Letting Children Alone
To the Editor:
As one of the contributors to the book Our Children Today, I was much interested by Professor J. Glenn Gray’s comments (“How to Be a Parent—and Stay Sane”) in January on my chapter “Are Parents to Blame?”
I appreciate Professor Gray’s characterizing my few remarks as a “spirited essay.” I appreciate, too, his crediting me with being a brave soul “swimming against the current.” But the truth is, I’m afraid, that Professor Gray exaggerates; for I am not so much swimming against the current as trying to deflect it slightly.
Specifically, I never intended to cast doubt on die view that human development is profoundly influenced by the parent-child relationship or that the neuroses of later life have their beginnings during these early years. What I did say is that the forces that go into the making of human character are so numerous and so complex that parents can hardly be blamed for not knowing how to control them completely. It’s a ticklish business to prevent the small child with his limited sense of reality from misconstruing the thousand and one events of daily life with his parents. The two-to-three-year-old is terribly and fatefully prone to view every denial we impose on him as the withdrawal of love with all the anxiety and subsequent complications that this entails. On the other hand if we never deny, we leave a child to the mercy of his instincts; this too generates anxiety and here is the essential dilemma which parents face in determining how to treat their children.
To risk an analogy—and I have already suggested that this is dangerous—holding parents altogether responsible for their child’s neuroses is like blaming them if a child catches cold. Colds are probably caused by viruses; the watchful’ mother should prevent her child from exposure; ergo, if a child gets a cold the mother is to blame. The truth is that though parents certainly should do their best to prevent infections, children will get colds now and then even with the best of care. Some seem constitutionally more susceptible than others. The same may be true of neuroses. Neuroses of course are much more destructive than colds; but here too, despite the fact that I, together with my colleagues, view them as rooted in the events of early childhood, we do not yet know—except in the most general terms—how to prevent them with any degree of certainty. Here I suspect I am not out of line with even the most orthodox Freudian.
But I also emphasized, and this Professor Gray does not mention, that this is no excuse for complacency. There are still some parental actions and attitudes which we have learned may have devastating effects. These can be prevented or modified only if the parents can become truly aware of what they are doing. I tried to make it quite clear that it is their responsibility to know what the pitfalls are and to gain this awareness as far as is humanly possible even though they may need professional help to this end.
I cannot agree with Professor Gray’s blanket statement that what children most need is “letting alone.” There is one kind of “letting alone” which is downright neglect and another kind which is wholesome and intelligent. I think he should have made this distinction and even elaborated on it much more fully if he was going to offer it as a plan for mitigating the not inconsiderable woes that beset the human race.
Anna W. M. Wolf
New York City