SUPERMOTHER Which one lives in your house?

HAL TENNANT November 1 1969

SUPERMOTHER Which one lives in your house?

HAL TENNANT November 1 1969

SUPERMOTHER Which one lives in your house?


Smothering Mother, Almost Mother, Zookeeper Mother, Overwhelmed Mother...

WHAT YOUR PRESCHOOL CHILD does all day, the amount of time he spends on various activities can indicate how he is developing physically, mentally and socially. Over the past two and a half years child psychologists at Harvard University have been scientifically studying the moment-to-moment activities of preschool children. Equipped with stopwatches and tape recorders, the researchers, from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, made regular visits to 24 carefully selected homes in the Boston area. In each household they observed and encoded the activities of one child.

The research continues, and none of the researchers is willing — at least not yet — to say exactly how the ideal child would spend his time. But if the Boston children are an accurate guide, here’s how a “normal” child spends his day (in descending order of time spent): □ “Gaining information visually” (looking at things from which he is presumably learning something — a bouncing ball, a shaft of sunlight), 22 percent of the time. □ “Gaining information by both looking and listening” (watching TV, seeing how a washbasin empties and gurgles), TO percent. □ “Non-tasks” (resting, staring into space), TO percent. □ “Role-playing” (pretending to be somebody or something else), eight percent. □ “Mastery tasks” (learning to put on his shoes), seven percent. □ “Co-operating” (doing what he’s told, joining in with a group), six percent.

□ “Maintaining social contact” (following mother or trying to hold her attention), five percent.

□ “Eating,” four percent. □ “Procuring an object” (getting a toy, a hat, or a cookie), three percent. □ “Achieving social contact” (accosting mother, calling to brother), two percent. □ “Constructing a product” (modeling with clay, stacking toy blocks), two percent. □ “Passing time” (unproductive activity, such as tapping a pencil idly), two percent. □ “Asserting himself,” two percent. □ “Easing discomfort” (scratching, shifting position), one percent.

As a subsidiary project the Harvard researchers turned their attention to mothers. Here the aim was to see how the attitudes and habits of certain types of mothers affected the behavior of their children. Without attempting to match up all the other “variables” that obviously affect a child’s activities (size of home, size of family, parents’ educational background and so on), the researchers picked mothers they believed could be clearly classified as “super,” “almost,” “smothering,” “overwhelmed” or “zookeeper.”

From this study the editors of Maclean’s have pieced together a composite picture of each type of mother and her child. Not every mother belongs in one of these five categories. Other labels could describe other kinds of mothers (e.g., the “punitive-rejecting mother”) and many mothers would rate as mixtures of several types. But many parents will recognize themselves \or their wives, and their children, in these pages.

THE SUPERMOTHER She encourages almost anything her children begin. She’s intelligent with them but she doesn’t seem to be working very hard with them. Dr. Burton L. White, Pre-School Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education THE CHILD: Debbie, 2% years One sister, Cathie, 13A years; middle-class family; father present.

THE MOTHER: “I don’t know how a psychologist would rate me as a mother, but I enjoy motherhood — I really do — and I feel sorry for women who don’t. Maybe I’m just lucky with the two children I have because I find Debbie and Cathie pretty easy to raise. I’m sure a lot of children the same age cause their mothers problems I don’t have.

“The girls and I spend a lot of time together, but I don’t have to stand over them all the time. They have their own little work table at one end of the kitchen, and I can usually keep an eye on them while I work at the other end, at ironing or baking. If I’m rolling cookie dough, Debbie may start making her own ‘cookies’ out of modeling clay. She’s usually quite imaginative about creating projects of her own. I make a point of admiring what she makes and I get her to tell me all about it.

“Both girls have pretty vivid imaginations. Debbie especially spends a lot of time pretending to be other people — characters from storybooks and so on — and Cathie specializes in being a truck: that’s her favorite toy.

“It would be silly for me to say I treat my girls as adults. But we do have a certain . . . well, respect for one another, so that our conversations are interesting to me as well as to them. I find out a lot about what they’re thinking, and they (1 hope) learn things from me, though I try not to talk down to them. I just tell them things I think they’ll be interested to hear, and if they don’t seem to understand, I try saying the same thing some other way.

“I don’t believe in cramming kids full of information all day, but there are

times when children are obviously going to be bored unless they have something to do, such as when we’re waiting to see the pediatrician. At times like that I find the waiting a lot more pleasant if we play some kind of game, such as reciting nursery rhymes or telling a story the girls remember and like. Sometimes we pretend to be different characters from their favorite stories.

