Existential Roundup

Janis Rozentāls' "Mother and Child" (1904).
Janis Rozentāls’ “Mother and Child” (1904).

Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.

Last week, we celebrated the back-to-school season with some recent articles and research on children and education. This week, we will look at another side of the equation—the parents.

D. W. Winnicott famously taught us the concept of the “good-enough” parent. But these days, “good enough” is never enough. Psychology Today reports that parenting in the 21st century is now a competitive sport—perhaps not on part with football or the Olympics, but climbing in the ranks. The idea here is creating stories of extreme parental hardship and then comparing tales. How difficult is it for you to parent? Do you have a full-time nanny for your children or are you a widowed parent struggling to bring up your children in the smaller apartment you had to move into after your husband died and you are working two jobs to support the family but still find time to help your children with homework. The article suggests that it is comparisons like these are determining the differences bewtween so-called tortured, caring, “artisan” parents and just the everyday variety of caring, affectionate, loving parents. And these competitions are not between people of different socio-economic statuses so much as they are between people of similar statuses who are finding more ways to make parenting competitive.

Some parents, however, have had enough of the games. The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/humor/shouts-murmurs/new-parenting-study-released “reported research” by a behavioral psychologist at the University of Massachusetts who discovered that many parents who, if subjected to another long-form article about how to parent their children, would lose their minds. The results of this tongue-in-cheek “research” were echoes by many other parents interviewed around the country, who immediately began the recommended protocol for treatment—cutting themselves off from social media and asking friends and family not to give advice about their children.

However, the articles just keep coming—even a sneak peak at the Internet reveals a plethora of new research, advice, and guidelines for how to raise your child. The New York Times recently published an article entitled “How to Raise a Moral Child.” In the article, the author, Adam Grant, cites research suggesting that teaching children to care is no easy task. For example, he mentions an Israeli study involving 600 families where parents who taught caring and kindness to their children often failed to instill those values in their offspring. Furthermore, Grant notes that genetic twin studies indicate that nearly a quarter to a half of the propensity to be caring seems to be inherited, rather than learned. However, as mentioned in last week’s roundup, with the stories of George Washington and the cherry tree, what seems to be most effective with children according to the latest research is disappointment rather than punishment. When a child feels he or she has disappointed someone, that seems to be a much more powerful motivator to change to a more prosocial behavior than punishment. Add to that explaining to the child how he or she has disappointed the other person, how it impacted others, and various ways in which the child can choose to act differently works to prevent this from happening in the future.

According to The Atlantic, these kind of supportive parenting styles can actually have an impact on shaping the brain. Pediatricians have noticed that this is particularly true with mothers and other primary caregivers who are often highly stressed because they are either dealing with postpartum depression, difficult children, multiple children, and/or having to balance children and work. The children exposed to the constant flood of stress reactions—the yelling, the tension, the anxiety—have shown learning and behavioral deficits later on, based on brain imaging studies. Some of the supportive interventions these children needed were simply hearing a few words of positive feedback or encouragement. Others needed more contact—reading together at bedtime, for example, which is one reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics has now made this a recommendation to all parents.

The results of neglect are well-documented. The APA Monitor describes some of the lasting effects of childhood neglect, citing studies as early as the famous study of Romanian orphans in the 1950s to more recent research on neglect where children learn early on that their cries will not be heard and will not receive a response. But neglect can be as simple as paying too much attention to your iPhone, according to The New York Times. An article entitled “Parents, Wired to Distraction” discusses how many parents have gotten so distracted by their wireless devices—at the dinner table or on the playground, for instance—that what used to be family sharing time. And it is the children who are feeling the impact. According to the article, the ages of the children did not matter—children of all ages resented having to vie for a parent’s attention with a smartphone, even those who had their own devices. Furthermore, the effects on language, communication, and relationship are still unknown.

However, we might consider returning to the point in the article in The New Yorker. Do we want to make parenting a competitive sport? Or do we want to each want to declare a moratorium on listening to all the different conflicting opinions on what makes a better parent? If you’ve made it this far, you may be still be listening to the conflicting opinions but wish you didn’t have to. But always remember the wonderful thing about the existential perspective—every parent and every child and every parenting experience is different and unique, so there is no way any article filled with generalizations can work for everyone. However, if it some aspect of another’s experience touches you and makes you feel less alone, then it is all worth it.

Thanks to Erica Stanton for her research assistance.

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