Richard Beck has been doing a series on Freud from a Christian perspective. As with a lot of Richard’s writing I find myself sort of agreeing and sort of disagreeing with it. A good example is when he discusses the unique pressures Freud placed on parents:
Most cultures have tended to place adulthood at the center of culture, especially the elderly. Americans, by contrast, have inverted this widespread emphasis. The elderly in America tend to be marginalized and discounted. The elderly are not deferred to or respected the way they are in other cultures. Rather than respecting old age and wisdom, Americans idolize youthfulness and childhood…
Freud was significant in this shift of focus (from Jesus’s culture to our own) in that Freud was the first influential thinker to devote significant attention to the role of childhood upon adulthood functioning. Freud’s detailed theory of the psychosexual stages of development was unprecedented. Further, Freud detailed the way family relationships between parents, siblings and children can affect development, for good or ill. For Freud, the secret to who I am today is to be found in the past, in the early experiences of family and childhood.
This idea–the child is the father to the man–is so widely held that we fail to note how revolutionary it was when Freud began placing family life under the microscope. True, prior to Freud many acknowledged the importance of childhood. But Freud’s analysis and theory revealed just how much could get screwed up during those years. Suddenly, childhood became very, very fragile. Parents could really mess things up. Kids could get ruined very easily.
Overnight, parenthood became a minefield. One had to tread carefully. Kids won’t spontaneously recover from bad parenting. Thus, great skill was required. The Better Parenting obsession and industry was born.
I think he’s right that Freud had a lot to do with this, but it’s also worth asking how Freud found such a receptive audience. In an earlier post I quoted E.J. Graff commenting that the Victorian era (which had passed by the time Freud hit it off) brought “a new vision of children as malleable angels in need of love, rather than as wild beasties in need of discipline.” Freud, in his way, still saw children as beasts, but definitely as beasts in need of love.
This attitude towards parenting also makes the view of parenting in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, difficult to swallow. A few years back I remember Christopher Hitchens criticizing the Ten Commandments because, among other things, they command honoring your father and mother but don’t say anything about child abuse. This is one of those things that make the OT seem to favor the already favored.
I must say, though, that watching my grandmother die, along with reading James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh, gave me a rather different perspective on the subject. Before the industrial era, human relationships were governed by reciprocity and the gift exchange. In the case of parents and children, the deal basically went like this: I take care of you in your childhood, you take care of me in my old age. Although it sounds less romantic than the Victorian vision of family, it also placed parents and children on a fairly equal footing. Sure, you’re helpless and dependent on parents in youth, but eventually the situation will reverse itself — and be in a position to pay back, for good or for ill, however you were treated.
It’s not difficult to see, actually, how society would find it more necessary to enforce elder care than child care. When you’re the first one to give a gift, you take the risk you won’t get anything back. Children are cute, growing and mostly healthy, which makes them more appealing to be around than people who are shriveled, sick and dying. And adults in their prime would likely have children to look after at the same time they have ailing parents, which might put the elders lower on the priority list. This is not to say that child abuse never happened, of course; but it probably didn’t seem like a broad social threat.
The rise of the industrial economy, its attendant wealth, and later its attendant welfare state changed all that. The exchange between parents and kids became purely emotional. Which made it, in a way, more demanding for both of them. The idea of having kids so that they’ll support you sounds terribly crass and materialistic now, and has been largely displaced by the ideal of a parent as an altruist, devoting his or her life purely for the satisfaction of making another life. But, fallen humanity being what it is, hardly anybody does anything for purely unselfish reasons, so a lot of parents have kids hoping they’ll fulfill emotional needs. Which, really, kids are very badly equipped to do, being naturally egocentric, error-prone, and only vaguely capable of understanding other people’s mental states. Parents, bless them, usually love them anyway, but from the kid’s point of view it’s probably simpler to just help look after the sheep.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this still only applies to a certain affluent segment of the population. Ault points out that one of the major cultural differences between much of the Christian right and their urban liberal neighbors is that the former still hold to a more traditional, interdependent view of family while liberals see family more as a launching pad for successful individuals within a larger society. The interests of these pre- and post-Freudian viewpoints sometimes converge; every argument about violence in the media, for instance, brings out both conservatives worried about social morals and liberals worried that it will imprint children for life. The whole picture is really a lot more complicated than can be covered in a blog post. But I think these are pieces of the puzzle, nonetheless.