad behavior, and to allow him to reason out for himself whether his behavior was justified or not.

As an example, he cited a study aimed at learning why Japanese children performed better academically than American children. The study found that instead of simply scolding their children, Japanese mothers reasoned with them, encouraging them to think through the consequences of their behavior.

The Japanese mother does not just expect her child to be able to arrive at good decisions. She also makes an appeal to her child not to embarrass her. In the traditional Japanese culture losing face is among the worst things that can happen to a person. When a mother asks, "How do you think it makes me—or the storekeeper—feel when you act this way?" she implies that by mending his ways the child does her, or the storekeeper, a very great favor. To be asked to do one's own thinking and to act accordingly, as well as to be told that one is able to do someone a favor, enhances one's self-respect, while to be ordered to do the opposite of what one wants is destructive of it.

In the short term, though, he suggested that an effective way to deal with bad behavior is simply to send the child out of the room, or remove oneself from it. Apart from making a strong impression on the child, this also provides respite to the exasperated parent. Above all, he indicated, rather than focusing on punishments for bad behavior, parents are best advised to be decorous and honorable in their own behavior and to live by a consistent set of values. Parents need not strive to be perfect people, but as long as they do their best to live good lives, he suggested, they can hope that their children will do the same.

Many years earlier, Dr. Karl Menninger had similarly argued against excessive discipline for children. In his article "Parents Against Children" (August 1939), he explained why young children often resist their parents' efforts to instill in them the norms of good behavior. However it's framed, a parent's request that a child eat neatly or play only with certain objects amounts to impeding his inclinations and drives. Being an instinctual and primitive creature, the child does not understand the later compensations that such sacrifices will provide. He therefore simply does not cooperate. The solution to this, Menninger argued, is to allay the child's sense of deprivation by providing him with reasonable alternative gratifications.

If we can imagine a parent sufficiently skillful to replace each satisfaction of which the child is deprived by another satisfaction which the child could accept as approximately equivalent, without disloyalty to the requirements of reality, we should expect to see in the progeny of such a parent an ideal person, a man without any neurotic sense of thwarting in the adventures and misadventures of life, and hence a man not without hate for anything except those things which should be hated and fought against in the defense of his own best interests.

Part of the problem, continued Menninger, is that in modern society a child's desires are constantly denied, and then he is expected to refrain from expressing his disappointment and anger at making the adjustment. He must obey politely, without even "the satisfaction of screaming, kicking and fighting." Menninger asserted that thwarting a child's desires and then denying him the outlet of expressing his unhappiness leads to repression and all its attendant ill-effects. He contrasted the Western child's upbringing with that of a child from a tribal culture. "Primitive" children, he explained, found their own substitute gratifications; they might, for instance, pick guavas or bananas from a tree instead of seeking out their mother's milk. They weaned their mothers, instead of the other way round. Parents in such cultures often left it to nature to reveal to the child what was acceptable and safe behavior; a child would thus learn on his own to avoid walking on thistles or to come in from the rain. A medical officer of Menninger's acquaintance had observed that native Americans in New Mexico raised their children permissively, never raising their hand to them, and allowing them to do as they pleased. The result was children who grew up to be lawful, observant members of the tribe. According to the officer's communiqué to Menninger,

One fact in the rearing of the Indian child has interested me greatly. Babies and small children are treated with great kindness and indulgence. If a child cries, it is suckled or provided with whatever it appears to desire, whether by our standards this would be good or bad. No disciplinary measures are offered unless restraint by use of a cradle board are considered in this light. During childhood they do very much as they please. I have often had the parents defer to a six-year-old's whims as to whether he would or would not be hospitalized, regardless of the child's degree of illness. Yet at adolescence that same child becomes a thoroughly law-abiding citizen who conforms in every respect to the tribal customs, takes part in the ritual ceremonies and dances, and defers in every matter of great or little importance to his elders.

Menninger acknowledged that contemporary society requires much more delaying of gratification than does life in a tribe like the one he described. However, he argued, expressions of love and appreciation by the parent can go a long way toward making a child willing to show obedience. The importance of continuous and loving reinforcement from parents to the growing child, he suggested, cannot overemphasized.

Without love to sweeten each step in this prodigious uphill climb, the boundless energy and curiosity of the little child are diverted into other paths. The great frustration which the modern child in civilized society suffers is not entirely due to the rigid curbing of his natural pleasures and unsocial habits; it derives also from the fact that he is deprived of the extra portion of love which his sacrifices require.

Mary Ann Koruth

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

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