Raise Your Child To Be A Rebel (McCall's, February 1956)
Are We Destroying Our Children By Trying to Make Them Too Well Adjusted?
by Robert Lindner (from McCalls, February 1956)
When the telephone rings after office hours in a psychoanalyst's house, it usually means trouble. No matter what the various members of the family are doing - listening to the ball game, planning menus, reading or whatever - they stop. Until it is established that the call is innocuous, or at least that it has nothing to do with a patient, life seems to be held in suspension. No one, not even the dog, breathes.
They were all relieved when I told them the call that night was from Grace. The usual bustle of an active household was resumed. From the boys' room upstairs a between-innings commercial boomed louder than ever. In the living room my wife and daughter returned to their lively discussion. Everyone took up where he had left off when the phone rang - everyone that is except me.
Back at my desk in the study, I found it impossible to concentrate on the work before me. My mind kept reverting to the brief but urgent conversation I had just had with Grace. I recalled not only what she had said but the uncharacteristic, tense quality of her voice as she spoke.
"I'm sorry to break up your evening, Bob." she had said, "but Hal and I just don't know where else to turn."
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"It's about Tony," she answered. "We had another note from his teacher today - the second since the beginning of the term. She wants me to come in to see her this week."
"What's he done?" I inquired.
"I don't know! The note didn't say and he won't tell."
"Have you asked him?"
"Certainly. But you know how close-mouthed Tony can be. He just shrugs and clams up."
"Why don't you see the teacher first, Grace?" I said. "Chances are he's only been doing more than his share of daydreaming."
"I don't think so," Grace said after a moment's pause. "Honestly, Bob, it gets more and more difficult to deal with that child every day. This note is just the last straw. He's really got us down, and you know we're not easily upset."
That was true. Grace and Hal were pretty self-reliant people. It was not like them to get upset over nothing. We made an appointment to meet in my office the day after they talked with the teacher.
In the meantime I did some thinking about Tony. I had known the boy for all but two of his fourteen years, known him better than I did any other child of the friends we had made in Baltimore. Somehow he had always intrigued me. Sensitive, unusually alert, intelligent, one never felt with Tony that dreadful, embarrassing gap that too often separates adults and children. A fine boy - and yet...
And yet, I remembered, there had been a noticeable difference in the child in recent months. My wife had mentioned it only a few weeks ago on the way home from Hal's birthday dinner. What was it she had said? Something about its having been a long time since she's seen Tony smile.
Two days later Grace and Hal sat across the desk from me.
"Well, was the teacher's report really so alarming?" I asked in a casual tone.
Grace looked at me, unsmiling. "She says Tony's maladjusted, abnormal."
"Now hold on." I objected. "You know that's a diagnosis a schoolteacher isn't competent to make, Grace. Why did she write the note? What's the boy been up to?"
Hal cleared his throat and spoke hesitantly.
"It seems to be more a matter of what he doesn't do than what he does," he said. "As I understand it, he's way out of line. Doesn't fit in with the group, won't join in class activities, wanders off by himself - just doesn't act like the other kids."
"It's an emotional thing, I'm sure," Grace added. "He's troubled about something. But it's really nothing new..."
Hal nodded. "We've felt something was wrong for a couple of years, actually. Tony just doesn't act as you'd expect a healthy youngster to act. Has no interest in sports or Scouting, doesn't look at TV, doesn't even go to the movies. At first it didn't seem too serious, but now with this school thing, I think we've just got to face it squarely -"
"Face what squarely?" I asked.
"Well..." Hal looked more miserable than I'd ever seen him looking. "It must be our fault the kid's turned out this way. That's what the books all say, isn't it - that it's the parents' fault when a child can't adjust?"
Grace answered him before I could reply. "You don't think Tony did this to himself, do you? I'm sure he doesn't want to be the way he is - wretched, antisocial, never satisfied with anything."
"Is that the way he feels?" I asked.
"I'm sure of it." Grace said. "No one who's that much alone all the time can feel otherwise - especially a child. But he can be cured, can't he, Bob?"
Tony could be cured, but not in the way his mother hoped. In fact, after talking to the boy a few times it struck me that Hal and Grace and Tony's teacher needed to be cured a good deal more than he did/ Tony was as imaginative, as alert, as intelligent as ever - much more imaginative and intelligent than the majority of children his age. And this apparently was just where the trouble lay. There was no place in Tony's group for a truly original child to express himself. If he did not think the way other children thought, enjoy the games they played, conform to all the values of his own group, he was considered abnormal. Having no way to assert himself creatively, Tony handled the situation by clamming up with his parents and refusing to play with his schoolmates.
