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The Big Answer


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Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance

a book by David Elkind

(our site's book review)

Elkind defines the modern nuclear family of the industrial age and the postmodern permeable family of the information age, with the latter more fluid and flexible, but also more stressed out and confused, and the former being mostly “a white middle-class fantasy, rarely fully realized even in that socioeconomic milieu.” He sees the modern family as better addressing the needs of children and the postmodern family better addressing the needs of adults. There’s a trend away from authoritarian parenting, but, unfortunately, this is often a trend towards permissive parenting, which is even worse.

The modern nuclear family
The modern nuclear family

He looks at the real statistics on what happened in real nuclear families in the 50s and since, and it turns out that, contrary to popular misconceptions: family violence was common, mistreatment and abuse of children was widespread, and there was plenty of scapegoating, sarcasm, secrets, humiliation, incest, abuse of substances (mostly alcohol and tranquilizers), anger, fear, guilt, hate and the rest of the things that characterize authoritarian families. Much of these things occurred in “normal” families.

“What appears to be crucial to effective child-rearing is not so much the particular kinship structure as the emotional climate of the family. Authoritative parents, who set firm limits with love and thoughtfulness, are more effective than either strict, authoritarian parents or permissive, laissez-faire parents. And this is true regardless of the particular kinship structure of the family.”

He looks at parenting education methods such as P.E.T. and says that although these techniques and advice are very sound, they tend to ignore the child’s level of development and conceptual understanding. He makes a weak case for this, since not only does Thomas Gordon (P.E.T.) differentiate in his books as far as relating to kids of different ages, but parents naturally talk differently to younger and older children, without much need for specific advice. As long as P.E.T. communication methods are being used, the age difference issues tend to iron themselves out naturally. He also says that P.E.T. doesn’t address anger expression needs, but of course, that’s one of the purposes of the I-statement. Again, no sale.

He rightly supports kids “adventuring,” finding out for themselves, and exploring the environment as much as it is safe, which logically leads to childproofing environments and special child-centered environments. He rightly supports adult mentoring programs for kids. He rightly bemoans Freud’s foolish spreading of the idea that kids reporting incest from parents were just expressing Oedipal urges, not reality. Countless females have been harmed by this idea, as therapists were invalidating the real experiences of abused kids and women right and left. Freud also misled many therapists to be reductionistic in their evaluation of patients: Rather than leading them to realize that emotional problems were usually the result of a child’s interactions in the family milieu, he led people to believe that psychological disturbance is reducible to the dynamics of individual personality. He was in desperate need of systems thinking; his theories were naïvely mechanistic. But considering when they were developed, they were admittedly both creative and intuitive.

Freud reductionistically overlooked that emotional problems were usually the result of a child’s interactions in the family milieu, instead of individual personality
Freud reductionistically overlooked that emotional problems were usually the result of a child’s interactions in the family milieu, instead of individual personality

The Elkind ideal is called the vital family. It is by definition a family that “energizes and nurtures the abilities and talents of both children and their parents.” It need not be nuclear. Since the P.E.T. family is the epitome of this type of family, with Gordon giving the specifics of exactly how one goes about creating a democratic, win-win environment in communication, space for feelings and problem solving, one can only wonder why Elkind decided to coin a new term, especially since he hadn’t worked out the specifics of this method nearly as well as Gordon had. And then when one sees Elkind’s book advocating combinations of authoritarian and permissive parenting, depending on the issue, and misperceiving this as authoritative parenting, you realize that this man was not ready to write a book on this subject. But he surely needed to read some!

If Elkind would have taken P.E.T. and tried it at home, he’d have written a different book. His book contains some good points, but is disappointing in that he was not in possession of the knowledge needed to help evolve and extend parenting knowledge—to push the envelope for the good of parents and kids everywhere. Instead, he mysteriously chose to regress to mostly worn out ideas and disguised authoritarian solutions. One can only guess at the reasons, but it’s certain that it wasn’t because he actually tried real authoritative or harmonious (P.E.T.) parenting and found it ineffective. His very own book validates authoritative methods as the most effective ever discovered.