Common sense won’t work with children

It’s a widely touted virtue but it’s almost useless in raising youngsters. A renowned psychiatrist tells why

DR. SMILEY BLANTON April 11 1959

Common sense won’t work with children

It’s a widely touted virtue but it’s almost useless in raising youngsters. A renowned psychiatrist tells why

DR. SMILEY BLANTON April 11 1959

Common sense won’t work with children


It’s a widely touted virtue but it’s almost useless in raising youngsters. A renowned psychiatrist tells why


Arthur Gordon

Your child is not your possession. He is a loan from life, not a gift. A child is an individual in his own right, with a dignity and an integrity that must he respected at all times

Since the beginning of history, I am sure, parents have been referring to their offspring as “our youngster,” or “my child.” But this is false and misleading. A child is not a possession. He does not “belong” to anyone. Life makes use of the parents—to create more life. And it does entrust the child, for a while, to the persons who helped it into the world. But this is a loan, not a gift. And life expects the loan to be repaid, someday, with interest.

An awareness of the truth lies close to the heart of all successful parent-child relationships. The human infant needs more care, for a longer period of time, than the young of any other creature. But inevitably the time comes when he does not need such care any longer, when he will fight if necessary to escape from it. For it is only in proportion as he escapes from it that he becomes a truly adult person himself.

The sad fact is, many of us block our children in trying to help them. We sense that they need love desperately, so sometimes we over-indulge them. We know' that their judgment is faulty, so sometimes we over-control them. We graft onto them, sometimes without even knowing it, our own frustrated ambitions, our prejudices, even our mistakes.

For twenty years of my career I specialized in the emotional problems of children, and much of my work is still concerned w'ith parentchild relationships. It is not an easy field.

The tools that the professional counselor uses are a w'orking knowledge of torces that control human personality, a certain amount of insight born of experience, a pinch of wisdom, perhaps, and a conviction that the love forces in people sometimes need to be strengthened and liberated if the people are to live at peace w'ith themselves, their children, and their neighbors.

You may notice that I do not include in the above list of tools that well-thought-of commodity: common sense. The truth is, common sense is not of much use when it comes to understanding human behavior. Common sense is helpful in making practical decisions: whether to make a trip by train or plane, whether to buy a home or rent one, whether your symptoms warrant calling a doctor. But human behavior often violates common sense because it is determined largely by forces and motives that are concealed from the conscious mind.

The point 1 am making is simply that the laws of nature arc deep and mysterious. When we seem to see a contradiction, it is likely to be our ow'n lack of knowledge that is at fault, not some inconsistency in the great unchanging patterns of the universe.

The children of most people in the middle years are likely to be teen-agers, or at least well past the infancy stage. Every stage of development has its problems, and adolescence is probably the most explosive and difficult of all. But a father's or a mother’s relationship with a teen-age child is not a sudden thing.

It has been evolving since the moment of the child's birth.

In recent years most parents, I am sure, have had drummed into them the fact that very small babies, seemingly unaware of what goes on around them, are very conscious of the attitudes and emotions of the giants who inhabit their tiny w'orld—parents, nurses, and so on. And 1 am equally sure that most parents have wondered how on earth a small infant could possibly register such feelings.

The answer lies in what I call muscle tensions. Each of us has a cerebro-spinal nervous system, under the direct control of the will, which enables us to stand up, to lie down, to walk or run, to shake hands, and so on. But we also have a sympathetic nervous system which functions independently of our will. It is this system which controls the beating of the heart, perspiration, and other bodily functions.

This automatic nervous system is closely keyed in to your emotions. If you are frightened, your heart beats faster. If you are tense and anxious, your digestion is affected. Every time you have a craving, such as hunger, it is accompanied by an emotion: love, fear, or hate. To take a simple example, a hungry man is likely to be an irritable man. It is never a good idea to tackle a man about a business proposition the minute you sit down to lunch. As every salesman knows, it is better to wait until he has eaten.

Whenever you have a strong desire tor something or a strong aversion to something, your automatic nervous system telegraphs your cerebral system to go out and do something about it. But life is full of restrictions and prohibitions; there are many times when no physical action can be taken. You meet a person socially, let us say, and you dislike him. Perhaps something he says or does antagonizes you enormously. But good manners demand that you conceal your irritation.

