Friday, July 16, 2010

Bad seeds?

Since our discussion of Attachment Parenting in this blog the other day, I stumbled across this rather interesting piece in the New York Times, in which professor of psychiatry Dr. Richard A. Friedman admits to a little psychiatric heresy: sometimes good parents may have a bad child for no particular reason:

My answer may sound heretical, coming from a psychiatrist. After all, our bent is to see misbehavior as psychopathology that needs treatment; there is no such thing as a bad person, just a sick one.

But maybe this young man was just not a nice person.

For years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.

But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.

When I say “toxic,” I don’t mean psychopathic — those children who blossom into petty criminals, killers and everything in between. Much has been written about psychopaths in the scientific literature, including their frequent histories of childhood abuse, their early penchant for violating rules and their cruelty toward peers and animals. There are even some interesting studies suggesting that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching.

But there is little, if anything, in peer-reviewed journals about the paradox of good parents with toxic children. [...]

It goes against the grain not just because it seems like such a grim and pessimistic judgment, but because it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. After all, we are the culture of Baby Einstein, the video product that promised — and spectacularly failed — to make geniuses of all our infants.

Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.

Read the whole thing here, if you're interested.

I do think that this is something most parents know, on one level. Many of us have seen or known a family in which most of the children are nice, well-adjusted people and the parents are good and attentive--yet there's that one child, the troublemaker who grew up to be an adult who has some problems or is estranged from his family, or some similar thing. Some of us may have had extended family like this; others only heard stories of the son or daughter a few generations back who was the "black sheep" or the "bad seed" (to use two terms in use in the old days).

For a while now, it seems, as Dr. Friedman says, that to hold to a notion of a "bad seed," a child who was just bad for no particularly good reason, was not politically correct. The child had to have some inward, undiagnosed mental problem, or he was emotionally stunted for some reason, or his parents had somehow failed to recognize that he was so very different from his siblings that he needed love and attention from them of a wholly different order from the more "garden variety" sort of love and attention that did just fine for his brothers and sisters.

In popular fiction of a certain era, you can find some writers (Agatha Christie comes to mind) poking gentle and not-so-gentle fun at the idea. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc. would say of the troubled character (usually a young man) that he was highly-strung, that his father was not around or was too stern with him, that he was nervous or sensitive, that he was a scoundrel, to be sure, but such a charming one, and so attentive to his dear old Auntie! And if the writer (especially Christie) later revealed that this character was, indeed, the bad seed who had actually sponged off Auntie and gotten Auntie to make a will in his favor before carefully crafting an alibi and then bashing in Auntie's head--well, her contemporary readers probably nodded, not yet having much use for all the psychiatry and psychology explanations for bad behavior.

Of course, true psychopathy often does have these kind of underlying causes and explanations. The kind of bad seed Dr. Friedman is describing seems to be more the sort of child who is simply ill-mannered, rude, distant, or both disobedient and ungrateful toward his or her parents--and who grows up to be the sort of adult who continues to be most of these things. Psychiatry may not be able to explain all of it. Genetics may not really, either, when all is said and done.

What does explain it? As Catholics we know that human beings have a fallen nature. While we do everything we can for our children, we can't control their inward processes or the choices they make. And each and every day, they are making little choices that will make them (as ours do us), as C.S. Lewis put it, closer to being a heavenly creature or a hellish one.

So long as we live, we are not bound to end up in the direction we are going. We can backtrack, pray, seek God's forgiveness in Confession, work a little harder, smile a little more often, be a little more patient, love others a little more and ourselves less. This is as true for bad seeds as it is for all of us, and in that a Christian parent can find hope.

St. Monica, after all, didn't give up on her "bad seed" child, St. Augustine. The workings of grace, her constant prayers, her unfailing love did what mere parenting could never do.


Kate P said...

That's a great example, Sts. Monica and Augustine. It's interesting to me that you bring this up, because lately there's been a lot of TV airtime given to an ad for a contraceptive device that has a pretty devilish girl in it who picks on her angelic little brother (implying if you don't want more like her, you must "prevent" them, and besides you should stop at two anyway). It just bugs me.

Anonymous said...

Funny you mention the attachment parenting again; did you read this article, called "detachment" parenting?:

I think that a lot of attachment parenting, and all the things involved with it, have a lot of fear at the bottom of it all. And I can't get behind fear as a motivating factor for parenting.


Rebecca in CA said...

Anonymous, did you read the article??? The author was not saying that attachment parenting was at the bottom of her fears at all. That was not the point of the article. "Detachment parenting" is not here used in opposition to attachment parenting.

Deirdre Mundy said...

After reading all the recent articles, I've realized that the biggest problem with AP taken to far is NOT the idea that newborns need constant care ---it's the idea that a child's attachment to a parent is so fragile that little things can break it.

