Shifting Authority


Much has been written and noted about the television series “Downton Abbey,” especially now that the final season is drawing to a close.  Fans who are parents are undoubtedly aware of the minor place children seem to occupy in the lives of their parents.  Children are cared for by nannies and are brought to visit with their parents at appointed times.  While their birth has figured importantly in the story line, their daily lives do not.

This pattern was true to some extent in our own country until the Second World War when various factors contributed to changes in family life and thinking about children.  A striking characteristic of the earlier child-rearing pattern was the unquestioned authority of parents, signified culturally by shows like, “Father Knows Best.”  The ideal was captured in the saying that children should be seen, not heard.

The influence of child development research and psychoanalytic theory began a shift in thinking about children and parents helped along by Dr. Spock’s book, “Baby and Child Care.”  Spock, a pediatrician with psychiatric training, set out to apply his psychoanalytic perspective to specific questions of child-rearing of concern to parents.  A little paper-back book published in 1946, which cost twenty-five cents and was one of the first in a new mass medium of the time, had tremendous appeal and thrust new theories of child-rearing into the atmosphere.

Although Dr. Spock modified his thinking in subsequent editions of the book, his influence was credited with, or criticized for, the emergence of “permissive child-rearing” that dominated the so-called Spock-marked generation.  The interpretation drawn from his writing was simplified as your child knows best – a reversal of authority from parent to child.  Much of the upheaval of the ‘60’s has been attributed to the behavior of the post-war generation raised on the theories of that time and the style of parenting to which they gave rise.

While much new research and many new theories have had an impact in more recent years, it is clear in the questions raised by parents that the conflict about authority is unresolved.  In many areas as children are expected to take developmental steps, the question arises as to whether we wait for children to get there by themselves or do we impose parental authority in various ways to try to bring about compliance.  This is often true in questions related to eating, sleeping and toilet training. 

These areas of biological functioning can become conflict prone because they are related to health, involve social pressures, and are not readily responsive to external control by parents.  This is highlighted in discussions about interventions in serious situations such as children who for various reasons have lost an internal sense of hunger and satiety but instead rely on external cues to decide whether and how much to eat.  A conflict exists between a behavioral approach that involves training a child to eat, and a child centered approach that focuses on stimulating a child’s own internal motivation.

Parents often experience this same conflict, particularly around toilet-training when the use of stickers or other rewards are offered for compliant behavior.  Basically, the question comes down to whether the goal is to train or to educate.  Are we trying to train children to meet external demands or can they learn to modify their own needs in order to function successfully in a social world? 

Education takes time and has to go hand in hand with the process of maturation.  This means taking into account the nature of a particular child as well as the requirements of the environment in which he or she must function.  Parents’ needs have relevance in this process as well as those of their children.  But we keep shifting back and forth in thinking about which are more relevant, which have the greater authority.

It is balancing the needs of both parents and children that presents the greatest challenge in today’s world of changed family life.  This takes time and thought – both in short supply these days.  

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