Are social roles based on gender differences, biologically or socially determined? With regard to male/female differences in behavior as parents, the history of social and cultural roles has in the past shaped what was expected and considered acceptable.
Historically, the expectation that women have a caretaking role has been based on biology: women carry babies in their bodies and nurse them after they are born. Psychological thinking then added a new dimension; the psychological and feminine attributes of mothers were deemed to have great importance for the nurturance and development of young children.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby, drawing from his early interest in animal behavior, focused on what he saw as a biologically based need for attachment to a primary figure beyond the basic need to be fed. Since this was a period when care of children was primarily the mother’s role, much of the early theoretical thinking that emerged was based on the mother as the important attachment figure. In the present era in which the role of women has changed along with the emphasis on attachment theory, it has become essential to expand the list of those able to fill that need. It is time for fathers to step up in sharing the parenting role.
At the same time, the consensus among women is that the mother remains the primary caregiver, the one called by the school nurse if the child is ill. This pattern is reinforced by the work world when a father remains the higher earner with greater time constraints, pushing families into older divisions of labor.
Nevertheless, fathers can be found more often in what once were considered mother arenas. My own observations are that a father or two does turn up in parent-child groups formerly populated by mothers or caregivers. A recent example provided cause for speculation. The father of a two-year-old girl in a group I observed several times was the only father in a group of mothers. The group met in a large room and although children and parents met in a circle sitting on the floor in a circumscribed area, the space provided an inviting invitation for children who needed to break away to either explore or run around.
The teachers understood that such young children are not always able to stay focused on the group activity led by the teacher and are accepting of a child roaming. However, safety requires some monitoring of children who are wanderers. In most instances the mother of a wandering child will, when appropriate, retrieve the child and help her return to the group.
In this group, the child of the one father was a wanderer. It was clear observing him that he was trying in many ways to get her back, reaching out his arms, signaling her to return, but at no point did he actually get up to go and get her. I later learned that the teachers were feeling irritated by this fact since the child would at times engage in behavior that needed attention. They were somewhat judgmental of the father, concluding that he was simply ignoring what he should have known was his responsibility.
My own impression was that this father’s feelings were hurt by what appeared to him to be his daughter’s disinterest in staying with him. He was perhaps also embarrassed by what might have seemed to him his daughter’s “bad” behavior in leaving the group, a feeling mothers often experience. Did he, perhaps, also feel that it was the little girl who should be coming to him. rather than he running after her?
Was this a gender difference in parenting, personality, or simply inexperience in a new role?
Feelings between siblings are often very intense and evoke strong feelings from parents as well. When reported by a parent, the conflicts and emotions can sound almost biblical, like Cain and Abel, and one can imagine the child who receives the parent’s angry reproach wanting to ask, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”
A mother who raised concern about her three-year-old son’s constant attack on his fifteen-month-old sister could not understand why he would do this. Explaining that she had no siblings and had no experience with the kind of feelings that would elicit such attacks, she was bewildered by his behavior because it seemed unprovoked by anything the younger child did.
It was a new idea to this mother that the boy’s behavior was not related to anything specific the younger one did, but rather to the fact of her existence. The behavior in question related to the mother – not to the sibling. I thought of a child I worked with who said he never believed his parents when they told him they wanted another child because he was so wonderful – if he was so wonderful why did they need another one?
In this instance, the mother was away at work during the day and when she returned home her son wanted her sole attention. She described that it was difficult for her to attend to both children at the same time – two can seem more than twice as many as one when it comes to children wanting attention. At times, it may be difficult not to feel protective of a younger child and view the older one as the aggressor, even though little ones can often be most provocative.
The expression of feelings of rivalry can be most acute with the arrival of the first sibling. The first child, having been the king or queen of the manor, is suddenly seemingly dethroned by one perceived as an interloper. The difference in developmental stages of two siblings can make for challenges in management as each may interfere in the interests of the other.
In this situation, the mother’s difficulty was compounded by her worry that the child’s behavior meant that something was profoundly wrong with him. At the same time, she indicated with pride that her daughter was quite sturdy and was starting to push back when attacked.