I believe that Tony, like thousands of children in this country, is the victim of a vicious piece of propaganda - the notion that the "well-adjusted" child, the child who conforms, has the key to a happy life.
Without questioning this idea we have subscribed to it and have, indeed, placed it at the very center of our system of beliefs. For many families You Must Adjust! has virtually become the Eleventh Commandment. In every area of our life today individuals are forced to conform. They are commanded to distort their personalities, sacrifice personal freedoms and fit themselves into a prevailing pattern. Certain religions encourage unprotesting acceptance of the world's obvious wrongs before they grant us passports to Heaven. Our schools demand uniformity in thought and behavior, the destruction of individuality and the surrender of personal uniqueness in favor of a flat group image before they declare us educated. Industry and commerce reduce each of us to a statistical unit and insist upon our acting like robots, both as producer and consumer. Politics, fashion, popular art and literature all proclaim not only the necessity but the virtue of behaving, looking and feeling just like everybody else.
Subjected to such enormous pressures from all sides, it is little wonder that parents like Grace and Hal - parents whose sole concern is for the welfare and happiness of their offspring - give way to panic when their children don't seem to "fit in with the group." Aware that in our society the nonconforming person is suspect, that the failure to adjust is regarded in some quarters as sinful, in others as criminal and in still others as perverse or abnormal, most mothers and fathers are appalled and unnerved by the spectacle of the child who stands out in any way from the crowd.
The truth of the matter is conformity is not a good but an evil. It represents a travesty on human nature, and our insistence on it today is responsible for a good deal of the distress of our time.
Man is by nature a rebel. The entire career of the human species points to this very fact. Where other forms of life adapted themselves to prevailing conditions and stresses, and thus remained static, man overcame them. He did not adjust himself to the world as he discovered it, did not conform to the environment as he found it, instead, by using a God-given instinct to master, he surmounted all obstacles to his progress. The course of evolution as well as recorded history reveals that human beings owe their pre-eminence on this planet in the fortunate fact that they have always been restless, discontented and un-submissive. Where animals lower on the evolutionary scale changed themselves in order to survive, man changed the world. In this fundamental sense, because he is a protestant life form, because he is diverse and spirited, impelled to challenge the universe and assert himself rather than to resign and surrender to apathetic self-distortion, he must be thought of as a rebel.
The effort to reduce the human animal to the undistinguished mass, the effort to rob him of his birthright of rebellion must, in the long run, prove to be in vain. There is no conceivable force or combination of forces powerful enough to root out - or even submerge - the instinct of rebellion.
If man is forced into conformity - a condition alien to his very biology - his instinct of rebellion will nevertheless continue to seek an outlet. Since it cannot express itself in the ways for which it is designed - positive ways that result in the continuing progress of the species toward evolutionary goals - the energies contained in the instinct will seek other pathways. These pathways, unhappily, are likely to be the negative, the reverse of those that lead toward personal and social fulfillment. Where the instinct of the positive rebel would be to respect life and personality, negative rebellion leads often to contempt and defiance of both. Here, perhaps, is one explanation of such inexplicable phenomena as war, crime, intolerance, bigotry and brutality on the social scale, and neurosis, psychosomatic illness, psychosis, delinquency and failure on the personal.
The case of another youngster, Hilda, is a particularly good example of the negative rebellion that springs from too much conformity.
I met Hilda through her mother, who was a patient of mine. Mrs. Williams was the victim of an automobile accident in which her father, mother, and sister had all been killed instantly. The shock she suffered had left her emotionally shattered, and on her physician's advice she came to me for psychotherapy. During the first months of her treatment she was unable to go about alone and fearful to be by herself. The job of chaperone fell to Hilda, at that time an engaging child of twelve, who accompanied Mrs. Williams to my office almost every day. Hilda impressed me with her lively curiosity, her eager intelligence and elfin humor.
As Mrs. Williams improved, the child came less and less frequently to my office. Finally she stopped accompanying her mother altogether. I was greatly surprised, therefore when my patient confronted me one day with the following report.
"I've been meaning to talk to you about Hilda," Mrs. Williams began. "She's been worrying us dreadfully of late and neither my husband nor I know how to cope with her."
