Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Amy Chua and the role of empathy in parenting

All this talk about Amy Chua’s parenting techniques has me thinking about Brandon Fisher, the manufacturer of drilling equipment who president Obama recognized in the State of the Union Address for his critical role in the rescue of the Chilean miners. While I cannot claim to know anything about Fisher's upbringing, I do know a great deal about what qualities in a parent-child relationship lead to the characteristics he exhibited, namely empathy, flexibility and resourcefulness.

I wonder if the anxiety being experienced on a grand scale by American parents in the wake of Chua’s book is due to the fact that that while severe parenting techniques designed to achieve academic success may not be palatable, parents feel a void when it comes to finding an acceptable alternative model, as exemplified by the Boston globe op ed, The tiger mother roars, and the slacker mother shudders.

John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory (no relation to “attachment parenting” as described by William Sears) describes the importance of a secure early relationships in raising a child who, in Bowlby’s words, is “self-reliant and bold in his explorations of the world, co-operative with others, and also-a very important point-sympathetic and helpful to others in distress.”

Contemporary research offers a close up view of a secure parent-child relationship that can instill these qualities. It involves a balance of empathy and limit setting. There are four key elements. The first is wondering about the meaning of a child’s behavior rather than responding to the behavior itself. The second is empathy. This is more than saying “I know how you feel.” It means actually feeling what your child is feeling, but reflecting it back to him in a way that says, “I know you’re upset, but we’ll manage.” The third is containing difficult emotions, often in the form of setting limits. Limit setting is about teaching the essential life skills of frustration tolerance, impulse control and emotional regulation. And forth, and perhaps most challenging, is doing all this without letting your own distress get in the way.

Lest this list cause a parent to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, research of Ed Tronick, chief of the child development unit at Children’s Hospital Boston, offers hope. If parents are attuned with their child only 30% of the time, if 70% of the time you don’t connect with your child in the way I describe, as long as most disruptions are recognized and repaired, development moves forward in a healthy direction. In fact, disruptions and their subsequent repair are essential in instilling resilience, an important fourth attribute to add to Bowlby’s list. D.W.Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst coined the phrase the “good-enough mother” to describe a mother who is not perfect, and in her very imperfection helps her child to manage life’s challenges in direct proportion to what he is capable of.

Chua’s book, in addition to creating mass unease in American parents, has raised fear regarding our ability to compete with China. Towards that end, raising a generation of Brandon Fishers, citizens with the qualities of empathy, flexibility, resourcefulness, and resilience, is essential. In order to accomplish this task, we must support parent-child relationships from the beginning. There is extensive evidence that children learn these skills in infancy, when the brain is making as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second.

Unfortunately our country does not recognize parents in this way. As I have said in previous posts repeating, our lack of support of early parent-child relationships is exemplified by our maternity leave policy that lags far behind other countries, as well as the rapid increase of prescribing of psychoactive medication to very young children. This second phenomenon is in turn inextricably linked with the very powerful health insurance industry and the lack of value placed on primary care and mental health care services.

Public policy to support early parent-child relationships is essential. For example, postpartum depression can negatively impact a mother's ability to be present with her child in a way that promotes healthy emotional development. This past summer a new law was passed in Massachusetts that calls for a special commission to come up with policy recommendations to prevent, detect and treat postpartum depression.

Contemporary research in child development offers an answer to the questions raised by Chua, both on a small scale: a model of parenting to follow, and on a large scale: a model of social policy to support parents in this task. I thank her for providing the motivation to address issues that are critical for the future of our children and of our country.

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