No small number of today’s parents view their children through psychological lenses, especially when it comes to misbehavior. Instead of regarding a given misbehavior as simply an error that needs to be corrected through the application of proper discipline, the parents in question interpret it.
“What does it mean?” they ask and proceed to ascribe some psychological significance to it. In so doing, they transform verifiable concrete events into unverifiable abstract “issues.”
This has happened because we mental health professionals tend to take our own theoretical (wholly speculative) meanderings too seriously. To paraphrase René Descartes, we think, therefore, we are correct. To today’s parents, understanding a child requires reading between the lines of his behavior, extracting the hidden layer of psychological meaning. Because parents are not qualified to perform this arcane procedure, they haul their children off to therapists, hoping to find out what’s “bothering” them.
This tendency toward “psychological thinking” on the part of today’s parents was brought to mind by a mother who asked to speak with me concerning her 7-year-old son, who she thought was depressed.
“He’s negative about everything,” she said. “When I fix his breakfast, for example, he grumbles that my cooking stinks.” Now entertained, I asked her to elaborate.
“No matter what, he doesn’t like it,” she replied. “He hates the restaurants we choose, our neighborhood, his teachers, everything. He’s never happy or satisfied.”
I told her she wasn’t describing depression but rather rude, self-centered behavior – weeds that needed to be yanked unceremoniously from his behavioral garden and replaced with a patient planting of good manners and respect for others. I didn’t think he needed a therapist; rather, he needed some good old-fashioned discipline. I went on to give her some suggestions for the weeding I hoped would ensue.
Before this mom can weed her child’s garden, however, she is going to have to weed her thought processes where his misbehavior is concerned. As it is, she looks at him through psychological filters that only mystify the reality of his behavior. In the end, she is confused, anxious, and guilt-ridden. She is, furthermore, unable to act with authority because she worries that anything she does might lower his self-esteem.
If today’s parents would look at their children as behavior factories and themselves as quality control managers whose job is to eliminate unacceptable “product” before it reaches the public, a good number of mental health professionals might be weeded out of work.