It is a challenge to help children deal with a major task of the early years, which is to learn to distinguish between feelings and behavior, to accept the feelings but control the unacceptable behavior. A major task for us as parents is to accept the negative feelings that children have for each other. We protect our children from hurting each other physically, but need to give recognition to their feelings while letting them know that their feelings do not make them bad.
In light of this mother’s worry about her son’s behavior, it was interesting to learn from a teacher at the school the boy attends that when the caregiver arrives with the younger sister to pick him up, he is completely solicitous of her and appears devoted. It seems clear that it is the mother’s arrival on the scene at home that triggers the boys aggression.
It is pointless to try to respond to children’s requests that they be loved most or best, or to quantify feelings of love for each child. The truth of the matter is that a family encompasses different relationships, with different feelings at different times, and that part of the benefit of being in a family is learning how to accept that reality. Much of sibling behavior is a reflection of the difficulty in learning.
Current news reports are filled with alarms about the recent widespread outbreak of measles, the largest since the disease was thought to have been eliminated here almost 20 years ago. The cause is being attributed to the spread of misinformation about vaccines that scares parents into not immunizing their children.
The false theories about vaccines that create parental concerns are that vaccines cause Autism, that trace amounts of mercury and aluminum in them are dangerous, or that that they contain other ingredients unacceptable to some religious groups. At the same time, various factors have been identified as contributing to these concerns and creating an assertive anti-vaccination stand in some.
A fear of environmental toxins and a distrust of big pharma has become more pervasive. Also, older first-time mothers who have delayed childbearing generally have higher levels of education and are more likely to reject vaccination believing in their own expertise; a greater belief that healthy eating and exercise can protect against infectious diseases, and overconfidence in the power of children to fight off such diseases due, in part, to the success of vaccination.
As with rumors, biases and false information in other aspects of life, social media and the ability to spread ideas and find support in like-minded people has contributed both to misinformation and fears of vaccines that parents are prone to have in general about the well-being of their children.
Unfortunately, an atmosphere of blame is now being created toward religious groups but also toward parents who are now being accused of putting not only their own children but others as well at risk because of a failure to vaccinate. Leading religious leaders have taken the responsibility of reassuring their believers about both the safety and acceptability of vaccine ingredients, urging that children be vaccinated.
The wish to reassure parents generally touches on deeper concerns. In my own work I have encountered the anxiety parents feel about vaccines as a cause of autism as well as possibly other developmental disorders. Although this fear originated from a small, deficient, inaccurate study, its pervasiveness speaks to a deeper cause.
Statistics show a sharp increase in the rise of autism and it is not clear if this reflects a greater skill in diagnosis, a change in diagnostic criteria for the disorder, or a real increase in numbers. Due to the increase in numbers, much attention has been given to this disorder in popular media and elsewhere. But despite various theories offered there is no accepted known cause of autism. There is also no actual cure for the disorder, only a variety of therapies.
Whenever in life something of concern occurs there is an almost universal need to find a reason or cause. This is especially true when it is something concerning our children. If their well-being is affected in some way, parents often second guess themselves. If only I had or hadn’t done this or that thing, this might not have happened. Mothers in particular feel they should be omnipotent, preventing harm and providing cures.
It is not difficult to see how avoiding vaccinations could fill the need to take all precautions where our children are concerned. But in this instance, parents are confronted with the need to separate more universal anxieties from real events. We have now had sufficient evidence that having children vaccinated is a public health matter like safe drinking water or food safety inspection.
As members of a community we recognize the need to give up some personal freedom for the benefit of the common good. In this case it is also for the good of our children to withstand infection.
It is not unusual for new mothers to have some anxiety about their babies and about themselves as mothers. Crying, feeding, sleeping may generate worries. Am I able to comfort a crying baby, is the nursing providing enough food, are sleep patterns going as they should? These are typical concerns of inexperienced first-time mothers.
It is also not unusual for new parents to consult books and articles to get answers to some of their questions about the expectable behavior of infants and if what their baby is doing is “normal.” First time mothers are older than in past years and have had experience in the work place. Many mothers have told me how unsettling it is to discover that the feeling of competence they had at work doesn’t carry over to mothering.
One mother said that at work there was always a right way to do something and it was natural to look for that right way in caring for a baby. Also, the fantasy of what it will be like to have a baby is different from the reality. Books that give information and advice about pregnancy are often read by prospective new mothers and it almost seems as if once the baby is born the goal has been accomplished.