“All in all, I don’t have any special philosophy about child-raising. I guess I got off to a good start by marrying a man I’m very fond of. I think the girls respond to the affection we both feel for them, though if somebody made me name the person who means most of all to me, I’d have to say my husband.”

THE PSYCHOLOGIST: “This mother is above average in the amount of interaction with her child, but there is also a balance between mother - initiated interactions and child-initiated interactions. She is verbal and able to teach skillfully and instruct the child by use of rational, cause-and-effect techniques. She disciplines with reason and often provides alternatives. She values cognitive achievement and mastery (i.e., achievement based on what the child has previously learned).

"On the other hand, she truly enjoys the child and is able to accept her at this moment in her development. She is able to meet the child’s needs and understand her preverbal behavior and cues. This mother encourages role-playing and often participates in the child’s make - believe world — perhaps another manifestation of her ability to enjoy the child.

“In the systematic observations we made of Debbie we found, not surprisingly, that her four most important activities were healthy and constructive. She spends about 28 percent of her time gaining information by visual means, 19 percent role-playing (a most healthy activity in a child her age); 17 percent maintaining social contact (mostly with her mother) and eight percent constructing things. The only other two activities important enough to be recorded in percentages (gaining information, visual and audi-

tory; and procuring objects) are both positive and worthwhile.

“All the child’s time is filled, and there is no idle time spent in waiting. In short, the kind of mother who can serve as a useful model for others.”


This is the mother who almost makes it. She enjoys and accepts her child but is confused and ' frequently unable to meet his needs.

Dr. E. R. LaCrosse, Pre-School Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education

THE CHILD: Wayne, 20 months

One sister, Linda, five years; lower-class family; father present.

THE MOTHER: “My main concern is making sure both my children get the best possible start, first at home and later in school, but I’m not always sure I’m doing the right thing. Especially with Wayne. I believe a lot of things a mother should do with her child are just common sense or things she would do instinctively. But beyond a certain point you can get stumped. I suppose all mothers feel this way at times, but with Wayne I often have the uneasy feeling ..that we’re not communicating the way we should. And then 1 wonder whether I'm being silly; after all, just how much should you expect from a 20-month-old boy? f> “My cousin has a child about Wayne’s age, and she carries on longer conversations with her child (a girl, as it happens) than Wayne and 1 ever do. Is Wayne not learning as fast as he should, and if so, is that my fault? Or should you expect any girl to be more advanced than a boy at this age? I think Linda was.

“I know of mothers who train their children on rather rigid schedules, and I think that’s wrong; you can make a robot out of a child that way. But I’m not sure what’s right instead. I don’t want to force Wayne to learn, but I am anxious for him to learn as much as he should.

“I will say we have fun trying. Often he’ll want to sit on my lap, and then I’ll reach for one of his picture books and show him different things, naming them one by one. He doesn't always pick up these words right away, but I think he’s gradually learning.

“I think it would be fair to say a lot of our home life revolves around Wayne and Linda — as it surely must in any home with small children — but I don’t think you could say we’re spoiling either of them. And I’m sure both children have no doubts in their minds that Frank and I love and want them both very much.”

THE PSYCHOLOGIST: “This mother shares some of the characteristics of the Supermother, but there are significant differences. Here there is less mother-initiated interaction with the child, and she seems to lack the capacity for intellectual input. Unlike the Supermother, she is either unable, unwilling or doesn’t have time to invest in tutoring the child. If she reads to him, her spontaneous comments may be, ‘See the ball,' and, ‘See the hill,' whereas the Supermother might ask, ‘What’s he going to do with the ball?' or, ‘What will he meet at the bottom of the hill?’

“According to our observer’s records, this child spends 25 percent of his time exploring things, 19 percent at non-tasks (i.e., idleness), 14 percent gaining information, 10 percent at mastery tasks, plus trivial amounts of time procuring objects and co-operating (mostly with his mother). In other words, he’s learning things on his own. but he’s not interacting as much with other people as a child should, he’s not doing any role-playing or using his imagination in other creative ways, and he’s not learning many social skills.”


She’s essentially an overbearing teacher, one who thinks school’s always in session. A mother who’s trying too hard.

Burton L. White

She seems discontented with where the child is right now.

She’s very busy preparing him for Harvard.

