Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

Mom and Dad are Not God

Parents don't control who their child will become.

 


It's good to see that the NY Times has caught up to the advancing psychological knowledge which indicates - overwhelmingly - that, Freud, Portnoy, and the parenting industry notwithstanding - adult problems and deficiencies can't all be blamed on mom.

If you haven't read Richard A. Friedman's article, " Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/health/13mind.html?ref=todayspaper), you should. It might help all parents relax, enjoy their kids, and recognize that although for a brief time your little one may think you're God....you really aren't.

The list of children's malfunctions, disorders and bad choices for which parents have been held responsible is long. Writers ranging from Freud to Phillip Roth have blamed parents - particularly mothers -for the imperfections of their children. Where the children's failings were most severe - immoral, criminal or simply insane - the social fingers of blame pointed at parents, adding punitive guilt and shame to their sorrow.

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A remarkable array of conditions was once (and not that long ago) considered to be a result of faulty parenting. Human beings want to make sense of things. When life doesn't turn out the way we hoped it would, we want desperately to understand why. Historically, we found an "explanation" in the actions of evil spirits, or the evil eye. In the 20th century, enlightened by science invigorated by a can do spirit, we blamed the parents.

Check the psychological literature and you will find;
-Schizophrenia, a severe form of mental illness that is a disturbance of perception, thinking and behavior, was understood by psychoanalysts to be associated with a "schizophrenogenic" mother.

That's a fancy way of saying it's all mom's fault.

-The psychiatrist who identified autism in children attributed this serious neurological disorder to "refrigerator" moms. He found his patients' mothers, who came to him seeking treatment for their children, too cool and rational for his taste.

Too often, parents are held responsible for children's moral choices. Faced with incorrigible, unrepentant criminals, the authorities pointed to poor parenting. Parents have been faulted for being both too soft and undisciplined, or too harsh, lacking understanding. We now know that some psychopathic personalities are hard-wired from the start, and simply lack the normal capacity for empathy on which moral behavior is based.

Back in 1998, Judith Rich Harris shook up the world of psychology and parenting experts when she published, the Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. "The Freudians and the behaviorists never questioned the notion that parents influence their children. They only disagreed on how parents influence their children," she said in an interview. Harris challenged one of psychology's most sacred, enduring beliefs. Her well-reasoned, well-documented book argued that parents are less powerful influences on the personality, intelligence and mental health of their offspring, and peers are more powerful influences than we assume.

Harris pointed to the phenomenon of children of immigrants who typically don't speak with their parents' accents, but quickly assimilate and absorb the language of their peers. Even when they speak the parents' language at home, they will easily transition to the language of their peers outside the home and primarily speak the second language in adulthood.

Harris noted the nuanced, and interactive nature of parent-child relationships. Parenting is a two-way street. The same parent will act differently in response to each child's individual temperament and behavior. One day a mother and 2 young children walked past the author's front yard, and her dog started to bark. The 5 year old asked her mother, "Can I pet him?" The mother held this child back, saying; "I don't think the dog wants you to pet him right now." The second child was afraid and ran away down the block. "Come on", the mother said encouragingly (by this time the author was holding the dog's collar), "the dog won't hurt you."

What was this mother's parenting style? It was different for each child, because the children were different.

Holding parents responsible for outcomes they do not control results in children becoming objects of anxiety, with nervous, guilt-ridden parents fearful that a wrong move will mark their children forever.

 

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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