Parenting is hard. I know parents are supposed to be consistent. Once we say “no,” we aren’t supposed to let them convince us otherwise. We are supposed to mean what we say and say what we mean. Really, I know, I’ve read all the discipline and parenting books. I even agree in principle that we need to be firm and not let a little push back, or even worse, a serious melt-down, make us change our mind. According to the theory, we will positively reinforce the melt down or the push back and create difficulty with all future compliance. But I still give in to my kid sometimes.
Here’s why. The alternative is communicating the message that no matter what the circumstance, we really don’t care what they think or feel or need. We communicate that we are always right, they couldn’t possibly have a good argument, there couldn’t possibly be something they are thinking or feeling or needing that we haven’t taken into consideration.
Object Relations theory (a school of psychoanalytic theory), as posited by W. Bion, describes the “undisturbed breast” as a source for dread and development of ego destructive quantities of envy in the developing infant. The undisturbed breast is the parent who can’t be moved, who remains nonplussed regardless of what we throw at them. If we look at the symbolic relationship of therapist/client as parallel to the mother/infant relationship, the undisturbed breast would be characterized by the frigid clinician who is unshaken, unmoved, and unengaged by their clients’ presentation, regardless of the clients’ animation, suffering or rage. This non-response from a clinician leaves clients feeling uncared for, unseen, and ultimately without connection to their therapist/mother.
A famous study many folks will remember from their Psychology 101 class sought to capture the mutuality of response between infant and mother. Researchers filmed moms who they asked to maintain a non-responsive face to their infants’ visual requests for engagement. The plan was to film this interplay for 60 seconds, but neither the researchers nor mothers could tolerate the despondency induced in the infants within seconds of watching their moms fail to respond to their coos and cues for engagement.
Now, certainly once our infants have passed through infancy and toddlerhood into childhood and adolescence, they can tolerate a fair amount of non-response from us. But I do not believe in choosing a parenting stance that does not allow for any variance based on our child’s mood, argument, distress, or reasoning, as characterized by the un-moved therapist and the non-responsive maternal face.
My 7 year old tries to wiggle out of quite a few things, quite a few responsibilities, and is quick to challenge my “nos”, and sometimes, I give in. But I can also quickly shut him down when he has made his point and I have made my decision, or when something is non-negotiable. Even as a toddler, there are different ways our voices say “no” when we need immediate adherence, and when we can tolerate negotiation.
This is not a rallying cry for whishy washy or laissez-faire parenting, or giving in to your kid’s random whims and wants. It is being willing to hear them with an open self. We can’t buy into a paradigm that if we don’t staunchly adhere to our own rules, chaos in the form of spoiled, unruly children will ensue. We must trust that if we attempt to be reasonable, we will raise reasoned adults. We are grooming them for adulthood, and we can hope for them that they won’t live in a world strictly dictated by others they they are supposed to blindly adhere to, but will live in a world with choice, and will have learned from us how to do what we must when we must, but consider our options when possible.
I couldn’t find a copy of the original “still face” study, but here is a brief explanation and demonstration.
Smith is and analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additional the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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