E. Robert LaCrosse THE CHILD: Bobby, 2V2 years

Only child; middle - class family; father present.

THE MOTHER: “I realize I’m not exactly an impartial judge of my own son, but I think Bobby is bright, very bright, and in my opinion it would be a crime not to train him to develop his potential. I’ve seen mothers simply dump a two-year-old out into a fenced yard for a whole morning. The child will explore the yard for a few minutes and learn something, certainly, but then what’s he learning for the next three and a half hours?

“There’s so much in this world for any child to learn. Not just language and numbers and names for objects around him (although those are important, of course), but sights and sounds and shapes and colors and abstract concepts of various kinds. It’s natural for a child to learn most of these things from his mother, so Bobby and I spend most of our day together.

“I’ve found books and other teaching aids for most subjects, and I’ve devised a few on my own. That way, the learning process goes on thoroughly and systematically, without Bobby wasting time. I don’t mean by that that he has no chance to rest; we usually both need a nap by mid-afternoon, but proper rest is not the same thing as idleness.

“Children love to learn, even during playtime, and Bobby and I sometimes make a game out of a lot of things he has to learn. Which is fine, as long as the fun doesn’t degenerate into nonsense.

“Bobby responds to all this quite well, most of the time, though I can always see ways for him to improve, and 1 try to bear down on those areas where he’s weakest. For instance, he’s a bit slow learning the names of objects he sees in his picture books, so during book time I go over some of the familiar pictures with him and ask, ‘What’s this?’ and, ‘What’s that?’ and if he can’t tell me we go over it several times until he gets it right. I always praise, him, of course, when he does well, but I think he also understands he must keep trying hard each day because there’s always something new to learn.

“I don’t mind admitting I’m determined not to get pregnant for quite some time. One child seems like enough challenge if you’re determined to do a really good job as a mother.

“People sometimes ask what sort of career I have in mind for Bobby, and I always point out that this is something

he’ll have to decide. But I hope he picks law or medicine.”

THE PSYCHOLOGIST: “This mother is reactive and incredibly responsive to the child’s needs and cues; so much so that he barely has to express himself to make his needs known. This mother spends endless hours in tutorial activities. In contrast to the Supermother's guidance, these sessions are characteristically planned rather than spontaneous.

“Although statistics are not available on the activities of a child of a Smothering Mother, it seems obvious that a substantial part of such a child’s day would be spent gaining information by visual and auditory means and working at tasks involving mastery (e.g., of an educational toy). Creative and social activities would likely rank far down the list.

“The worst thing that could happen to this mother would be alienation from her child. Yet it’s being precipitated by her exercising all this control and not having fun with him.”


She finds just living from day to day so overwhelming that she has almost no time for her child.

E. Robert LaCrosse THE CHILD: Douglas, 20 months One sister, Sherry, nine, years; four brothers, Ronald, 11, Mark, six, Donald, five, Andrew, four; lower-class family; father absent.

THE MOTHER: “I read an article once about how you should spend a lot of time playing with your kids and finding ways of helping them learn new things all the time, and I thought, ‘Boy, if that writer has any kids she’s probably only got one or two and a big house to herself and a nursemaid and all the latest appliances.’ If I stopped what I was doing every time one of my six kids let out a squawk. I’d never catch up. Just about every day 1 have a big batch of wash — sometimes two batches — and then of course there are meals to get and floors to scrub and so on. And every Friday when the welfare cheque comes I’ve got to get out and shop. Then I usually leave all the kids home, with one of the older ones in charge. “I’ve had more than 11 years of kids underfoot and I’m only 27. I don’t know if it would have been any different if I’d worked a while and got married later when I was, say, 22.

“Even getting a place with one or two more bedrooms might be a lot better, instead of seven of us living in these four rooms. There were eight of us until last winter, of course, when Clay walked out. I don’t know if I want him back or not. I miss having a man around the house, but Clay never brought home all that much money from the mill, and this way it’s at least more peaceful.

“Like it’s pretty peaceful in here right now because it’s a nice day and the kids can play on the street or over at the auto wrecker’s. But, boy, you ought to hear it when it’s raining or like in the winter. Sometimes the kids never seem to stop fighting and yelling. I yell at them a lot, too, and I guess I shouldn’t. But how else can you make a kid hear you when two or three of his brothers and sisters are all yelling at once and the washing machine and the television are going full blast?

