THE JOYS OF PARENTING IN OUR FOCUSED CULTURE A CONVERSATION BETWEEN AVRUM NADIGEL,MSW AND LORNA HECHT
According to many pundits and parenting experts, kids these days are more anxious than ever. And from mindfulness to yoga to behavioural therapy, there are dozens of solutions out there now, to help children regulate their anxiety. Dr. Murray Bowen, the founder of Bowen Family Systems Theory, would say that’s going at it wrong. The problem of anxiety does not lie within the symptomatic child. More often there is chronic stress and anxiety bouncing around the family and/or marriage which one or more children are responding to and acting out. From a Systems perspective, we don’t try to change the child. Instead, change begins with the leaders (often the parents), and if successful, the children will become less symptomatic.
AVRUM: Almost every parent I meet these days, whether friend or client, is reading at least one parenting book. There appears to be an anxiety, or an itch, to consume this type of literature, and to do better than their parents.
LORNA: I actually did a presentation a couple years ago called: “Old World Parenting and New World Parenting.” One of the things that I think exacerbated a shift to worrying about how we’re raising our children was Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book: “On the Care and Feeding of Babies?”. I think he’s one major influence on heightening people’s awareness that parenting was something that could be done well or poorly. His intention was to lower parents’ anxiety, but I certainly believe it had the opposite effect.
AVRUM: Do you think he was responding to a need?
LORNA: He certainly thought so. Often these type of parenting experts have something in their childhood that leads them in the direction that they do. He wanted parents to relax and follow their instincts, but there was a subtext there that there was a right way to do it, and it involved more nurturing.
And that is now amplified with the Attachment Theory movement, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and others. And it’s been growing and growing ever since. My thinking is that there’s some stuff going on with all of this parenting advice and it doesn’t match up with parenting in nature at all and it might not have wonderful outcomes.
AVRUM: “Parenting in nature”, what do you mean by that?
LORNA: Something to do with an internal conflict about “I’m going to work, I’m putting life energy into my work, and therefore I’m shortchanging my children. My children should have an emotionally available parent at all times” – I don’t think that that is accurate.
In nature, animals put as much life energy into the child as is needed for the child’s reality development. As the child becomes more independent and more able to fend for self, energy is withdrawn and reinvested in self.
So it seems to me that humans are the only animals that, in some cases, after having children, do not reinvest in themselves, and stay with the primary focus on the wellbeing and care for the children.
AVRUM: However, it wasn’t so long ago where father’s were not as involved with their children as they are today. The young men in my office are making a concerted effort be more involved as parents.
LORNA: I’m totally in support of fathers being more involved in parenting. Why should they miss out on the pleasure of raising children? But in nature there are many species where the parents tag team. It would be a waste of resource for both the male and the female to be doting on the infant at the same time.
Something that brought that home to me is I was with a couple I know. They have one child, and they’re very devoted to that child. It was dinnertime, and they wanted the child to eat. Both parents were fussing over this child eating, and there was a lot of: “Sit up, hold your spoon, eat your meal, eat the savory before the sweet.” There was a lot of instruction coming from both parents directed at the child at the same time. My thought when I watched it was, “Jeez, that kid’s got these little tiny shoulders. They’re just too small to support all that parental anxiety.” I think that that’s the cautionary aspect of having fathers more involved and mothers at least as involved as ever before. How much attention does one little kid need? How much attention do they get before it inhibits their development?
AVRUM: Are you suggesting that families would do better with less focus on their children?
LORNA: There is a lot of the anxiety around “Am I a good enough parent? Am I giving enough to my children?”, and our culture feeds into that particular anxiety, and leads to more anxiety being directed at our kids. Our kids pick it up, and they mirror it back to us, and it just leads to more chronic anxiety in the family system, out of which there are not good outcomes.
The more a parent(s) tries to micromanage their children, the more they try to protect them from negative outcomes or direct them towards certain outcomes, the worse the parent does, and the worse the child does. On the other hand, the more a parent can have confidence in their children and offer support when asked, but step back and be positively curious about their child’s process, the better everyone does.
AVRUM: So if people just give each other a little more space, we figure out our own solutions, and function better in life.
LORNA: If people are left to their own devices, they will develop into fully differentiated beings. However, we are never left to our own devices. Something always interferes, and that’s really not a bad thing, but it is true that it’s the “getting in the way of” that leads to all the human problems we see.
Lorna Hecht runs a private therapy practice in San Diego since 1999. She has received advanced postgraduate training in Washington, D.C. and San Diego. Lorna has been a guest lecturer at Alliant University and is a CAMFT approved supervisor.
Avrum Nadigel is a marriage and family therapist and author of three books. He holds a Masters of Social Work from McGill University, a Bachelors of Commerce from Concordia University, and post-graduate training in Bowen Theory from the Western Pennsylvania Family Center. Contact him here: http://www.nadigel.com/
Avrum and Lorna co-produced “It’s the Anxiety, Stupid”, a podcast about relationships from a Systems perspective.