Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Good Parents Have Bad Children

Dr. Richard Friedman was not completely surprised when a patient tried to blame herself for the fact that her seventeen year old son was simply not a very good person. Link here.

Her two other children were thriving, but this one, who possessed no diagnosable psychiatric disorder, was rude, unfriendly, and not very nice. Truth be told, she did not really like him very much.

Dr. Friedman's response is refreshing, sensible, and surely correct.

In his words: "My answer may sound heretical, coming from a psychiatrist. After all, our bent is to see misbehavior as psychopathology that needs treatment; there is no such thing as a bad person, just a sick one.

"But maybe this young man was just not a nice person.

"For years mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.

"But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook-- sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic-- the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children."

As I say, it is good to hear this from a distinguished mental health professional. For many years therapists made it their business to guilt-trip parents into thinking that they were at fault for everything that happened to their children.. These same therapists then defined their own treatment as a way to compensate or supplement the inferior parenting.

Thus, the culture lost confidence in real parents and ushered in an age where experts ruled.

Thus, our our therapy culture embraced the notion, as Dr. Friedman said, that any child can be made into anything at all with the proper expert advice.

As Dr. Friedman writes, there is: "a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. After all, we are the culture of Baby Einstein, the video product that promised-- and spectacularly failed-- to make geniuses of all our infants."

He adds that what I would call therapeutic idealism, the notion that human beings were blank slates on which we could inscribe anything at all, has been succeeded by a more realistic concept, namely, that: "everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists."

Children have different potentials; parents help them to actualize those potentials, or not. Good parents understand that a child who has an aptitude for music should not be forbidden from taking piano lessons and forced to play basketball.

Good parents know that they should help their children develop their strengths, not suppress them in order to fulfill the parents' vision of the perfect child.

And yet, aptitude for mathematics does not feel like the same thing as good character. Or, not entirely. Surely, some children are born sociable; they are born gregarious; they are naturally outgoing, cheerful, and kind.

Other children are born mean; they are born fighters and dramatizers; they do not like other children and are constantly provoking arguments.

These children might be more than unusually individualistic. They may need to find activities and a career path that does not require intense interpersonal contact. They would do better at trading than at sales. They might be better at golf than at football.

While we cannot make a born mathematician into a star baseball player, we do believe that we can and should help children improve their character.

But you would not be able to do it with psychotherapy. According to Dr. Friedman, the most promising results have come from coaching.

Surely, there are limits, but we should take Dr. Friedman's words seriously: "There are some interesting studies that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching."

Link to the studies here.


Unknown said...

Why do all these so called experts think they have the answers for parents. When will children again be made responsible for their own decisions and actions instead of blaming parents. Children have their own brains to know right from wrong if they chose to behave badly then they should have to face the consequences of those choices and no one else.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree entirely. Sometimes I suspect that the experts pretend to have all the answers because if they didn't they would be out of business.

I know that's not encouraging, but...

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