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WHO’S TO BLAME FOR JOHNNY’S PROBLEMS? MOST `BASH’ MOTHER

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Who in this world is responsible when a child has a tantrum, shows bad manners, is disobedient, loathes vegetables, wets the bed, sucks his thumb, burps without excusing himself, gets an "F" in math or punches the girl next door? You probably guessed it - his mother! At least, that's what most people think first.

Mothers tend to get the blame for nearly everything that goes wrong with their kids. From almost everyone. But what's worse, they tend to blame themselves, too. "The minute I hear one of my children has a problem, I take full responsibility," says one mother. "I wasn't patient enough, good enough, smart enough, quick enough, loving enough, committed enough . . . so it's MY fault!"Why does guilt suit mothers so well? For one reason, blaming mothers is an idea so prevalent in our culture that most of us never stop for a moment to question it, says Jean Marzollo, author of the article, "Why Mothers Get a Hard Time" (Parents Magazine, November 1987). In fact, Marzollo argues, what could be termed "mother bashing" is an accepted sport in this society, "conjuring up images of remorseful mothers pounding fists against their brows, wailing, `Where did I go wrong?' "

When it comes to telling Mother what a bad job she's doing, everybody's an expert, says Lynn Caine, author of the book, "What Did I Do Wrong?" Whenever there's a disobedient or unruly child, a mother is likely to get blame and/or advice (sometimes insulting) from mothers-in-law, grandparents, aunts, childless friends, cashiers, clerks, bus drivers, neighbors and crossing guards. That's not to mention the two most likely advice-givers: husbands and other kids.

Child-care experts get in the act, too. "Most child-care advice assumes that if the parents administer the proper prescriptions, the child will develop as planned," says Caine. "It places exaggerated faith not only in the perfectibility of the children and their parents but in the infallibility of child-rearing techniques as well.

"What we read and what we are told implies that, if we, the perfect ones, follow instructions, we will produce perfect children. Unfortunately, this is not quite the way it works. So when disillusionment sets in, Mom gets blamed for her child's development."

Child-care experts are among the worst "mother bashers." Researchers who examined 125 articles from nine major psychological and psychiatric journals containing discussions of the "etiology of psychopathology" (the origins of mental illness) found rampant mother bashing at work.

Contributors to the journals blamed mothers for 72 different kinds of psychological disorders, including arson, chronic vomiting, hyperactivity, marijuana use, minimal brain damage, sibling jealousy, timidity, truancy and suicidal behavior.

In none of the 125 articles studied, say these researchers, "was the mother's relationship with the child described as simply healthy, nor was she (the mother) described only in positive terms." Fathers, on the other hand, were frequently idealized. Moreover, fathers were described about half the time by age and occupation only, while mothers were described in psychological terms, and nearly always as "sick."

Why weren't these mental health professionals focusing at all on the child's relationship with his father? Because, says Marzollo, who quotes this research: "When children have trouble, our culture says, `Think Mother.' "

Single mothers are most likely to take the rap, observes Marzollo. Speaking to this group, she says: "Since you do most of the child raising yourself, you get most of the blame when things go wrong." It's easier to attribute a child's problem to the parent who is still at the scene.

The truth is, it's important not to put the blame on EITHER parent when a child has a problem. There are just too many complex factors to pin blame anywhere. Says Marzollo: "As children grow, they are influenced by many people and circumstances. All of these factors affect our children's psychological health. All of us, including mental-health professionals, need to look at ALL the influences on a child in trouble; and, when we look back at the origins of mental illness in adults, we need to seek out ALL the contributing factors."

Other factors affecting children besides the mother, she points out, "include the father, siblings, other caretakers, place in the family, heredity, other relatives, friends, school, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, family income, health, incidents over which we have no control and just plain luck."

Children's successes, like their failures, are also the result of multiple influences, so it behooves mothers to give themselves a share of the credit, says Marzollo. It's also true that our "mother-bashing" society needs to give mothers much more recognition for all the good they do. After all, despite their flaws, mothers "manage to play a large part in raising millions of emotionally healthy children. For this job, they need less blame and far more appreciation."