It's better to have an easier birth--not because your child will be more 'attached,' but because you'll heal faster. A C-section doesn't mean failure.

It's better(IMO) to bedshare when you're nursing constantly. Not because it makes for a better 'bond,' but because hauling yourself out of bed and across the house at 2 am is really soul-crushingly exhausting.

But seriously --if you think you need to wear your wiggly three year old in a sling to bond, you're really underestimating how much your three year old WANTS to be around you anyway--just pull up a stool when it's a decent option, and explain that kids aren't allowed in the kitchen right now when it's not.

I'm not sure where all the attachment angst came from--maybe the Romanian orphanages?

Kids do want to know you're available--that you're around to admire their lego builing or taste their imaginary tea, that when they're bleeding all over the floor you'll drop what your doing and pick them up EVEN WHEN YOU'RE WEARING A NEW WHITE SHIRT.

And, if you're always around and DON'T abandon them, they won't see a time out as a reason to 'detach". They'll see it as an example of unacceptable behavior.

Erin, when you started on the AP thing a few days ago, I thought you were battling straw men.... I'm starting to realize that my definition of AP (i.e. 'breastfeeding lifestyle') isn't really AP at all....

Barefoot Mommy said...

Ummm...don't you think Augustine's abusive father may have played a role as well as the environment in which his primary education took place? Also, Monica made some pretty weird choices in regards to her son, esp. in regards to finding him a bride who wouldn't be of marriageable age for another 2 years. While I agree that ultimately our children (like us) have free will, I strongly disagree with the notion of "bad" children.

I know a family - from the beginning mom didn't like her oldest and told him he'd end up in jail. Mom never notices the mean things her other children do, yet perceives all sorts of evil in this child's actions. She plays a convincing role for many of her friends, it is glaringly obvious that the young man has suffered his entire life from the absence of unconditional love :-(

Deirdre Mundy said...

Yes, Monica made mistakes with Augustine-- she'd be the first to admit it, I think! But (here's a biggie) she worked on her own relationship with God, and that in turn allowed her to pray for her son and depend on God to bring him back to the Church--

As for "Abusive Dad"-- I never got the sense from the confessions that he was ABUSIVE-- just that his plans for Augustine (Be a Lawyer!) were not Augustine's plans for himself....and he did eventually convert, too. Monica was really good at praying people into the Church, it seems. :)

In a sense, we're all "Bad Seed"- we're born with original sin and we have a tendency to reject grace in favor of immediate pleasure.

But we're also all 'Good seed' - Individual creatures beloved by God as sons and daughters.

All parents will make mistakes. All children will sin. Parenting styles don't really make a difference.

And just because a parent does everything 'right' doesn't mean the kids won't choose to use their free will in stupid ways down the road.

Why is the mom of the kid who tries drugs and goes to Jail a BAD mom, but the mom of the kid who drives to fast and gets killed by a truck a poor, suffering good mom who was harmed by chance?

Both boys made dangerous, bad, even sinful choices. It's just that 'car accident' is a more photogenic way to go--out in a blaze of glory instead of a long, slow, decline.

It's not a good or bad mom thing. It's not a good or bad seed thing. It's a good or bad choices thing-- a million times a day, our kids choose for, or against God, just as we all do-- it's just sometimes the results of their sin is more obvious to outside observers.

Barefoot Mommy said...

Yes, there is original sin. But there is also baptism, in which we enter the tomb with Christ and come out a new person. I disagree that parenting styles don't matter. If that were true, the Church would also not matter. She mothers us to help us to grow in sanctity, in very defined ways :-)

Red Cardigan said...

Barefoot Mommy, in the article I linked to, the examples given were of young adults who hadn't been mistreated in any way, yet still were displaying the behavior problems mentioned.

I think the psychiatrist would have discovered if the mother's parenting of this one child was different from her parenting of her other child(ren). What he's saying is that sometimes, there's no discernible reason why one child, out of two, three, four, five or more, will turn out to be rude, arrogant, selfish, entitled, etc. That's not saying that parenting styles don't matter at all--it's just saying that real life is complicated, and a mother can use the same parenting method on all of her children yet have one turn out to be less happy or less well-adjusted than the rest.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, and one more thing--yes, baptism gives us new life, but it does *not* restore the preternatural gifts. Many people are confused by this. Though the stain of original sin is removed from the soul by baptism, the effects of Adam's sin, including the darkening of the intellect and weakening of the will, and the lesser control of the emotions, etc. remain.