The fact is, however, that you will be unable to conceal it. Your muscle tensions will betray you—in a thousand involuntary ways— through the tone of your voice, an expression on your face, the tension of your hand as it lies on the table.

This is the mechanism whereby even the smallest baby can sense the attitudes of the people around it. Love is reflected in the caresses of the mother, the gentleness of her voice, even the way she holds the baby. If she is nervous or anxious, her muscle tensions will show it. If she resents having had the baby, she will not be able to conceal it. Babies, even more than most of us, literally depend on love for their survival. I have seen small infants, deprived of maternal cuddling and love, go into convulsions for which no physical cause w'as present. The convulsions were a protest, the most violent protest the child could make, against the deprivation it was suffering.

This is something that parents would do well to remember at all stages of their child’s development. The way you stand, the way you walk, the way you speak—particularly the quality and volume of your voice—reveal instantly your basic attitude, and a child will read you like a book.

This principle holds true in any human relationship. Whenever you come into contact with another human being, something in you is measuring his tensions. Perhaps the reason the custom of handshaking has persisted through the ages is that it gives this monitor in all of us a tangible physical contact to evaluate. 1 often think that in my work it is not so much what 1 say as how I say it that sometimes seems to help people.

Once. 1 remember, when 1 was trying to explain to some parents the importance of all this. 1 said. “I am now going to say goodbye to you in three different ways, but always using the same words.”

First 1 said goodbye in a pleasant but somewhat detached manner—the sort of farewell one might expect from a physician who is friendly with a patient but docs not know him very well. Then I said goodbye in a rather abrupt tone which means, “I am through with you. I wish you’d leave now because 1 have more important things to do." Finally I said goodbye with great warmth and affection, as if the welfare of the patient were of deep concern to me. "You see.” I told the parents, “all these different goodbyes have a different effect on the people who hear my voice. It is just the same with you and your children. You may be saying the correct or proper things, but your tensions and deeper feelings show through, and these are really what influence your children, whether you like it or not!”

Very early in the life of a child, parents must start to wean him away from the total selfishness with which he is born. This imposed control lasts for years, and few areas of child guidance are more controversial than this area of discipline.

Clearly, the degree of parental control must vary with the age and capabilities of the child. It is foolish and dangerous to allow a four-yearold to cross a busy street alone. It is equally foolish to try to impose rules of conduct suitable for a twelve-year-old on a sixteen-yearold. Nothing arouses greater resentment on the part of adolescents than the feeling that their parents don’t trust them, or still consider them babies.

Some parents may think me too permissive, but the simplest and most inclusive rule for child-rearing that I can offer is this: Never give a child an order that isn’t absolutely necessary. Parents and indeed many teachers fall into the habit of giving orders that are not only unnecessary. but really are in opposition to the natural growth and development of the child. I remember one nurserycontinued on page 62

Parents fall into the hahit of giving orders that are not only unnecessary hut really are in opposition to the natural growth and development of the child

Continued from page 23

“Many of the time-worn parental attitudes about child-rearing seem to be hopelessly inadequate”

school teacher who was forever demanding silence from her charges. “Now, children,” she would say, “let’s all be quiet as little mice.” The trouble was, she was teaching a class of children, not mice, and at that age a child must express himself with noisy exuberance.

Enforcing discipline sometimes involves punishment. My feeling is that a child should never be struck or slapped. All too often such action represents nothing but an outlet for the parent’s anger, and it is almost never effective in improving the child's behavior. I once made a study of five thousand children who had been whipped—and by that I mean at least three successive blows— and I did not find a single case where such action was worth anything. At almost any age level, praise for good performance is far more effective than punishment for bad.

In studying thousands of cases involving maladjusted homes, I have come to the conclusion that parents often expect too much of their children too soon. Everybody wants his child to be a paragon: brave, truthful, unselfish, honest, industrious, and cheerful. Few of us attain all of these attributes no matter how long we live. It is rather unrealistic to expect them all of a child who is just groping his way out of the mists of nothingness into a complex and difficult world.

It would help if more parents familiarized themselves with what achievementlevels children can be expected to reach at different ages. Excellent books on this subject exist. If parents would study such

books, they would not make themselves and their children miserable by demanding or expecting more than the slowly unfolding personality can give.

