Parents, Trust Your Gut

My wife and I were recently invited to a reunion with my former Ph.D. students, who, I am delighted to say, were doing well professionally and personally. However, when we discussed family issues, I was disturbed by the tensions between, let’s call her Dr. Jean, and one of her sons, Jason. Differences in how to discipline Jason created tension between Jean and her husband as well.

I think the world of Dr. Jean. Indeed, when I was called for a recommendation for her first position, I simply said, “She is perfect.” Asked for more details, I described Jean as very bright, very well organized, warm, hard-working, cheerful and absolutely non-neurotic. Unlike many graduate students, she was open to suggestions and not defensive. I knew her parents and her husband (we hosted their wedding reception) and all shared my opinion. Why then was she at war with 10-year-old Jason?

Jean was receptive when I expressed my concerns. I thought she was a victim of too much psychology from her training—too many principles that interfered with her expressing her own judgment about being a mother. Rather than rely upon classroom principles, taught to her by researchers rather than clinicians, she needs to trust and obey her natural maternal impulses.

There is no “text book” way to raise youngsters. I have two values with all patients that I see, and this includes kids: They should be comfortable with themselves and be self-reliant. Compliance and obedience are not nearly as important. Kids learn to be self-reliant by making mistakes and learning from them. Also—very importantly—we need to recognize that parents have different temperaments, different tolerance levels for frustrations, different capacities and different models of discipline. For example, when I tell people that both my parents whacked my brother and me for misbehaving, they seem shocked. Although I was frequently in trouble in school, I can’t remember any punishment at home. My parents regarded school as my responsibility and simply said, “You can do better.” And when I had to, I did.

Jean, having been such a well-behaved kid, could not understand that Jason was not her. Unlike her, he did not do his homework immediately, he challenged her and he sulked at times. Yet, in the big picture, Jason did well in school and had friends.

A great deal of the behavioral training that Jean received involved control of kids. She was versed in time-out, giving rewards, intermittent reinforcement schedules, etc. Worse, there was little classroom discussion of what is important to control and what is trivial. For example, should the same consequences be used when a child runs across the street as when s/he interrupts parents? I hope not!

The goal is not to control but to encourage, to support, to have children feel that you have an iron-bound alliance with them. Parents, being people, goof. However, most errors are trivial compared to the strength of the alliance. Of course my father hit me because of his temper and annoyance. Big deal, compared to the conviction my brother and I had that he was there if needed.

Jean and Jason share a strong bond. What has come between them is that psychology has inhibited Jean from expressing fully her warmth and support. Her gut impulses should guide her more than classroom knowledge. Way before psychology, most parents seemed to know how to raise kids.

Jason will do well. Jean should relax, knowing there will be more curves in his road. Both of their lives will improve if she gets off of the control route and becomes more encouraging. In fact, I am emailing her this article. I guess I still feel I’m her advisor.

Illustration by Tom LaMothe