So a baby/toddler may be innocent and pure, in the sense of not intending any sin. But he/she is still affected by Adam's sin, and may experience disordered appetites, out-of-control emotions, etc. Just like the rest of us, in fact--with the difference that when we are old enough to govern our wills, we are held accountable for those actions which are sinful, while the baby/toddler has not yet reached the age of discernment and is therefore not morally responsible for anything he does.

melanie said...

I think the challenge for us moms is to recognize the differences in our children and try to respond to them with sensitivity to those differences. Although I generally and vaguely follow AP, it certainly has not been the same for each of them nor have they responded the same why. My youngest has a bad temper and throws very bad tantrums when he does not get his way, the other kids never did this. Not because I was different necessarily, but because they are different. And, it's taken me awhile to find the most effective response to my "more high maintenance" son. And some days, one thing works and other days it doesn't. Sometimes he is just tired, or just hungry, creating his response. Sometimes he needs absolutely to be disciplined, sometimes it's better for me to sit with him hold him or read to him. I try to take a step back when I can and see the big picture for him for one minute, you know? What's up? Did I forget lunch. Did he just have cereal and is having a liitle protein break down? Is he just being
impatient and selfish? I don't have a pat response, method, style, answer, I have an ever evolving relationship based on love and the desire for my kids to be good, happy well-adjusted, kind, people. I recognize both that they are fallen and they need grace, and that they are essentially good and were created to be with God, it's an ever-evolving delicate balance of faith, love, and the use of my God given brain. And many times I fail, because I too am fallen, and in need of grace and neglect myself and make bad choices....but I just keep trying, and I just keep praying.

melanie said...

I should add this- the whole "bad seed" thing resonates because this son has been so very much harder than my first three. I have seriously struggled with tremendous fears over it. But, I have just kept working and working on my relationship with him and I have really been blessed to see tremendous progress. Now, this may have nothing to do with me, he may just be maturing in his response to life in general....but he is an example of extremely differing temperments, And, I guess in my mind, the need for an ever-evolving approach to motherhood. He is only five, so there is still a long way to go.....

John Thayer Jensen said...

This is a discussion my wife and I have from time to time. She has a (slight :-)) tendency to say, when a person - whether one of our own children or someone else - misbehaves, to seek reasons in the person's rearing or history otherwise: "She had a bad relationship with her mother" - that sort of thing.

These things are certainly relevant. Nevertheless, my tendency is to say, "People are not 'systems' - such-and-such input gives such-and-such output."

It is true that none of us had a perfect upbringing. Nevertheless, one can point to a group of children - my own, for instance - raised very similarly but with fairly different outcomes. People make choices in reaction to their experiences. Sometimes people make bad choices. The input can never justify the output. It was not just because Our Lord was reared by a sinless Mother that He did no sin.

It is not what goes into a man that defiles the man...


freddy said...

Very wise words, Dierdre!

From the standpoint of even our Catholic saints, for example, I imagine many of their parents were left scratching their heads over their sons and daughters. No one would say that St. Francis's father was evil (though worldly) but I imagine he must have wondered where he went wrong with young Francis, while his friends assured him that he was a good man and a decent father. I have wondered what St. Simon Stock's mother must have thought when he went to live in that tree! And I've never heard that either St. Jerome or St. Benedict, for example were known for their touchy-feely, forgiving natures.

My point is that even loving, good parents have children who grow up to be difficult adults -- and that may be signaled by a difficult childhood, or it may not. Parents should do the best they know how to do, but not be overset when one child's besetting sin is not like another's. Even when a child rejects his family and his faith, that's certainly a cause for sorrow and prayers, but not always a cause for blame.

Liz said...

I think perhaps that a mismatch between parental temperaments and the temperaments of their "difficult" child sometimes explains a lot. If we think that we can parent each of our children in exactly the same way and get exactly the same results we aren't recognizing that children are individuals. There inborn temperaments are different, their inborn physiologies are different. I have one child who was very structured and scheduled from the beginning. If he was crying it was definitely three hours since he ate. He still is a creature of routine. My other child was all over the map as far as schedules were concerned, and today she's the far more flexible person. My daughter's husband is an identical twin, but he and his twin could hardly be more dissimilar in terms of personality, and they've been that way since they were kids.

I'm not trying to blame parents for the way their kids turn out. Really dedicated parents have frequently had kids that turned out badly, sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily. Sometimes pretty lousy parents have ended up with pretty great kids. However, I think it's a mistake to think that you can parent all the children in a family by the same rules and come up with the same results. God treats us as individuals, the Church recognizes sanctity of different sorts (after all the cranky Jerome, and the joyful Francis are both saints), as parents we owe it to our kids to recognize the inherent differences in them and adjust for them.

Oh, btw, all that bonding around birth. It isn't just for emotional attachment. There are physiological reasons why skin to skin immediately after birth is better for babies than being wrapped up like a burrito and stuffed in a plastic box.