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Friday, May 30, 1997 | return to: local


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Do you want to raise a mensch? Psychology researcher tells how

by NATALIE WEINSTEIN, Bulletin Staff

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When asked about their primary goals as parents, adults often find themselves at a loss. Do they want to raise smart children? Perhaps obedient children?

Psychology researcher John Gottman responds by quoting his mentor, the late Haim Ginott.

"His answer: `You want to raise a mensch who is a strong person,'" Gottman said.

But how one goes about raising a mensch -- Yiddish for "decent human being" -- can be difficult to determine. Offering his particular response, Gottman has co-written a new book called "The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child."

Gottman, who was recently in San Francisco on a book tour, believes "emotional intelligence" is among the most important factors in raising a happy, stable child. He believes a parent must act as an "emotion coach," who teaches a child how to understand and manage joy, anger, fear, shame and love.

The book is dedicated to Ginott, an Israeli child psychoanalyst and author of the 1965 best seller "Between Parent and Child." He theorized that parents must give their children choices and pay attention to their emotions.

While "The Heart of Parenting" does not have a religious perspective, Gottman said Jews, Judaism and Jewish history influence nearly every concept in the book.

Gottman, a 54-year-old psychology professor at Seattle's University of Washington and the father of one, said the modern emphasis on child-rearing techniques has its roots in the Holocaust.

After World War II, social psychologists began to ask what kind of culture would create a Nazi Germany, where obedience and complicity took precedence over everything else?

One answer pointed to the structure of the German family, Gottman said. He cited data from a 1950 book, "The Authoritarian Personality," which was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee.

"Authoritarian child-rearing is cold, doesn't give reasons for discipline and usually involves severe physical punishment," he said.

A family like this can produce a child with an odd mix of characteristics: rebellious and antisocial but conformist at the same time -- in other words, he said, someone who could join a lynch mob.

Good parents can still be authoritative without being authoritarian, Gottman said. This means they can set limits while offering warmth and reasons for punishment.

Gottman, who wears an aqua-and-white knitted kippah, is the son of an Orthodox rabbi from Vienna. His parents, who met at a Zionist organization, escaped Europe in 1940. Gottman was born in the Dominican Republic and later attended a Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn for elementary school.

After leaving Orthodoxy, today he identifies as a Conservative Jew because he believes in combining tradition with egalitarianism. He keeps kosher and observes Shabbat restrictions.

Still, one of the last places Gottman expected to find inspiration for his parenting book was in what he calls the patriarchal Jewish tradition.

He was, of course, familiar with the commandment to honor one's parents and the maxim from the Book of Proverbs: "Spare the rod; spoil the child." But he has since learned about talmudic discourses against robbing people of their self-respect. The manner in which individuals are treated can deeply alter their self-evaluation, Gottman said.

Gottman's book is based on data compiled from two studies of 120 families over a decade. Using this research, Gottman offers insights and practical guidelines to parents who want to encourage their children's emotional growth.

Gottman divides parents into four categories: dismissing, disapproving, laissez-faire and "emotion coach."

Dismissing parents, for example, ignore or minimize a child's feelings, especially negative ones. Disapproving parents believe emotions make people weak. Laissez-faire parents think the only possible reaction to negative emotions is "to ride them out."

Emotion coaches, however, value "the child's negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy." They neither tease about emotions nor tell a child how to feel.

The book includes self-tests, which adult readers can use to determine their own parenting style and to measure their own emotional awareness -- a concept popularized by Daniel Goleman's 1995 best seller "Emotional Intelligence." Gottman's tests ask readers to answer "true" or "false" to dozens of statements such as "Anger, like fire, can consume you."

Gottman said he doesn't believe a higher proportion of Jewish parents falls into any one particular category than their non-Jewish counterparts. But he does make a few generalizations.

"The emotionally distant father is not the Jewish father," he said. And Jewish women are "more present" mothers with "stronger" personalities than most.

Because he emphasizes parents' actions, there is no place in Gottman's world for "Do as I say, not as I do."

Parents who want to teach their children about kindness, empathy and compassion must actually show those qualities toward other human beings, he said, including the children themselves.

Copyright Notice (c) 1997, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


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