Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Berger
Raising Kids With Character: Developing
Trust and Personal Integrity In Children
This interview appeared in "Psychotherapy Book News" Volume
33 of November 18, l999, originally published by
|Q: You've raised important issues in this book. How
did the idea for it develop?
Dr. Elizabeth Berger: I wanted to tell the story of
psychological development from the perspective of what the
child needs from the parent and what the parent brings to
the growth process. This involves understanding parenthood
in terms of commitment, leadership, empathy, and respect - and
how these qualities relate to the gradual unfolding of the
child's spirit. Above all, this vantage point highlights the
central role of intimacy between parent and child.
I saw a need for this because so much of current thinking
about childhood is basically impersonal - the popular idiom of
behavior control, tasks and rewards. Parenthood is reduced
to personnel administration, a question of the right
management technique. Yet it would be laughable to approach
other deeply personal relationships and their problems with
this impoverished vocabulary. Who on earth would study
romantic love in terms of the effective management of tasks?
Love relationships are about feelings and the essence of
parenthood is emotion.
Q: What do you mean by character and where does it come
from? Are you addressing superego development only, or a
broader issue? Can the parent or therapist teach character?
Dr. Berger: By character I mean heart and guts and spirit. I
have in mind something that includes a sense of right and
wrong, but also empathy, courage, and loyalty. Character
involves the fundamentals of living, our personal responses
to the great polarities of life and death, man and woman,
love and hate. It is possible to discuss these responses
developmentally and clinically, and yet maintain an overall
focus on common experiences of ordinary human goodness.
Character development is not the result of special lessons;
it is embedded in the rhythm of everyday routine. A toddler
whispers to his teddy bear, "Don't worry. I'm right here."
We see the presence of the love relationships he has
experienced taking on a life of their own within him. Active
efforts at instruction are always secondary in importance to
the child's drive to absorb profound attachments into the
stuff of his inner life. Sometimes the therapist can provide
this for a child, but it has more impact when it comes from
the parents, since theirs is the fundamental bond. That's
why it is so useful for the therapist to work flexibly with
the parents as well as with the child.
Q: How does this inform your clinical work? Can you give
a case example?
Dr. Berger: By placing the child's deep needs for the
parent's trust and intimate involvement in center stage
(rather than putting the spotlight on symptoms), it is
easier for the clinician to identify what stumbling blocks
the family might be experiencing. The whole spectrum of
clinical presentations can be viewed from this aspect.
A mother brings in a disruptive 5-year-old, saying, "I just
can't control him." She knows the right words and
techniques, yet in her hands these tools go limp. The
therapist learns that this woman was physically abused when
she was a girl by her psychotic older brother, leaving her
desperately afraid of her own rage. Fantasies and anxieties
from her childhood contaminate her view of herself, her son,
and her responses to his ordinary aggression. As a result,
she lacks faith in her authority and in her son's growth.
She cannot contain him, so he cannot learn to contain
himself. After exploring this material in the treatment, the
mother finds that she sees it all in a somewhat different
light. Through this process, she feels less intimidated by
her son and warmer toward him. His sense of himself also
changes and his behavior improves.
The sensitive clinician is alert to a parent's personal
burden of psychological distress and finds ways to relate it
to the presenting problem. In freeing the parent to meet
these needs more comprehensively, the treatment often allows
the parent to experience considerable psychological relief
in other areas.
Q: Where does the nature vs. nurture debate weigh in on
Dr. Berger: We know many children come into this world with
various limitations, and others suffer a host of accidents
and tragedies along the way. Naturally parents cannot
control all of these things, much as they may want to. For
this reason, it is presumptuous to hold the parent
responsible for a child's disturbance, because the parent
can only work within the limitations of reality.
It is the clinician's role to understand, as far as
possible, the features of reality that each family faces.
The clinician aims to clarify the interrelationship between
nature and nurture for each specific youngster. In those
cases where nature presents an objective limitation,
treatment will involve the family coming to terms with this
loss. Yet therapy can provide relief here as well, because
the parents come to acknowledge that indeed they are not
responsible for everything. But whatever the child's innate
potential, the therapist can assist the family to make the
most of it. The clinician helps the parents to enhance the
growth of the child's spirit and thus to maximize the
child's chances of fulfillment in life despite all.