In my behavioral pediatrics practice, it never ceases to amaze me how, given the space and time, parents come around to making sense of their child's "difficult" behavior without my giving "advice" about "what to do." They may recognize that they share a trait with their child that has troubled them their whole life. They may become tearful, thinking of how that child represents a lost loved one. There are countless variations. The process of telling the story, of finding the meaning in the behavior, is often itself the treatment. Once parents have these insights, "what to do" follows naturally. In contrast, if I give advice without a full understanding of the story, things may not go well.
Recently in working on a new book, I have had the pleasure of returning to a close look at the work of D. W. Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst and a kind of British Dr. Spock. In my review of his writings on the subject of advice, I came across a wonderful piece from this past spring in The Guardian: Mothers on the naughty step: the growth of the parenting advice industry, that references Winnicott.
Winnicott abhorred the idea of giving advice. He believed that when mothers tried to do things by the book – or by the wireless: "They lose touch with their own ability to act without knowing exactly what is right and what is wrong." Yet today there are far more parenting advice books (each with their own regime to promote) than 30 years ago, and the radio and TV schedules are full of programmes such as Supernanny, which train a critical eye on what are generally called parents but most of us understand to be mothers. It sometimes seems it is mothers, rather than children, who are being dispatched to the naughty step...
Winnicott feared that focusing on pathological families rather than "the ordinary devoted mother and her baby" (the title of his most famous series) could excite anxiety in listeners without access to therapy. "I cannot tell you exactly what to do," he said, "but I can talk about what it all means." And so he did, extolling the role of the good enough mother – one who can be loved, hated and depended on – in enabling the baby to develop into a healthy, independent, adult. While many of today's parenting gurus focus on a child's deviant behaviour and the contribution of supposed misparenting, Winnicott tried to help mothers understand the significance of their child's behaviour, whether it was "cloth-sucking" or a display of jealousy, and the ways that they instinctively contained their child's anxieties.
Tracey Jensen, lecturer in media and cultural studies at Newcastle University, says Supernanny reverses Winnicott, offering up the spectacle of the "bad enough mother", usually working-class, who is shamed before she is transformed. Jensen watched the programme with a group of mothers, relieved that it was not their parenting practices being scrutinised, but those of someone else onto whom all their own worries and fears could be displaced. But they also shouted back at the programme, discomfited by the judgment and humiliation meted out to the mothers featured. Such series foster the very anxiety they claim to assuage, and substitute "training" for thinking and feeling.
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