The Time magazine cover story for January 31, 2011 has sparked a heated national debate on how best to raise children. Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and mother of two, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, her proudly politically incorrect account of raising her daughters “the Chinese way”, arrived in bookstores last month. To simplify, the Chinese way appears to involve extreme regimentation, sever discipline, academic achievement, and a zero tolerance for activities not directly related to excellence and productivity. By contrast “the Western way” is characterized as overly permissive, indulgent, and obsessed with a child’s self-esteem. As is typical for this kind of emotional/intellectual jousting, supporters of each view trot out their respective horror stories, cite questionable research data, and when all else fails, resort to personal attacks. Ms. Chua has of course been demonized, called a monster, a child abuser and worse. Apparently a nerve has been touched for many, many people. However,we of the Primal minority have a much deeper understanding of raising children and parenting in my view. We know that parenting can never be condensed into any kind of manual or how to book, or even reduced to a one size fits all philosophy. We know all too well that a child’s experience of his or her life is more than just what a parent decides to consciously say or do.
Better Than a 747
It seems to me that this whole quest to find the best way to raise children is itself a danger sign. It is certainly misguided at least, and for me, hints at a certain alienation from healthy parental instincts, a kind of estrangement that can cause many parents to seek out experts for what should be the most natural thing in the world. After all, we were all children at one time. So, the 747 I mentioned above refers to Boeing’s widely known commercial airplane. This jumbo jet has something like 5 backup systems for all crucial operations. This built-in redundancy I believe they call it, backs up many times over, all vital systems. The engineers know that indeed things can and do go wrong, but the plane is over-engineered so that it can survive numerous types of failure. Only if many, many things go horribly wrong all at once, is safe flight compromised. Children are also over-engineered, equipped to thrive in a wide range of conditions, including highly stressful environments. This wonderful capacity liberates us from having to vision quest some notion of the best way to parent. All styles of parenting across a wide variety of conditions will allow a child to thrive within certain parameters. What exactly are the parameters? Well, even our 747 with all its back up systems cannot survive a wing falling off mid-flight. The failure is too great; it exceeds all reasonable parameters for safe flight. You will go down! A plane without a wing is an easy thing to spot, not so for parents with equally dangerous structural problems. What then separates the parents that can support and nurture a new being into adulthood from parents that fail their children? We know from 40 years of clinical experience that the repressed (unconscious) unmet needs of the parent become the child’s mandate. This is the parameter, which if overburdened, endangers the child, i.e.; brings the plane down in flames. Whatever is repressed or unconscious in the parents become the demands placed upon the child. The tentacles of repressed pain spread out covertly and overtly for the child, and like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, the biggest danger is below the surface. Our understanding of dialectical processes helps us to see the many forms that parental pain may take in the parent-child dyad. Make no mistake; they can be quite lethal for a child’s natural development. As Dr. Janov brilliantly stated many years ago, often the very reason a person decides to become a parent sets the child on a path towards neurosis. Examples of parental pain becoming a child’s mandate are all too familiar. The more obvious ones are having a child so we can finally be loved, or the ultra popular parental opiate, insisting on the child’s success at school, sports, music, etc. to quell the parents own sense of failure. Parents do not do this knowingly, but the damage is great nevertheless. The fatal flaw (for the child) of these parents is their need to use the child for pain mediation. A parent with significant repressed childhood pain has no choice but to use his child to keep that pain under wraps. If a parent grew up with Nazi style discipline, he or she will often raise their child in much the same way hoping to validate and perpetuate their own self-deception. To be more flexible, or permissive, or softer, requires at least some painful acknowledgment of the cruelty and sadness that was their childhood. What a miraculous yet lamentable situation, without significant repressed parental pain, almost all styles and approaches, across a wide spectrum of conditions, will allow children to thrive. With significant parental pain, albeit unconscious, no approach, style, or set of ideas will protect the child, making a child’s natural development unlikely. Both sides in this debate may make the occasional good point, both sides may have the best intentions for the well-being of their children but without a deeper understanding of Primal forces they are doomed to failure. “The Chinese way” puts great emphasis on preparing children for the future, which is simply code for career and earning potential. Ms. Chua even states, “Excellence builds self-esteem”, I would agree, provided there is a self to build it upon! Achievement and excellence, no matter how hard-won, if imposed upon us in parental indentured servitude, leaves behind bewildered adults with a dull ache and emptiness they find difficult to define or articulate. For many, it is a treadmill they can’t get off. Perhaps, they reason, more achievement will stop the ache. Such is the price for childhood lost. Nor is blind permissiveness and overprotection and lack of childhood demands any better. Over the years, we have seen how the post WWII generation has done equal damage. The same repressed parental pain, acted out but stylistically different, has produced legions of what we call handicapped royalty, adults who have few skills and resources to navigate through life. The dialectic again, born from parental deprivation, I will give my child everything I never had (whether the child wants it or not), produces anxious, fearful adults with a pseudo sense of entitlement that masks a Kafkaesque self-loathing. The most important thing about childhood is to actually have one! A time to grow and develop at ones own pace, versus playing the lead in a parent’s repressed drama where every day is Showtime! Oppression is oppression no matter how well-intentioned or well executed. Fascism, whether political or personal is still fascism. Choice is never an option. Primal pain removes real choice and freedom for both parent and child, what a tragedy!! It is really quite sad that despite ones best intentions, a parents unresolved pain will always undermine the child’s welfare. We see this everyday at The Primal Institute. We are powerless to act in truly healthy ways regardless of our great desire to do so. One cannot do right by our children or ourselves unless and until we embrace our own history of suffering and sadness. Most parents today desperately want to raise healthy and happy children. The cycle of repression and oppression spares no one until the courage can be found to face the past. Child rearing debates and philosophies of the moment can never address the more potent forces at work. Oppression always serves the needs of the oppressor, never the oppressed, and on and on we go… Barry M. Bernfeld