A growing child will experience and can comfortably endure a great
deal of frustration and anger. All of us do during our lifetimes. This is a normal
part of the human growth experience. Any child will develop and carry with him a great
deal of anger which will not damage or distort his personality development to any
significant degree. A completely anger-free human being simply does not exist. Nor is
there any particular reason to strive for such a theoretically "pure" state.
However, what parents must come to understand is that the child's
capacity to tolerate anger is not infinite. There are different degrees, or
intensities, of anger that people may experience. And there does exist some particular
degree of anger which, once exceeded, is likely to result in some distortion of the
child's personality. Where the child's emotional health is concerned, the primary
responsibility of the parent is to make certain that the child's level of anger does
not approach or exceed this point.
There is no single parental action that is likely to generate a
sufficient degree of anger to make the child turn toward delinquency. It is highly
unlikely, also, that any limited series of parental actions would produce anger too
intense for a child to live with and remain healthy. It is not necessary for parents
to live in constant dread of "traumatizing" their children through one
inadvertent misstep or even through a fairly extensive series of minor
"mistakes." As I have stated repeatedly, there is no such thing as a perfect
parent. All parents, either through inadvertence or because reality demands it, will
act in such ways as to make their children angry. But fortunately, nature has not
demanded that parents be perfect in order to raise psychologically healthy children. A
great deal of tolerance for error is built into the system.
Nevertheless, parents must realize that a continuous pattern of
anger-producing parent-child interaction, pursued unswervingly because it is based on
incorrect assumptions about the nature of the child's thought processes, will
inevitably produce a degree of anger sufficient to cause delinquency.
One way to conceptualize this situation would be to imagine the child
as a kind of "love bank" in which the parents might make deposits or
withdrawals. Each day the parent is provided with numerous opportunities to make
either deposits (love) or withdrawals (anger). As long as there is a surplus of love
in the account, no serious problem is likely to occur. However, if the account becomes
seriously depleted or overdrawn, anger will prevail and delinquency will occur. In
terms of this analogy, the major function of the parent is to use his entire person
in his everyday relationship with the child in such a way as to ensure that there is
always a substantial surplus of love in the account. Several of the usually
puzzling aspects of child-rearing will become more understandable if the parent will
keep the above analogy in mind.
Parents often find that repeated use of punishment either is having no
beneficial effect on their child or seems to make him behave worse than ever. Yet they
can recall that at some previous time in the child's life, their use of punishment has
had the desired effect in suppressing misbehavior. The parents cannot understand why
punishment no longer "works."
The explanation for this phenomenon is that at some point in the
child's development his love account became overdrawn. All that remained (or at least
what remained in greatest abundance) was anger. The cushion of love was gone. Once
that point was reached, punishment no longer asserted a restrictive force on
misbehavior. Instead, punishment acted to intensify the existing anger and therefore
generated more misbehavior rather than less. Yet on some previous occasion when a
surplus of love still existed, the same degree of punishment administered by the same
parent in the same situation would have exerted the restrictive effect the parent
It would be exceedingly desirable if mental health workers could define for parents
in some tangible way the amount of love that is needed as a cushion, or the amount of
anger that is intolerable. Unfortunately, however, no such objective measures exist.
All that parents can do in any given situation is to act in such a way as to enhance
love and/or to reduce anger whenever reasonably possible.
What this means in the everyday practice of raising a child is that from the time
the child is born, the parent should be willing to review, constantly, his own
behavior toward the child and to estimate what impact this behavior is having on the
child's feelings. Honest application of the Golden Rule should indicate with a
high degree of accuracy the impact of the parental behavior on the child. The parent
must then strive diligently to do whatever is necessary to create those positive,
loving feelings he wants the child to have. There is no need for this constant review
to lead the parent into an obsessional frenzy of self-doubt and guilt because the
essential principles of sound child-rearing are so very simple. All that the Golden
Rule calls for is that the parent be willing to act toward the child with human
warmth, kindness, and forgiveness.