Even the great can be just 'good enough'

Our editor Jon Sutton reviews ‘Great Psychologists as Parents’, by David Cohen.

Coincidentally, I heard about this book the very day we published my article with Aidan Horner, ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’. That piece was framed around the same central question Cohen’s book has as a subtitle, ‘Does knowing the theory make you an expert?’ Our basic conclusion was no, no it doesn’t. We’re all winging it… maybe psychologists just recognise and fret about that more.

But we certainly wouldn’t describe ourselves as ‘great’ psychologists, and I doubt our interviewees would either. Perhaps when you reach the exalted level of a John B. Watson, a Melanie Klein, a Sigmund Freud, then parent-child relationships are plain sailing. Writer, film-maker and psychologist David Cohen seeks to find out in what is described in the intro as ‘a unique study’, each chapter focusing on a key figure in a historical context using ‘an eclectic variety of sources, from letters, diaries, autobiographies, biographies, as well as material from interviews.’

If you ignore the central question, this remains an interesting read as ‘close bonds, fraught relationships and family drama are described against a backdrop of scientific development as the discipline of psychology evolves.’ If you’re looking for revelation or reassurance around that question, you may be disappointed. By the conclusion, Cohen is admitting ‘This book cannot pretend to be a methodologically pukka study’: there’s no control group, and picking over the ‘smorgasbord of sources’ left me a little unfulfilled in places – it’s tricky to pick out the freshest, tastiest morsels.

So, despite the preface promising ‘a parenting book with a difference’, I think what Cohen actually has here is quite a conventional one, reaching familiar conclusions. ‘As with many others in this book [Carl] Rogers was not quite the father he wished to be. Few of us are.’ ‘You need to provide love and attention when the children are small, but you need to give them to confidence to get away from you. Love and let go.’ Make sure ‘your children survive so they bury you and you don’t have to bury them.’

Cohen speaks from bitter experience on that last point… his 38-year-old son died recently ‘by misadventure’. Writing the book therefore had ‘an added sharpness’ for Cohen, and he perhaps looks for connection and solace in the often tragic family histories of the selected figures. He notes that there are more suicides in lower social economic groups, that ‘the children of psychologists were largely middle class’, and that ‘it is surprising, therefore, to find such a high level of suicide among these successful professionals’.

The suicide rate amongst psychologists has certainly attracted comment, and perhaps a glib explanation of such an undoubtedly complex phenomenon would be that we psychologists are, as a group, rather prone to self-analysis and therefore often self-doubt and feelings of hopelessness. Inevitably that can often be around our parenting, so take heart from Cohen’s main conclusion: that we can be, in D.W. Winnicott’s phrase, ‘good enough’ parents. ‘The good enough parent is a three-dimensional human being, both selfless and self-interested … Children learned from seeing that their parents were flawed – and plenty of these eleven subjects were.’

In writing my article with Aidan Horner, it surprised and disappointed me that, as Cohen notes, ‘there really seem to be no empirical studies of psychologists as parents’. By the time we had finished it, and even more so once I had read Cohen’s book, I was glad there aren’t. ‘It was foolish, even destructive, for parents to try to be perfect’, writes Cohen, and to that I would add ‘or for psychologists to expect to be any better at it than anyone else.’ Lighten up, be ‘good enough’, it’ll be fine.

Q+A with David Cohen:

- What surprised you in researching and writing the book?
Four things surprised me most in terms of detail. And life, and so psychology, is all detail. First the fact that Piaget tried to psychoanalyse his mother; second, the fact that Freud did not just analyse his daughter but one of his sons. Third, that Rogers could be so cruel to his daughter-in-law Corky; fourth, the parental antics of R.D.Laing though he did have a strange childhood himself. In more general terms I was surprised by the frequent failure of psychologists to use their experiences as parents to influence – and improve - their theories of child development.
- Which of the figures you wrote about did you feel made the best stab at parenting?
To his daughters, Skinner was a great dad who did not overawe them; Darwin’s children adored him and worked with him effectively; Freud adored Anna, maybe too much but she revelled in it.
- Did finding out more about these great psychologists and their parenting help you come to terms with your own personal loss?
Writing about Darwin, who lost his beloved Anni young, was the only tragedy that had any effect in terms of offering consolation. My son Reuben Luke La Tourette Cohen – I very deliberately set out his name in full for I feel each syllable should be remembered – was 38 when he died. The psychologists in my book who lost children were, with the exception of Freud, rather silent on the subject.
- What prompted you to write the book?
I think when I realised that both Freud and Jung tried to be good fathers, which for them also involved taking their children on walks, boating expeditions and in Freud’s case mushroom hunting. Very normal. And that aroused my curiosity. We know Freud the great dream interpreter, Freud the cokehead, Freud the man who wrote wonderful German, even Freud who analysed his daughter. But Freud taking his kids rambling: no. And Jung the mage going fishing.. also surprising.


Brief extract:

At the start of the book, I quoted Bowlby’s remark that ‘children are so helpless, so vulnerable’. He is remembered for his theory of attachment. Children needed a secure base which was best provided by a caring mother. If infants did not get that security, they were liable to be disturbed and to become delinquent. Bowlby felt that children were vulnerable all his life, it seems.

‘The first time the full significance of his work struck me was during a family walk in the Chiltern Hills in about 1958’, Sir Richard Bowlby said of his father. It was just after his paper on the child’s tie to his mother was published. He said to me: ‘You know how distressed small children get if they’re lost and can’t find their mother and how they keep on searching. I suspect it’s the same feeling that adults have when a loved one dies – and they keep on searching too. I think it’s the same instinct that starts in infancy and evolves throughout life.’

‘Well if you’re right you’re on to something big’, Richard Bowlby remembers saying. He was still a teenager when he delivered this judgment. In fact, most of his father’s work examined the consequences of separation and loss.

- Read more from the Bowlby chapter. Great Psychologists as Parents is published by Routledge, who are currently running a book giveaway; we have some copies too, keep an eye on @psychmag on Twitter for your chance to win.

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