But the reality of an actual living dependent being for whom you are responsible, who may cry inconsolably at times, and whose sleep patterns don’t conform to your own, feels quite different from something one reads in a book. There is no way to really prepare anyone for the life change that occurs with the birth of a baby.
There are issues that arise in caring for an infant that can make you question whether you are doing the “right” thing. Mothers sometimes seek advice from others more experienced or from the pediatrician. This is the era of “big data” used to shed light on all kinds of things and recently I came across someone writing about the benefit of statistics in answering various questions about baby care. In other words, to help make a decision about breast feeding or sleep training, for example. The idea is to use the statistical evidence pro or con in deciding what to do.
Statistics are based on research, which in turn is based on numbers as well as other factors, such as the reliability of the method, the use of control groups and the number of subjects. The point is that the findings tell you about the pros or cons of an issue for a group, not for a specific individual. In other words, x number of mothers reported positively about sleep training while y number reported negatively. What does that tell you about your child?
In this particular example of a question that many mothers raise, one has to ask who is the actual mother and who is the actual baby? What is the actual sleep issue that raises the need for training? Is the mother able to tolerate any fussing or crying by the baby? How long does the crying go on? Does it escalate if there is no response from a parent? Is this a fussy or generally easy baby?
These are questions best answered by a parent herself about her baby and herself, not by data extrapolated from a large population. Throughout child rearing most issues involve interactions between parent and child. In this instance, helping an infant become regulated with regard to sleeping and eating may require a parent to tolerate some crying to determine if the baby will self-soothe or if comfort from a parent is truly necessary.
There are no right answers to the questions. A major challenge in being a parent is tolerating uncertainty.
An important factor in any relationship is the way one person reacts to the other’s emotional needs and moods. In studies of mothers and infants, researchers often look at what is called attunement to determine how well a mother responds to her baby’s emotional state, how well she decodes and responds to the infant’s non-verbal communications.
Attunement plays a role in many situations – especially in education. This came to mind following an observation of a class of not yet three-year-old’s who were learning about different musical instruments in which there were two teachers and a visitor.
As the children were arriving, outside the classroom a child with a babysitter was protesting, refusing to enter the room or take off his coat. The lead teacher reached out to him to no avail. Once all the children had arrived that teacher returned to lead the group and the other teacher went out to be with the still upset child.
When the child outside stopped crying but still refused to join the group, the second teacher came back into the room leaving the door open so the child could see in if he wished. The role of the visitor now became clear as he identified himself to the children as the visiting instrument, asking how that could be as he had no visible instrument with him.
The children in the room were captivated as he explained that he did have his instrument with him and they took part in his conjectures about what and where that instrument could be. Revealing that his instrument was his voice, he then had the children explore where they could feel vibrations when they used their voices.
While this was unfolding, the protesting child stood up to look into the classroom although still far back from the entrance. As the visitor’s participation became more intriguing however, he came closer to the threshold of the classroom watching with rapt attention. When it was clear that he was absorbed in the classroom events, the second teacher came over and without approaching the child sat down on the floor inside the room near the door.
The child came closer to where she sat but realizing what he had done he turned and ran back to the baby sitter. The teacher made no move to reach out to him but continued to sit where she was near the entrance to the room. This seemed to reassure the child who returned to stand next to her again.
In the meantime, the children in the class were completely entranced by the visitor’s teaching, participating with him in the various things he was doing. The previously defiant child began to participate with them and soon sat down of his own accord next to the teacher.
Observing him it was clear he was now participating in the activity of the group led by the visitor. With no fuss the teacher removed his coat to enable his freer arm movement, hung the coat up near those of the other children and sat down again next to him. By the time the class ended the child had become a member of the group.
This entire observation was an experience in attunement; the visitor attuned to the children in the group and they to him, the teacher attuned to the defiant child, and that child’s attunement to the visitor to whom he had responded. When I later praised the teacher, she said one could only do that with someone else’s child – too difficult with one’s own.
That teacher clearly attuned to the feelings of mothers as well as children.