Many of the time-worn parental attitudes about child-rearing seem to me to be hopelessly inadequate. Take, for example, the widespread conviction that assigning chores to a child will make him industrious. Unless the child is given reasons that he can understand and that seem fair to him, such arbitrary demands are more likely to arouse resentment and hostility than any burning enthusiasm for work or for helping other people. The best way to introduce children to chores is to start out by doing the chores with them. Then the task becomes a point of contact between the parent and child, instead of a possible source of friction.

Another somewhat revolutionary conclusion I have come to is that many parents become much too excited about the academic grades that their children make or fail to make at school. A normal child will get reasonably good grades so long as he is adequately motivated—that is, has good and sufficient reasons for getting them. If he does not, the thing to do is to try to find out why—not to scold or nag or threaten.

Sometimes a child will do badly at school just to annoy or defeat his parents. This attitude is not limited to children. Much negative behavior in adul can be traced to an unconscious desire for revenge.

Where school grades are concerned. ;> parent should give the impression th; he hopes the child will do well and thaï

he will be pleased if he does, but that the heavens will not fall if he doesn't. The worst thing a parent can do, when a child has made an effort and achieved some improvement, is to say, “Well, this is all right, but why don't you do still better?” This sort of reaction gives the child the impression that he will never be able to please, no matter how hard he tries, and he may well begin to ask himself what is the use of trying.

It is true that some children, especially teen-agers, reach a point where they represent a serious disciplinary problem.

Teen-agers are seething with energy, and if it is not channeled into constructive activities, it will find other outlets. But the problem of delinquency, which receives so much attention in the press, is limited to a very small minority. Even in New York City, where living conditions are often appalling, only three percent of all juveniles have a record of delinquency. Considering the cultural pressures of our society, we are lucky that the percentage isn't much higher.

Allow them to grow up in their own way—this is the best course that a parent

can follow, and often the most difficult one. It is terribly hard for parents to realize that the infant who was so helpless and appealing, whom they bathed,’ fed, put to bed. the toddling child whose life was completely dependent on them, is growing up and becoming a completely separate individual with thoughts and attitudes and ambitions of his own. But somehow this realization must be achieved.

Years ago, 1 remember, a precocious girl entered Columbia College at the age of thirteen. A magazine asked her to

write an article on parent-child relationships. One of the things she said was, “Parents should have their children, love them, and then leave them.”

Every parent should guard against unconsciously trying to make a child a projection of his own life. Time after time I see in my office parents who are really trying to retrieve their broken ideals and rebuild their own shattered aspirations in their children. This is a hopeless mistake because the child is a personality in his own right and may be totally different from the parent. Either he will struggle and resist this attempt to force him into a mold, or else he will become withdrawn and bitter and resentful. Either way, the parents are the losers.

You do not have to be an expert in child psychology to know when things are not going well in the emotional development of a child. Lack of enthusiasm, lack of normal interest in things or people, moodiness, a tendency to be withdrawn and solitary—these are bad signs. So is excessive docility. A child who is always good, who never gets into trouble, who never talks back, is not a normal child.

A happy child is an eager and curious child. Sometimes a child's curiosity may be blunted because he asks questions that seem offensive to the parent, and is scolded for asking them. I think myself that a child of any age is entitled to all the information he can absorb or understand, and curiosity should be encouraged, not squelched. This includes a normal amount of curiosity about sex. Attitudes of extreme prudery on the part of the parents are often transmitted to children and later on can make their sex lives very unhappy.

Much has been said and written about the importance of companionship between parents and children. I think it is a fine thing so long as there is genuine interest on the part of the parents. If they are bored and indifferent, or if they have to force themselves to do things with their children, then they would do better to leave the children alone. The successive stages of a child's development, his progress from a small, speechless, helpless scrap of humanity to a reasoning, feeling, producing individual is a miracle that should be a source of constant wonder to the people responsible for his entry into the world. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Under the grim pressure of everyday living, people lose their sense of wonder, and this is one of the great tragedies of mankind. ★

This article was taken from a book, Now or Never, which is being published this spring by Prentice-Hall, Inc.