Avoid extremes in control and love
There is little question about the consequences of disciplinary extremes. On the side of harshness, a child suffers the humiliation of total domination. The atmosphere is icy and rigid, and he lives in constant fear. He is unable to make his own decisions and his personality is squelched beneath the hobnailed boot of parental authority. Lasting characteristics of dependency, overwhelming hostility, and psychosis can emerge from this overbearing oppression. The opposite position, ultimate permissiveness, is equally tragic. Under this setting, the child is his own master from his earliest babyhood. He thinks the world revolves around his heady empire, and he often has utter contempt and disrespect for those closest to him. Anarchy and chaos reign in his home, and his mother is often the most nervous, frustrated woman on her block. When the child is young, the mother is stranded at home because she is too embarrassed to take her little devil anywhere. It would be worth enduring the hardships if this confusion produced healthy, secure children. Unfortunately the child usually suffers the most difficulties from such anarchistic circumstances. This book began by emphasizing the hazards and social consequences of the extreme permissive approach to child rearing. But if there is anything I don't want to do, it is to cause parents to overreact, committing the opposite sin. Both extremes are disastrous. There is safety only in the middle ground, which is sometimes difficult to locate.
Extreme degrees of love can also be unhealthy for a child. The complete absence of love (rejection) will destroy him emotionally, and in some cases physically. It has been known for several decades that an infant who is not loved, touched, and caressed will often die. Evidence of this fact was observed as early as the thirteenth century, when Frederick II conducted an experiment with fifty infants. He wanted to see what language the children would speak if they never had the opportunity to hear the spoken word. To accomplish this dubious research project, he assigned foster mothers to bathe and suckle the children, but forbade them to fondle, pet, or talk to their charges. The experiment failed because all fifty infants died. Hundreds of more recent studies indicate that the mother-child relationship during the first year of life is apparently vital to the infant's survival. An unloved child is truly the saddest phenomenon in all of nature.
While the absence of love has a predictable effect on children, it is not so well known that excessive love or "super love" has its hazards, too. Even some venerable experts, like Dr. Karl Menninger, do not acknowledge the dangers of excessive parental affection. Despite my respect for Dr. Menninger, I must disagree with his view that no child has ever been spoiled by love, and that a spoiled child is one who has been neglected by being ignored, or has been terrorized by threats of retribution for his mischief or has been bribed by indulgence. I believe some children are spoiled by love. Americans are tremendously child-oriented at this stage in their history; many parents have invested all of their hopes, dreams, desires, and ambitions in their youngsters. The natural culmination of this philosophy is overprotection of the next generation. I dealt with one anxious parent who stated that her children were the only sources of her satisfaction. During the long summers, she spent most of her time sitting at the front room window, watching her three girls while they played. She feared that they might get hurt or need her assistance; or they might ride their bikes in the street. Her responsibilities to her husband were sacrificed, despite his vigorous complaints. She did not have time to clean her house; guard duty at the window was her only function. She suffered enormous tensions over the known and unknown threats that could destroy her beloved offspring.
Childhood illness and sudden danger are always difficult for a loving parent to tolerate, but the slightest threat produces unbearable anxiety for the overprotective mom and dad. Unfortunately, the overprotective parent is not the only one who suffers; the child is often its victim, too. It has been theorized that asthma is more likely to occur in a "smother-loved" child, although the relationship has not been established conclusively. Other consequences of overprotection are less speculative. The overprotective parent finds it difficult to allow her child to take reasonable risks; those risks are a necessary prelude to maturity. Likewise, the materialistic problems described in the previous section are often maximized in a family where the children are so badly needed by one or both parents. Prolonged emotional immaturity is another frequent consequence of overprotection.
I have attempted to show how the extreme approaches to control and love are individually harmful. I should mention another unfortunate circumstance which occurs too often in our society. It is present in homes where the mother and father represent opposing extremes in control. The situation usually follows a familiar pattern: Dad is a very busy man, and he is deeply involved in his work. He is gone from early morning to night, and when he does return, he brings home a briefcase full of work. Perhaps he travels frequently. During the rare times when he is home and not working, he is exhausted. He collapses in front of the TV set to watch a ball game and he doesn't want to be bothered. Consequently, his approach to child control is rather harsh and unsympathetic. His temper flares regularly and the children learn to stay out of his way. By contrast, Mom has no outside world from which to derive personal satisfaction. Her home and her children are her sources of joy; in fact, they have replaced the romantic fires which have vanished from her marriage. She worries about Dad's lack of affection and tenderness for the children. She feels that she should compensate for his sternness by leaning in the other direction. When he sends the children to bed without their supper, she slips them some milk and cookies. Since she is the only authority on the scene when Dad is gone, the predominant tone in the home is one of unstructured permissiveness. She needs the children too much to risk trying to control them. Thus, the two parental symbols of authority act to contradict each other, and the child is caught somewhere between them. The child respects neither parent because each has assassinated the authority of the other. It has been my observation that these self-destructing forms of authority often load a time-bomb of rebellion that discharges during adolescence. The most hostile, aggressive teen-agers I have known have emerged from this antithetical combination.
The "middle ground" of love and control must be sought if we are to produce healthy, responsible children.
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