Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is It a Child's Job to Make You a Parent? A Couple of Takes on Parent-Child Relations

In my reading for this week, there have been two different but complementary approaches to the relationship between parents and children. Each of these views focuses on what we as modern parents may implicitly demand of our children-- what their existence and good or poor development does for our sense of ourselves and of life in general.

Lisa Belkin, writing in the New York Times Sunday magazine, talks about a new view of human motivation suggested by the psychologist Douglas Kenrick and his colleagues. This idea is based on the old Maslow “pyramid” of needs (which frankly I had hoped not to see or hear of again, but as Pippi Longstocking says, One can’t be having fun all the time). As readers will recall, that “pyramid” suggested that humans do not feel needs all at the same time, but must have more primitive survival needs satisfied before they are able to want social benefits, and to have everything else they need in place before seeking self-actualization, which they may achieve through the arts, philosophy, and so on. But Kenrick has suggested that this cannot really be the case, because there should be some evolutionary advantage to any innate motive, and there is arguably no direct benefit to artists or other Maslowian “self-actualizers”. Instead, Kenrick and colleagues propose that real “self-actualization” must have to do with characteristics that attract a mate and contribute to rearing children who can also attract mates, etc.

The Kenrick approach would seem to have more to do with Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development than with “self-actualization” in Maslow’s sense. It also seems to ignore the fact that evolution can select for useless or irrelevant characteristics, if they are linked with useful ones and if they have no immediate harmful effects. But, be all that as it may, it’s Lisa Belkin’s take on the elevation of parenting to a high-order need that I want to talk about. Belkin’s concern is that parental behavior has become something of a goal in itself, as well as a proof that an adult is an excellent person in his or her own eyes and the eyes of others. Because this seems to be the case, Belkin argues, parents are delaying their children’s independence and hovering over them unnecessarily in order to prolong the parents’ involvement with the honored parenting role. Parents, Belkin says, have forgotten the primary parenting goal: making ourselves unnecessary. And, I might add, we may have come to concentrate on what children mean about us, not on what we need to do for our children.

Of course, the problem with Belkin’s or my arguments is that they focus primarily on parental attitudes and behavior, and give little attention to changes in the world such as fewer serious childhood illnesses, but more cars on the road, or fewer children per family as well as fewer grandparents living nearby and making themselves available. Maybe it will be useful to look at a more specific parenting situation as it is described by another author.

The anthropologist Rachael Stryker, in her book “The Road to Evergreen”, examines adoption, particularly adoption from Russia, and looks at adoptive parents’ motives. She mentions the obvious motives for this type of adoption: the belief that adoptive parents are helping children out of a miserable situation; the desire, not always frankly stated, to have children who are ethnically similar to the parents; and, in some cases, the ill-judged wish to skip the sticky, demanding baby period and to start with older children who (they think) won’t be so much trouble. But Stryker goes on from these obvious or stated motives and suggests a much more powerful motivation: that adopted children have a critical role as “emotional assets” who are expected to establish a family life and permit the adults to experience roles which they too may think of as the top of the pyramid. If the adopted children do not accomplish this, they are failing in their responsibilities as emotional assets, and the parents interviewed by Stryker were dissatisfied or even concerned that the children were mentally ill. The parents in Stryker’s study sought a disturbing and ill-supported form of treatment, Attachment Therapy, for their adopted children; both parents and therapists couched the children’s behavior in terms of “wanting to be part of the family”. When children did not comply, they were placed in out-of-home care, a solution referred to as “loving at a distance”, allowing parents to continue to use the child as an emotional asset and family-maker even when he or she was not present.

Some of the parents interviewed by Stryker noted that they did not have their children do any chores, expressing shock over the tasks they had done in their Russian institutions. Many of them also stressed a “consumer” aspect of childhood, providing toys, clothes, and in some cases almost immediate trips to Disney World as ways of engaging with the child. The fact that the children were often frightened or uncomfortable with these “pleasures” was seen as a failure on the child’s part, not as lack of parental empathy for children in a shockingly new environment.

The matters discussed by Belkin and by Stryker raise a question for me: Are children the new wives? I’m not talking about the wife of the distant past, the one who labored in her vineyard, and her children rose up and called her blessed (unlike any children I’ve ever met). And I’m not talking about the full-time-employed wife of today, because she does not do the “wife job” I’m referring to. I mean the well-off Victorian wife, or the Chinese wife of the foot-binding era--- women who consumed and did not produce, who were decorative and pleasant and obedient to their husbands, and whose basic role was to show the world how affluent were the husbands who did not require wifely labor. That was a lot to ask of wives, but of course it didn’t really matter to society what happened to their development as a result of that treatment. If we’re asking children to do this “wife job”, it is a lot to ask of them-- and as Belkin points out, their development, which is important, may well be negatively affected.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding Stryker's study, here are a few of my opinions:

    Biological parents no doubt also look to children to "complete the family," be "consumers of wealth," and be "emotional assets." "Emotional assets" can cover a great deal of ground, perhaps too much to be useful.

    The question for me is why adoptive parents turn to Attachment Therapy/Parenting (AT/P). Aside from the fact that child welfare workers, licensed mental health professionals, parent support groups, and Internet sources have long recommended this unvalidated and abusive practice to parents, I suspect that the allure is the fact that AT/P allows and even encourages adoptive parents to put all blame *outside of the family* for various problems they find with their child. Biological parents normally don't have that option. Adoptive parents can, and do, blame the child's biological parents, genetics, the ungrateful child himself, the adoption agency, orphanages, and even conventional parenting and therapy.

    That AT/P is brutally punishing may confirm for the parents that it is the adopted child who is grievously at fault and/or seriously disturbed.

    AT/P also validates parents' desired to get the "emotional liability" out of their home, something that is arranged for *before* two-week intensives begin at the Attachment Center at Evergreen (ACE), according to an ACE publication.

    It seems clear who is meant to be the beneficiary of AT/P when adoptive parents are given box seats behind a two-way mirror to watch therapists brutalize their child. It certainly isn't the child.

    ACE and its parent-clients appear to be taking advantage of the current trend in American society to broadened the idea of family (e.g. to include homosexual couples and other unconventional combinations). Stryker claims AT/P's redefinition of "family," i.e. "loving [the adopted child] at a distance," is a satisfying solution when AT/P fails to keep the family together.

    This definition, even if accurate in describing the situation, stretches the concept of family too far for my liking. How much of "loving children from a distance" is merely a face-saving device for parents who wish to avoid the many unpleasant consequences of formal disruption?

    Stryker fails to make us privy to what other family members -- the adopted children -- think of this redefined "family" arrangement. We do know from various videos and other materials that part of the Evergreen Method is to routinely threaten these supposedly unattached children with abandonment by their adoptive parents. We also know that for many of these children, being "loved at a distance," means being subjected to exceedingly cruel treatment in "therapeutic homes" for years. Some might call this "abusing at a distance."

    For those familiar with AT/P, Stryker's study may seem decidedly narrow, callow, and unobjective. She may even seem like a proponent of AT/P. There certainly are many key elements of Attachment Therapy/Parenting that she does not describe adequately or even acknowledge.

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