We Owe Our Kids

Sigmund Freud is looked down upon by a great many modern psychologists because he based many of his theories on his analysis of neurotic Victorian women who had sexual hang-ups. He is especially vilified by the angry feminists in our universities who see him not as the father of modern psychology but as enemy #1. I had a colleague in the psychology department, for example, who had a profile of Freud mounted on her bulletin board with a red circle surrounding it with a diagonal line cutting across. She refused to teach anything the man wrote, she hated him so much. But Freud had a number of important things to tell us about the human animal. One thing he insisted upon was that character is pretty much formed by the time a child is five or six years old. Let’s consider the implications of this for today’s world.

What happens, typically, in those early years? In many cases working parents drop the kids off at day care, which is often little more than glorified baby-sitting, and then pick them up at the end of the day too exhausted to spend any quality time with them. So they set their children down in front of the TV where they watch ill-mannered kids mouthing off to their parents, or violent cartoons that send mixed messages. Mostly they are bombarded by hundreds of chaotic images each minutes until their brains are addled.  But what they can make out they imitate. All animals learn from imitation, as we know, and as we too are animals we also learn from what we see. So the kids finally go to grade school with their brains stunted by too much TV and their character weakened by being ignored by their parents, watching weak role models on television, and thinking theirs is a violent world.

In school overworked and underpaid teachers are told to help build learning skills in these ill-prepared students while at the same time helping to mold the character that has been too often ignored at home. When this does not happen, as is often the case, the parents blame the schools for their own failures and the students (who are not supposed to be left behind) are left behind to fend for themselves as uneducated and flawed adults. Meanwhile the parents holler aloud when the teachers want more pay and better working conditions.

In sum, we have kids growing up in families where the parent or parents work. They are handed over to day-care and come home to empty houses, eat junk food, and sit down in front of the TV. They watch whatever comes on, and being the animals they are (we all are), they imitate what they see on TV. As they head back to school their parents expect the harried teachers to instil good behavior in their kids — kids whose brains have been fried, as Jane Healy tells us, before they ever sit down in first grade. The teachers are supposed to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic — while also raising the child to be a good adult. Sometimes it happens, and it is surprising how often is does happen, because there are dedicated teachers out there; but often it doesn’t work.  The result is then a spoiled brat whose parents cannot deny him anything because they have been told that discipline is a bad thing and they feel guilty about leaving him alone so much. He often has ADD, is prone to violence, and has no idea whatever how he is supposed to behave in the world around him.

What I have sketched here is based on generalizations, of course. And generalizations always allow of exceptions, as I have noted. There are bright and capable kids who have turned out to be good students and well-adjusted adults in spite of working parents, TV,  and day care. There have also been adults with weak character who have turned out to be bad eggs in spite of being raised at home with a loving parent. But there is usually a core of truth in generalizations that are based on careful observation and the expert testimony of people like Jane Healy who work with kids daily. And the increasing failure of our schools and the growing numbers of out-of-control kids who turn into narcissistic adults raise profound questions about our priorities and the obligations we have to our kids and to one another.