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The Guru of Child-Rearing Speaks : Bruno Bettelheim Warns Against Expecting Perfection

October 12, 1986|MEGAN ROSENFELD | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The church was filled with 800 serious-looking parents and teachers who had come to learn more about one of the eternal mysteries of life: rearing children. In the pulpit was one of the great gurus of the subject, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim.

After the lecture on "The Power of Play," a father rose to ask a question. What did the good doctor think about "so-called educational toys" and would he buy a kid a toy machine gun?

"Yes, I'd give a kid a machine gun to gun down all the educational toys," said the learned man.

At 82, Bettelheim has probably earned the right to a certain crotchety manner. When he disagrees with something, he blares "Nonsense!" in definitive tones, and he is nothing if not opinionated. Born in Vienna, he came to the United States in 1939, after having been imprisoned by the Nazis in two concentration camps, and he retains an accent sometimes difficult to decipher.

Always the Villain

A mother rises to ask about her 3 1/2-year-old son, who isn't interested in the blocks and puzzles Bettelheim has talked about but likes active fantasy games, for which he conscripts his mother to play the villains. She says she feels uncomfortable with these games.

"Why do you feel uncomfortable?" asks Bettelheim.

"I don't like the violence, being killed and poisoned," the mother says.

"Do you want to be poisoned in play, or in reality?" Bettelheim responds.

Subject closed.

For nearly 30 years he was connected to the University of Chicago, both as a professor and as head of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children. He retired in 1973 and, tired of cold Chicago winters, moved to California.

'Too Tired to Crawl'

"After 70 you are too old," he said. "I can no longer work directly with children; my bones are too tired to crawl around on the floor."

He has published at least a dozen books and is currently working on one about child-rearing, which he wants to call "The Good Enough Parent," because "There are no perfect parents, and no perfect children, but every parent can be good enough."

Bettelheim is no stranger to controversy, and some of his pronouncements can be confusing and disturbing to the average parent. He is against corporal punishment in any form; thinks public schools are terrible and the teaching of reading a particular travesty; is opposed to imposing responsibility even through simple chores; thinks parent-organized games like the Little League are "vicious," and in general rails against the value system that prizes good grades, winning and achievement.

The way to raise a child to have ethics, a sense of responsibility and a healthy mind is to have all those attributes yourself, he said. "It is your example that is important," he says. Parents should never lose their self-control; if you feel angry, exasperated and ready to yell or spank, "go into another room until you get yourself under control."

'They Want Little Adults'

"One of the worst ideas is that letting off steam is useful," he said in an interview the morning before his lecture. "We are rational beings, we should reason with ourselves. Are you angry with your child for acting like a child? Most people don't really want children, they want little adults. They rob them of their childhoods. That's why we have so many childish adults, who only want to play."

The great writer Goethe's earliest memory, he told his audience at the lecture sponsored by the National Child Research Center, was of an aimless morning when he tossed his toy dishes out of the window and "rejoiced that they so amazingly shattered." Cheered on by some neighbors, Goethe moved on to his mother's crockery and tossed that, too, out the window, having a great time as the dishes smashed on the pavement.

Freud later said that the toy dishes represented his new brother and "his wish to throw him out of the house," while trashing his mother's dishes represented hostility to the idea that she would not be able to feed him while she was nursing the new child.

Parents Were Not Angry

But the important thing, Bettelheim said, was not only that the neighbors were jolly about this dish throwing, but that Goethe's parents were not angry. Thus, he said, Goethe was able to work out his sibling rivalry and grow up to have a fine relationship with his brother and become a literary genius.

"Today we would be appalled at such destructive behavior," he said. "Yet Goethe was the greatest genius after Shakespeare, and this was one of the most important events in his life."

Later a father rose to ask a question. Suppose we let our little Goethes throw dishes around, he said. How do we know they will only do it once?

"Your fear expresses a certain attitude to your child," Bettelheim said. "If you think it will repeat itself, it will. . . . Goethe's parents were convinced that it wouldn't happen again and it didn't."

Bettelheim reiterates this idea regularly: The parent's attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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