“The Kings Speech”, which just won the Best Picture Oscar, clearly inspired its audience. Many viewers could identify with someone struggling and succeeding in overcoming a handicap – especially while in the public eye. Although the struggle is timeless and universal, aspects of the story beyond the significance of the English monarchy and the Second World War, recall an earlier time.
Although the movie never spells out in detail the cause of the King’s stutter, it points in many ways to its being psychological or emotional in origin. Royalty was not involved with the care of their children, so we are spared the “bad mother” story of a later era. However, the governess who pinched his arms before the perfunctory visit with his parents so that he would cry and be taken away is a handy stand-in. Added to that is the harsh criticism given him by his father and the contemptuous treatment by his brother.
The prevailing theory at that time was that stuttering was an emotional disorder. Logue, the speech therapist, apparently believed that the King’s problem was physical and mechanical. Yet much of the drama in the movie comes from his attempts to have the King express his anger and to recall things from his childhood. And in many ways he made his relationship with the King a significant tool in the therapy.
These ideas really flourished in the years that followed, especially given the impact of psychoanalytic theory in the period after the war. Papers were written by well known psychiatrists attributing stuttering to emotional and psychological factors. It became an era of environmental causation. Not only stuttering, but most other disorders were attributed to events and mishandling in early childhood.
Mothers had the primary responsibility for child care and mothers were viewed as central in their children’s development. Any problems, therefore, were due to something mother did wrong or to something in her own personality which had a bad effect on her child. The focus was on the impact of a mother’s behavior on her child, and almost all difficulties were understood in this light. The result is a legacy of judgmental attitudes toward mothers – which mothers themselves too often share – despite changes in theory over the years.
And theories about the causes of disorders of various kinds have certainly changed. It’s interesting – and at times unsettling – to see the shift from attributing everything to the environment to a belief in the biological, neurological, and more recently the genetic basis for everything. It is certainly progress that stuttering, and serious disorders like autism are no longer blamed on mothers. But despite the current focus on biology and genetics, mothers still are – and feel – judged.
There is still a strong tendency to see everything a child does as a result of something done to him or her. I hear mothers all the time speculating about what they might have done that caused this or that problem. The immaturity and dependency of young children in particular, intensify the feeling that we are responsible for everything.
We seem to have a hard time getting away from seeing things as either-or, black-or-white. We feel so connected to our children that we forget that they are their own people, separate from us. Much of what we do with our children is influenced by who they are. Children teach us how to parent them. What makes it difficult is that what they are telling us is not always clear. There is a lot of trial and error, so we get discouraged and think there is either something wrong with them or with us – and we’d rather think there is something wrong with us.
The point is, we react to who our children are and they in turn react to us. We influence each other and at times when these interactions seem not to be working well, we have to stop and try to figure out what is going on. Something may be amiss in the communication between us, so we need to try to correct that when it happens.
In the same way, it is not helpful to think of behavior as either due to something physical or something environmental. More and more we have come to understand the impossibility of separating the two. Even the study of genetics, which only recently was thought would explain everything, has demonstrated that genes are influenced by the body and the social environment of that body.
The King’s speech therapist was ahead of his time in working to address whatever was the physical cause of the stuttering, while at the same time recognizing the emotional factors that were an influence. The people in the King’s life didn’t cause his stuttering, but their reaction to it certainly had an impact on his self-confidence and his feeling about himself.
Hopefully, if we can understand development in a different way, that can not only empower us, but will also help us stop blaming mothers – especially ourselves.