Selma Fraiberg, author of a famous book, “The Magic Years,” wrote a paper called “Ghosts in the Nursery,” in which she described how negative experiences in a parent’s life may be repeated unknowingly as she raises her own child which then interferes with the child’s development. Fraiberg’s colleague, Alicia Lieberman, responded with another paper called, “Angels in the Nursery.” Her idea was that even under adverse circumstances, parents may provide children with positive experiences that can become a source of strength and can be used to overcome difficulties.
In much that is written about and for parents these days, we hear more about the ghosts than the angels. We read about what parents are doing wrong rather than about what they are doing right. Parents themselves worry about their own child-rearing skills and search for the “right” way to do things with the goal of doing the best possible for their children.
A child psychiatrist spoke with admiration about video research with mothers and babies showing the earliest instances of mothers’ failures to respond appropriately to their very young babies during feedings and other interactions. It seemed exciting to her to think of the potential for intervention early on in a child’s development.
Possibly such intervention might be useful in extreme circumstances of abusive or clearly destructive behavior. But thinking about the idea of the “angels” rather than the “ghosts” of development, it seems that we need to be careful in thinking about the influence of parents on their children as they develop. More often than we imagine children take from life experiences something different from reality as we remember it.
This happens because of the difference in children’s skills cognitively and emotionally at various stages of development which influence their perceptions and experience. It is always interesting to hear my adult children recounting incidents from their childhood that are not at all as I remember them, or to hear their interpretation of various events which clearly reflect the way they experienced them.
Often overlooked in the judgment made of parents by others, or the judgments we make of ourselves, is the adaptation made by both child and parent to each other in the course of the interactions between them. Babies at birth are unsocialized creatures and it falls to parents to bring them into a social world. The social world into which children first learn to adapt is their immediate family, meaning the characteristics and expectations of specific people.
From early infancy on parental expectations shape the experience of their children. Parents work towards specific intervals between feedings leading eventually to three meals a day. Sleep patterns are required that differentiate night and day. Other expectations lead to eating with utensils, drinking from a cup, using the toilet as well as other self-help skills.
Obviously, these parental expectations require increasing levels of competence on the part of children, but they also require a willing compliance. There is no perfect matching between expectation and competence and it is in the back and forth between parent and child, between expectation and compliance that conflicts may arise.
In the course of such interactions parent and child learn about each other. Parents try to take into consideration what they have learned about their children as they pursue their expectations but children bring their own will and wishes to bear. The point is that this process differs in every parent/child pair – even within the same family – because of the innate differences between children.
Parents and children learn to accommodate to each other’s personalities. Angels live in those interactions not only ghosts.
Psychologist and author, Carol Gilligan, became widely known in the 1980’s for her book, “In a Different Voice.” In her work on the moral development of women she countered a prevailing criticism of their supposed inferior moral development to men. She pointed out that “women’s construction of the moral problem as a problem of care and responsibility in relationships rather than one of rights and rules ties the development of their moral thinking to changes in their understanding of responsibility and relationships.”
Gilligan asserted that the conflict between self and other constitutes the central moral problem of women, complicated by the fact that “conventions of femininity” have equated goodness with self-sacrifice.
Now Dr. Gilligan with Naomi Snider, a Research Fellow at NYU, has published a new book that asks, “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” which examines her earlier points in a broader context. They ask why patriarchy, a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, and social privilege, persists in the face of #MeToo and a seeming political revolt by women. How is it possible that even those committed to gender equality somehow participate in a system they consciously oppose?
The answer in this new book proposes a psychological reason for patriarchy – that it is a defense against loss. Specifically, a psychology of loss comes into play when a fear of vulnerability, rejection or betrayal leads people to seek safety in detachment from others. This work apparently involves studies of the reaction of babies when the connection to their mothers is interrupted. Reactions to the loss of connection go through stages of protest, despair and detachment which mirror what happens when young men and women begin to display stereotypical male and female behaviors such as the detached heroic male and the selfless, overly nurturing female.
The authors suggest that our cartoon male and female behaviors derive from pathological attachment styles leading to detachment, the loss of intimacy and genuine emotion. It is interesting to find a psychological theory about the reason for patriarchy connected to attachment theory which has played a large role in thinking about child development and child care in recent years. John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment, described it as an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis.
