Roots of Democracy Lie in Listening to Parents

Eight-week-old Asher hovered somewhere between awake and asleep in his mother Esther’s arms. His father Clarence explained that “naps are a thing of the past.” They described pressures they felt to tell the world Asher was a “good baby” when in fact he was often fussy and cried inexplicably.  Taking care of this little person who needed great effort on their parts to settle was really hard. They both wanted to accept their son as his full self, free from judgement; not as “good” or “difficult” but simply as Asher.

We learn to listen by being listened to, from the first moments of life. For new parents, as soon as the significance of their relationship is brought to the fore, a sense of blame or judgment typically follows.

Pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott summed up this dilemma with two powerful quotes (at the time he was writing the primary caregiver was typically the mother:) “I think on the whole if you could choose your parents . . . we would rather have a mother who felt a sense of guilt—at any rate who felt responsible, and felt that if things went wrong it was probably her fault—we’d rather have that than a mother who immediately turned to an outside thing to explain everything . . . and didn’t take responsibility for anything.” and “I would rather be the child of a mother who has all the inner conflicts of the human being than be mothered by someone for whom all is easy and smooth, who knows all the answers, and is a stranger to doubt.”

Asher’s parents captured an important dimension of this perennial problem facing new parents. Each person in the relationship has a role to play. As co-author Ed Tronick and I write in our book The Power of Discord:

“Recognizing the significance of relationships in making sense of behavior frequently gets translated into blaming parents. People may wonder if a child’s behavior is a result of poor parenting. A more constructive approach begins with accepting that when relationships falter, individuals will struggle. While a particular problem may be located in one person the caregiver’s response to the problem becomes part of their relationship. In every relationship, each person has a role to play and, through that role, influences the other. Not only as children but throughout people’s lives, seeing struggles in the context of relationships, without judgment or blame, helps all of us connect and our relationships to succeed.”

Guilt and blame are negative words, and responsibility is a positive one. People generally feel good about themselves when they take responsibility for their lives. They feel empowered. But taking on the responsibility for raising a child in a meaningful and effective way is not an easy task. In the setting of individual trauma and loss, as well as broader social stressors of systemic racism, community violence, and poverty, it is especially difficult. Add to this a child with an intensity like Asher’s and the responsibility can easily feel overwhelming.

As Winnicott wisely observed, “It should be noted that [caregivers] who have it in themselves to provide good-enough care can be enabled to do better by being cared for themselves in a way that acknowledges the essential nature of their task.”

As democratic principles fight for their lives on the world stage, I think of that moment with Asher and his family. I recently came across the term “interpretive democracy” as a place that values making sense of another person’s perspective. In his new book Traveling Through Time. psychoanalyst Gerard Fromm describes democratic principles as “each person’s voice matters, finding one’s authentic voice is a good thing, and participation in decisions by which one is affected is both just and healthy.” As Clarence and Esther committed to recognizing Asher’s “voice” communicated through his behavior and unique way of responding to the new world around him, they instilled these core democratic principles.

Nelson Mandela famously said,  “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” A more accurate revision might read: “how it treats its parents and other caregivers of infants.” With hope the forces of democracy will triumph. Investing in caregivers of society’s youngest members will help to insure that the triumph lasts.

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