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Becoming 'Good-Enough' Parents : Bettelheim Has Reassuring Tips for Today's Moms, Dads

November 12, 1987|JULIA BRAUN KESSLER | Julia Braun Kessler is a Santa Monica-based writer.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, a well-known disciple of Freud, has some reassuring news for parents bringing up their children during the '80s, when traditions of family life are breaking down or changing. His advice is not to strive for a perfection that doesn't exist, but to seek a balance in dealing with their children--a new kind of creative awareness and sensitivity.

"I was born early enough to have known the world before 1914," the 83-year-old Bettelheim says. "What we had then was a kind of security, and with it a conviction that things could only improve, that in our new century we faced a great world of betterment for mankind. Yes, we of the comfortable, cultured, middle-class in Vienna," he confesses, "believed firmly, if naively, in the inevitability of progress."

But it was not long before the idealistic student saw his bright world eclipsed, shattered by World War I. The shock was devastating: to think that "the most cultured countries in Europe could engage in mass slaughter."

Even the hope of a liberal revolution in Russia turned to disillusionment.

"Like many of my generation, when I heard about the Kronstadt Rebellion where the young sailors were shot down by their own Red Army, and when I learned too that the kulaks , the peasants of the Ukraine, were deliberately being starved to death by Stalin's regime, I already understood. This was no world of the future, such horrors were against every idea and hope for progress."

A Lifetime Passion

It was during those years that young Bettelheim turned his energies to yet another radical ideology fermenting in Vienna: Freud's revolutionary views of early childhood and his new techniques of psychotherapy. And the psychoanalytic movement was to become his lifetime passion, one that he has never abandoned.

"You see, with the Great War, everything was already being destroyed for us in our home life as well. The authority of parents was being challenged as never before: While there had once been a kind of consensus for what was 'right behavior,' suddenly everything was coming under question. And that deterioration has continued with the years, until now it's contradicted daily. All you need do is look at the mass media, where mothers, fathers, grandparents, public servants, physicians, judges, even our presidents--all figures of authority--are depicted as corrupt or immoral."

The psychologist points out that his own parents, whom he describes as "an affluent Vienna businessman and his Victorian lady wife," saw no need to discipline or dominate their children. Their parental right was unquestioned, just as they were fully assured that their children would grow up as they had--cultured, law-abiding citizens and above all, "good-enough" people.

Parental Uncertainty

In our world, explains Bettelheim, that easy confidence is finished. Children find it ever more difficult to look up to their parents, to believe in them, while parents themselves are thrown into an uncertainty about how to maintain themselves in a chaotic world and at the same time set a good example for their kids.

"In many ways, everybody feels like all thumbs. That has to do with the breakdown of traditional ways of doing things. It is not just the great change in the structure of the modern family--the separations, divorces, the many working mothers," he said.

"It's more that today's parents face something of a void as far as any extended family is concerned. There's none of the closeness of grandparents, uncles or aunts around; so they feel deserted and without a support system. But then that's not altogether bad. It makes pioneers of us, in this sense: We must of necessity explore new ways of relating to one another, which is very exciting, even if it is full of hazards."

'Ordinary' Children

And his new work, "A Good Enough Parent" (Knopf: $18.95), is just such an exploration. After his many years of working with disturbed children, both at the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and teaching at Stanford; after many books on specific clinical and psychoanalytic problems; after training hundreds of fledgling therapists, Bettelheim has now focused relentlessly upon what he sees as the ever more complex process of rearing ordinary children.

The work, which he calls his most important since "The Uses of Enchantment" (a study of the importance of fairy tales in the lives of children), brings to bear his vast experience, his preoccupation over a half-century with problems of child-rearing. And today's beleaguered parents may well find it heartening to learn of his current message.

Almost anyone, he tells us, can become a good-enough parent, though nowadays it may take more than parental tender loving care. In our times, he stresses, it also requires a new kind of creative awareness and an awakened sensitivity.

Balanced Relationship

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