It is the interruption of this bond that appears to be at issue here with detachment as the end result of attempts at repair. Yet development requires an ability to separate from and move beyond this initial bond in the service of achieving individual identity. Developmental theories have described a process by which boys and girls accomplish the separation from mother by identifying with the parent of their own gender. Boys identify with the masculine traits of their fathers, girls with the nurturing traits of their mothers – in both instances traits as defined traditionally by the culture.
Earlier feminist writers have pointed out that the boy’s task in separating from the mother is to define himself not only as a different person, but a different kind of person. To develop a distinct identity the boy sets himself in opposition to the mother and all that is feminine, cutting off a sense of continuity and empathy with others.
Attachment theory has loomed large in various discussions about development and in advice given parents. Now we find attachment theory implicated in a psychological theory of patriarchy. One conclusion emerging from these theories is the lasting importance of both fathers and mothers in the care of infants.
The newly disclosed scandal involving parent bribery to ensure prestigious college admission for their children has raised many questions about our current culture. In the forefront has been the issue of economic inequality as it relates to the educational system, bribery and fraudulence simply being the end point in the many ways children of the affluent are advantaged.
The support system afforded children of wealthy parents includes quality primary school education, outside tutoring, access to various extra-curricula activities and often a social network of potential influence. Also important is the advantage that comes with the ability to pay full tuition. Schools may offer support to students once admitted but compensate by seeking to admit those who do not seek aid at application for admission.
Another question raised is why the importance and significance that has been attached to admission at a handful of schools? It would seem that this has little to do with the excellence of the education offered or whether the school in question is right for a particular student. It is as if the name of the institution is in itself a password that will gain entry into a world of success.
Of course, the particular individuals who have been named and highlighted in this scandal has also focused attention on the nature of celebrity in our society. A whiff of entitlement lies in the acclaim given celebrities, suggesting to them it is their due to get whatever rewards they seek.
It is not clear whether any of the young college applicants involved had any knowledge of what their parents were doing. Of course, they now know, and one can only speculate about the impact on these young people of their parents’ actions, ostensibly on their behalf. The message seems to be that their parents considered getting into particular schools to be of greater importance than their education itself. Also, their parents did not believe they were good enough to get into these schools on their own. This in addition to affirming a value system that says it is acceptable to lie and cheat in the service of getting what you want.
The fall-out from this scandal has also once again, pointed a finger at “helicopter” parenting and the degree to which parents are involved in their children’s lives well into what was once considered adulthood. It is unfortunate when illegal, unethical and immoral behavior is viewed as the logical extension of involved parenting. In the criticism leveled at parents there is a tendency to hold parents responsible for the nature of our society and culture rather than as trying to do the best for their children within the constraints of the society as it exists.
There are reasons that parents maintain a hands-on approach to their children’s lives longer than was true in past generations, providing ongoing financial support even as children continue to live or return back to living at home. College graduates face enormous debts as a result of student loans, with fewer work opportunities that can provide life sustaining salaries thereby remaining dependent on parents later than previously expected.
Parents have been criticized for the seemingly greater emotional dependence of older children on their parents. But psychological or emotional independence is hard to achieve without financial independence. As children remain financially dependent, this may justify for both parents and children the greater involvement in their children’s lives and decision making.
In the present world, the nature of these relationships is established early on, with both parents working out of the home, without good available child-care, and the need to maintain connection by cell phone.
No wonder parents are protective of their children.
The pattern in relationships between young people these days seems to be one of living together before marriage – or at times no marriage. Years ago, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead declared that everyone should be allowed one marriage free – meaning an easy divorce if it didn’t last. Her exception was once there were children involved marriage required a different commitment.
Living with someone is itself a commitment, which can be unexpectedly challenging. A young man who was living with his girlfriend told me he had learned the difference between neat and clean. He demonstrated by gathering some papers lying on the desk and putting them in a tidy pile. saying what he did was make them neat, it was not clean. Clean meant throwing away the ones that were useless.
While amused by his girlfriend’s differing definitions, he clearly was also proud of having mastered the distinction between them. This led into a discussion about having to learn about differences between another and oneself. Having to accommodate to these differences can be challenging when it may involve changing something about oneself – as in thinking of oneself as neat and discovering it doesn’t meet another’s idea of clean.
