By Dr David Laing Dawson
I read R. D. Laing years ago. He was a good writer, a poet, and unfortunately good writing can hide a bad argument. At the time I thought there was one glaring problem with his thesis, and that was, that if we are to believe that the parenting style, the behaviour of the parents, especially the mother, was entirely to blame for the child’s woes, or even schizophrenia, and therefore was BAD, as in “she is a bad mother”, then logically we could trace her badness to the behaviour of her parents, and then to their parents and on through the lineage.
So with that logic, if it were true that all of one generation’s woes can be traced to the behaviour of the parents, there was no blame to be assigned, except perhaps to Adam and Eve. And as I recall, with every theory of motherly behaviour causing schizophrenia being discussed in our study groups, (Laing’s conspiracies, double bind, skew and schism, the schizophrenogenic mother) someone would say, “Don’t all mothers do that?” And we would laugh at this obvious truth. For to be a parent means to be sometimes overprotective, sometimes a bit neglectful, sometimes too preoccupied, sometimes angry, sometimes demanding, sometimes in disagreement, sometimes short tempered, sometimes too tolerant, sometimes offering conflicting advice, sometimes playing on guilt, sometimes encouraging, sometimes discouraging, sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
On the other hand there is nothing to stop brutal, immature, even sociopathic teens and adults from having children. Some terrible things do happen to children. In this part of the world we have imperfect systems in place to discover this, to intervene, and to apprehend if necessary. The worst of these situations often go undetected for years, for by their very nature, they are secretive, antisocial, and sometimes very mobile. And the children who suffer through this are often scarred for life.
The systems to protect children will continue to be imperfect, for to perfect them would require a level of state surveillance and interference our society would not tolerate. But we can continue to do our best, discuss it, adjust our laws and processes, rescue many, and try to help others recover.
Professional Parenting advice changes with every decade, as often as other fads and fancies. It often follows the zeitgeist of the time, and usually echoes the current advice or wisdom found within other human endeavours, such as best management practices in the new information industries. Fortunately most parents ignore this formal advice and seek the guidance of their own common sense, knowledge of child and teen behaviour and development, and the wisdom of their own parents, aunts and uncles. And most parents struggle to find the right balance, the right expectations, the right levels of support, love, acceptance, control and discipline.
But I don’t think we are biologically programmed to thrive, at least after age 3 or 4, within a cocoon of family perfection and complete safety. We need some challenge and adversity; we need some things to overcome, some fears to conquer, some skills to acquire. We need some adversity in our childhoods and adolescence. We need to experience failure, at least once or twice. We need to experience the death of a pet, perhaps a grandparent. We need to skin our knees, get lost and find our way home. We need to do some things that cause us anxiety. We need to experience disappointment. We do not need perfect parents.
But one child’s adversity may leave scars while another child’s proves to be the cauldron for a very successful life. Barack Obama is only one of several US presidents who lost their fathers by death or abandonment in childhood.
To paraphrase an actor/comedian who gave the Commencement address at his Alma Mater, The University of Western Australia: “You are all very lucky to be here. Some of you because you were lucky enough to have stable, wealthy parents, who guided you, inspired you, and paid your tuition. The rest of you because you were born with the genetic makeup to overcome whatever obstacles were in your way and get here on your own.”