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An 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 Jason Aronson, Inc.

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 this issue?

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.

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