The Blame Game

Years ago I heard Dr. Bruno Bettleheim tell this story from his youth in Vienna:

“Because growing up, even then, wasn’t always easy. Some young people stumbled on the road to maturity. They gambled. Or drank recklessly. And then, of course, there was a hubbub. A “black sheep” in the family was a disgrace. It might break their parent’s heart. But it was not the parent’s fault. Friends sympathized! And the solution was often pragmatic. Buy a steamer ticket. Write a letter of introduction. And the ne’er do well was shipped off. But not to a psychiatrist. To another city. Another country. Disgraced children were sent away. Sent away for a second chance.”

Dr Bettleheim was, at the time, a psychoanalyst famed for his milieu treatment of very disturbed children. On this particular night he was trying to describe a sea change that had occurred, prompted by the Freudian revolution. A revolution that led to a deeper understanding of the needs of children. But, surprisingly, it seemed to make raising children harder. Parents still had to feed, clothe and raise hardworking, moral citizens. But now, he thought, there were new pressures. 

“Before Freud, mothers and fathers might grieve for their troublesome progeny. But they did not feel guilty. When Freud exposed the terrain of the unconscious mind and illuminated the role of upbringing, youthful misbehavior became not just a personal tragedy but an indictment. Parents were the cause of their children’s neurotic behavior. As a result parents no longer got sympathy. Parents got blamed.”  

A century after Freud’s revolutionary ideas first gained traction, mothers and fathers accept the idea that they have tremendous influence and responsibility for their children’s emotional wellbeing. Few challenge the assumption that the earliest years set the stage for success, happiness and future accomplishment. With this sense of responsibility parenting decisions take on great meaning. And, presumably, good choices produce good results. And bad choices? Bad results! 

Some children grow and, instead of thriving, struggle. And when a child is unruly or unmotivated or unhappy we assign blame. It’s teachers. It’s peer influences. It’s brain chemistry. But, most especially, it’s parents

The truth is that when it comes to raising children there is an interaction between information and devotion, genetics and environment, geography and culture, financial resources and birth order, luck and. . . a multitude of variables. Pointing fingers and assigning blame only helps the child’s development not at all