Recalling the charming girl who had brightened my days for so many weeks not very long ago. I said, "What could possibly concern you about that delightful child?"
"She's not so delightful any more," Mrs. Williams replied. "As a matter of fact, she's anything but that. You haven't seen her, and I haven't talked much about her here, so you don't know. But Hilda's changed a lot. She's grown careless about her person; her manners have become sloppy; she's disobedient, fresh and uses the vilest language imaginable. The way she behaves is disgraceful. She neglects her schoolwork and is actually in danger of failing Really. Dr. Lindner, I don't know what's come over that girl. And the worst of it is she just doesn't seem to care."
"Perhaps you ought to send her in for a chat with me," I suggested.
"I was hoping you'd say that." Mrs. Williams signed with relief. "I haven't begun to tell you the whole story. I could go on for hours, especially about her staying out late, her friends, and so on. There's just no controlling her. She's become sneaky and dishonest...My husband says she looks and acts like a little tramp."
The girl who called on me soon after this conversation was as different from the charming child I had know as darkness is from light. This Hilda was a sullen, wisecracking, gum-chewing, brazen-mannered brat. She swaggered into the office, waved casually to my secretary, cracked her gum loudly, looked at me archly and slumped into a chair. She wore the uniform of her age - a man-styled white shirt with the tails falling over a pair of tight blue jeans, heavy woolen bobby socks and ballet slippers. Across her mouth was a bold smear of violently red lipstick; a scarf of many colors hid a mass of hair-curlers; and her fingernails glowed with some sickeningly hued, carelessly applied paint. She was indeed, in manner and appearance, the little tramp her father had called her.
We made very little progress, Hilda and I, on this first interview. She was suspicious of my intentions, evasive and not a little contemptuous of me and what she thought I stood for. She airily dismissed her parents' concern for her behavior, laughed at the prospect of failure in school and reacted to the total situation with disdain. When confronted with the "bill of particulars" which I had meanwhile obtained from her mother, her response was a challenging "So what?" Nevertheless, I did manage to induce her to return for further talks by playing on her curiosity as to what goes on behind the closed doors of an analyst's consulting room.
I saw Hilda in therapy for almost a year thereafter. She proved to be a classic illustration of what I have called negative rebellion. Since she had never found the strength to be a true rebel - to affirm and express herself in constructive ways - she was forced to discharge her energy in a kind of pointless mutiny against many of the values which she herself, as well as her parents, cherished. She became a virtual delinquent. She was sexually promiscuous, and she was arrogant and unmanageable in the face of any authority or discipline - not, however, because she was perverse in character or abnormal in mind. This was the only way she felt she could assert her individual personality, keep from being lost in the mass and relieve the energy of her instinctive need to rebel.
Fortunately, under treatment Hilda began to get some insight into her behavior. Among other things she realized that her gang, with its "uniform," and its endless need to shock everybody, had less freedom even than the people they were trying to shock. Her defiant slovenliness in her own dress slowly gave way to a critical interest in dress in general. When it was later discovered that she had a real talent for drawing, we formulated a plan to mobilize and free her essential creativity. Hilda today is an advanced student at an art school in Baltimore, preparing for a chance to express her unusual and original ideas in fashion designing.
How can parents help their children become positive rather than negative rebels? This is not an easy question to answer, but there are a few general rules we might follow. First of all, we can abandon the idea that conformity is the path to the good life. This is not to say that discipline, restraint, order and cooperation aren't desirable traits; but, rather, that inward uniformity of thought, feeling, opinion and belief, as well as their outward manifestations of mechanical behavior, are always danger signs - signs that one of your child's most basic instincts has been denied.
Next we can encourage the recognizable attributes of the positive rebel. In previous writings I have referred to these as: awareness, identity, skepticism, responsibility, employment and tension. Since each term has a rather special meaning in relation to rebellion, I shall try to define it a little more specifically.
Awareness, the first and fundamental quality of the positive rebel, refers to his freedom from unconscious, hidden compulsions. While I am not recommending that parents try to psychoanalyze their children. I do believe that an intelligent and perceptive parent can help a child to get his feelings out in the open - to be more aware of his true motives and desires. The more conscious a child is of the reasons for his and his parents' behavior, the less likely he is to become a slave to the irrational pressures of any authoritarian system.
