The Best Interests of the Child

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."

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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.

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