In a women’s conscious raising group some years back, the women raised complaints about the theory that men would share in household chores. They agreed that a man washing the kitchen floor was useless – not their idea of clean – and invariably had to be done over. Along these lines a father complained that he couldn’t handle the baby the way his wife could.
I asked the mother of teen-age twins who have often been commended by others for their behavior what her secret was. She seemed surprised and said all she has done is tell them what is expected of them in various situations. When I identified that as setting appropriate expectations she elaborated, explaining that she taught them what the appropriate behavior should be ahead of time.
There is a connection between learning from a mate what is expected and the learning that takes place from parents as young children. From infancy on parents have the job of socializing their children who begin life focused on their own needs and gradually have to learn to consider the needs and wishes of others. This is a process that at some points confronts both children and their parents with the fact that they may not always want the same thing.
As children mature they develop their own voice and at times may defy parents wishes or assert their own wishes that may differ from those of their parents. Such conflicts are characteristic of the child-rearing years and present parents with the challenge of giving recognition to children’s wishes while maintaining appropriate expectations for their behavior.
The ability to consider the needs of others while still considering your own needs is not easy, and it is even harder to teach to young children who have not yet developed an awareness of the needs of others. The not yet socialized behavior of young children can be provocative and often leads to various attempts at getting their compliance to adult wishes. It would be so much easier for parents to just be the boss and children to obey – or so it may seem.
As parents, being boss and giving orders is often a fallback position with our children and at times this carries over into adult relationships. Having experienced that as children ourselves, deferring to someone else’s wishes may feel as if they are boss.
But considering someone else’s wishes doesn’t mean they are boss. Also, asking for what you want doesn’t make you boss.
The current goal of providing public school preschool programs for three-year-old’s can actually be traced to the work of Edward Zigler who died last month. A Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, he was well known as the “Father of Head Start.” Throughout his career he worked to better the lives of children and families and pioneered in applying an understanding of developmental psychology to public policy.
One of the original architects of Head Start, Zigler was an initial planner of the program during the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty, a program that has since served over 35 million American children and their families. His concept of a comprehensive early childhood program came naturally to Zigler who considered himself an “original Head Starter.”
The son of immigrants, Zigler was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where as a young child he attended an immigrant settlement house program where he and his family learned English and received health care, meals and social supports. This experience led him to believe that young children are best prepared to learn when their health and social-emotional needs are met and their parents are involved in their schooling. His ongoing research brought attention to the importance of meaningful family involvement and the essential role of parents in the lives of their children.
The daily life importance of the social supports to families meaningful to Zigler in his life are worth noting in the appraisal of Head Start in the years since its inception. Praised initially as one of the programs introduced by Johnson to lift people from poverty, Head Start was meant to provide for low income children the kind of early life exposure to learning afforded those of means.
Somewhat expansive and unrealistic goals were then set such as improving school readiness for children in the program, improving children’s cognitive development, social and emotional development and communication skills. As the early groups moved from Head Start to grade school, the criticism offered was that although the children made gains in these areas while in the program, these gains were not sustained as children moved forward academically.
Academic outcomes have been reevaluated over the years with varying results. As in the education system generally, the push toward early introduction of academics infected Head Start programs as well as the private preschool world. This only led to an intensification of the goal that Head Start ready children for grade school entry. An experienced, long time Head Start teacher said in a recent conversation, “It’s that American love of numbers,” meaning achievement ratings.
What tends to get lost in the discussion of outcomes is the meaning of the program to the children and families served. The teacher quoted above talked about the families in her program, the number of single mothers working to support their children, the lack of affordable child care and what their lives and the lives of their children would be like without the program. She described a father visiting and crying upon hearing his daughter sing with the group – he had never heard her sing before.
In the 1970’s, Ziegler collaborated on a bill to provide affordable child care for working families with fees based on income. It was approved by congress but then vetoed by President Nixon who was overwhelmed by mail from those opposed to women working outside the home, raising the fear that children would be raised in centers rather than by their mothers. These same objections were initially raised to Head Start.
Ongoing conflict over women at work continues to pervade public policy and the lack of social supports that would improve the lives of families.