Identity: Some of us know who we are only by referring to the membership cards we carry in our pockets. From them we learn that we are Elks, Methodists, Democrats, etc. Because we know what Elks, Methodists and Democrats are. Hilda, for instance, was anonymous and unidentified without her "gang," lost without her "uniform." The identified person, however, has a sense of his own individuality, his uniqueness as a human being, his assets and potentiallties as a person. Because of this he is able to care for his welfare, assert his interests and participate, as Hilda eventually learned to do, as an important, distinct and necessary instrument in the great human orchestra.
Skepticism, or healthy doubting, the third attribute of the mature, rebellious person, deals with his never-ending search for truth and his absolute refusal to accept anything on the basis of authority. It is a quality which cannot be overstressed: it lies at the very heart of our freedom. The unquestioning follower or conformer is the tool of every power-hungry leader and system, the unreasoning dupe of whatever force happens to be abroad in the world. But he who asks why, he who questions, will always have inner liberty. Skepticism - the ability to doubt - is the natural outgrowth of that sense of wonder we call curiosity in the child. Too often it is repressed, and sometimes even destroyed, by parents and other "authorities" over young lives. "Because I said so," or "That's the way it is," or, "It says so right here" choke off the healthy and vital instinct of social freedom, everyone must uphold the right to ask, "Why?"
Responsibility, the fourth quality of the positive rebel, refers to his awareness that he is a social being, answerable for his behavior to others. In providing the human animal with a central nervous system that can anticipate the consequences of his acts. Nature has placed upon man the happy burden of being accountable for what he does. Because everything we do is done in a social context, with or to others, and because we are able to a larger or smaller extent, to predict the effect on others of what we do, we are our brother's keeper in a profound biological sense. The mature person knows this and does not evade its implications nor discount it as he moves through life. Had Hilda's parents reared her to this knowledge of her inescapable responsibility toward others, she could not have indulged in the reckless escapades that on occasion, endangered the welfare of her associates as well as her own safety.
Employment is the term I use to describe an attitude toward life that the positive rebel enjoys. It is, in a sense, the basis of his philosophy and the source of his deepest satisfactions, since it describes an individual's dedication to the goals of human existence through the process of lending himself to evolution. Certain French philosophers have chosen to speak of "employment" as engagement in life, and Albert Schweitzer has referred to it as the "sense of reverence for life." However on e calls it, what is meant is that unshakable determination to the place the full resources of the self at the service of existence, and to live in such a fashion that every attribute of the personality receives fullest expression. The positive rebel is the person who cherishes life and all its manifestations. Unlike the Hildas and Tonys, the rebel does not fail to bring his attributes to their fullest flowing. Consciously and purposefully exploiting them, he becomes employed in the most sacred of all occupations - that of assisting in the unfolding of human possibilities.
Tension, the sixth attribute of the positive rebel is not considered at all desirable in many quarters today. In fact, we are supposed to be the very opposite of "tense." We are told to "take it easy," "forget it," "let go," "relax." The person who is uncaring, passive, contented is the one we are taught to envy. To insure such a happy state of oblivion, 18 tons of aspirin are consumed daily in the United States along; the sale of barbiturates, "tension-reducers" and "relaxants" has soared to astronomical heights; and sedatives, soporifics and hypnotics cascade in Niagaras over the drug counters. To this end, also, magazines, television stations, radio, the theater and the films drown us with floods of "entertainment" designed to "divert" our attention from the serious concerns of society.. But the untense mind, the relaxed mind, the contented mind, the uncaring mind is a travesty on human nature. The mature person is tense in a special sense. He is profoundly conscious of the wide gap between the world as it is and as it could be, and anxious to assist toward closing this gap. For this reason he is and should be vigilant, concerned, discontent, restless and unrelaxed.
The six qualities I have sketched describe what I consider the outstanding characteristics of the positive rebel. The define, I thing the real aims of child-rearing, particularly during these days of uncertainty, conflict, and stress.
The world will not be saved by the submissive, the meek, the passive nor the nonresistant. Humanity's fate is bound to the instinct of rebellion, that bright flame at the core of being which cannot be gutted. To raise your child to be a rebel, to rear and instruct him in the uses of his natural capacity for resisting and overcoming the suppressive forces - man-made or otherwise - that conspire to dehumanize him, is to fulfill in the highest sense the obligation of a real parent.
(A fuller exposition of Dr. Lindner's views can be found in his recently published book Must We Conform?. Rinehart and Company, Inc.