“One thing about little Dougie, though, he doesn’t pester me all the time the way some of the others used to at the same age. He plays with his brothers and sister more, and I think that’s good for him. And it gives me a better chance to get my work done.”

THE PSYCHOLOGIST: “The size of this mother’s family, and the rest of her circumstances — notably the family’s welfare-level income and the absence of the father — obviously have a great deal to do with her problems and attitudes as a mother. And these in turn are reflected in her relationship to the child.

“This mother manages little interaction with the child. Any attempts he may make at communication beyond the absolutely necessary are short - lived. She tends not to reward good behavior on his part or to involve him emotion'ally. She seems to give evidence of enjoying the child but is only minimally able to interpret the child’s needs and understand his cues. Our observations show that this child spends 23 percent of his time ‘gaining information — visual’ (i.e., just looking at people and things) and 14 percent at ‘non-tasks’ (i.e., doing nothing), about 10 percent maintaining social contact

(i.e., mostly reacting to his siblings or his mother) and about nine percent asserting himself and eating.

“His other activities, in order of frequency, are ‘co-operating’ (i.e., doing what he’s told), about six percent; gaining information — visual and auditory — about six percent; procuring objects (mostly playthings), five percent; and gaining attention, four percent. In short: a child who’s living a largely nonsocial, noncreative existence.”


She tends to be middleto upper-middle-class. She has a highly organized household routine, and the child will be materially well cared for but will spend most of his time alone.

E. Robert LaCrosse

THE CHILD: Bruce, 20 months

One brother, James, four; one sister, Susan, six; upper - middle - class family; father present.

THE MOTHER: “I think a lot of mothers you hear complaining about their work load are women who are simply badly organized. Admittedly, I have a cleaning woman in every day, and I realize some families can’t afford this kind of help. But even without help, I’m sure I could keep things running pretty smoothly.

“The secret is to have a proper schedule. After breakfast, as soon as George leaves for the office — usually sharp at eight — I put Bruce into his crib, and he naps or plays there for two hours. This is his room, and nobody else is allowed in. At ten o’clock he’s moved into the playroom, where he plays until noon, sometimes with Jimmy and Susan.

"The playroom is a big, bright room and it’s equipped with everything any three children could want — mechanical toys, games, puzzles, educational toys, balls, hoops and even a seesaw. Bruce loves it.

“I make a real point of being home to eat lunch with the children at least twice a week. After lunch, Bruce goes back into his crib for two hours, and Jimmy plays outdoors if the weather’s good. I keep the two boys separated a lot because Jimmy tends to be a bit mean to his younger brother sometimes; it’s a stage he’s going through.

“At three o’clock Bruce plays in the

playroom again, until dinnertime. Stella, my cleaning woman, knows this routine as well as I do, and she’s very good about sticking to it if I’m away for the day.

“So I don’t see any reason why a mother should feel tied down to her children all day. I play tennis twice a week through the summer and I swim a lot. In the winter I ski on weekends whenever George and I can get away. I play bridge once a week and am active in two community organizations. I think I owe it to myself and my family to keep active and interested in things outside the home. And certainly my sports activities help me keep my shape.

“I’m looking forward to the day when Jimmy and Bruce — and Susan, for that matter — are old enough for a game of tennis with me. But I’m sure if I didn’t organize our household I’d be old long before my time.”

THE PSYCHOLOGIST: “This mother is very restrictive in a nonpunitive way. Her lack of involvement with the child (i.e., 20-month-old Bruce) appears to stem from a value system that is adultoriented. The child has been seen to divide his time in the following ways: mastery tasks (e.g., learning to work a toy), 22 percent; gaining information visually (looking at things or people), 21 percent; non-tasks (idleness), 21 percent; exploring, 15 percent; passing time, six percent; easing discomfort (scratching, crying after being hit by his brother), six percent; avoiding unpleasant circumstances (e.g., warding off his brother), four percent; asserting himself, two percent. In other words, most of his time is spent in nonsocial activities, and his few social activities are negative. So you can see this child moving toward quite adequate development, intellectually, in those areas that don’t demand language. But he is being subjected to a peculiar kind of social life, just like his brother, who is seriously disturbed. Sometimes, while observing the two boys, we find ourselves in an awkward position. Since we are in the home, as observers, with the mother’s permission, we sometimes watch the four-year-old come forward, brandishing a toy, with real hatred in his eyes, and there’s no doubt he’s going to hurt his younger brother. Even then, we feel obliged to wait until the last minute before we step in.” □