5 Modern Parenting Tips From Freud

Sigmund Freud, parenting expert?
Sigmund Freud, parenting expert?
Imagno/Getty Images

Although 21st-century moms and dads might be hard-pressed to find direct Freudian references on parenting message boards, the Austrian doctor's psychoanalytic principles are closely interwoven in the best-selling parenting advice book of all time [source: Sullivan]. Pediatrician Benjamin Spock's 1946 best-seller "Baby and Child Care" was, in fact, fundamentally based on Sigmund Freud's theories of childhood psychosexual development. The chapter titles and index make no reference to penis envy and Oedipal complexes, but the book's sunny admonishments are surreptitiously laced with Freud. In fact, Spock's relatively lax approach to bringing up baby –- which includes doing away with feeding schedules and eschewing punishment, for instance -- drew directly from his studies at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in the late 1930s [source: Sullivan]. Generations of parents who've poured over the multiple editions of Spock's approachable manual have been, unknowingly, raising their children on Freudian principle to protect their young psyches from repressive damage [source: Sullivan].

Unlike those Spock devotees, whose understanding of childhood revolves largely around the advice of others, Freud conceptualized those formative years from his own experiences. Based on the relationship with his father in particular, Sigmund Freud's 1900 book "Interpretation of Dreams" outlines his cornerstone theories -- five distinct and eyebrow-raising childhood phases that theoretically determine how infants eventually manage their conscious and unconscious identities in adulthood. According to the father of psychoanalysis, babies come into the world in their oral stage, fixated on feeding, then transitioning around 18 months into the anal stage that culminates with toilet training [source: Burton]. Then, from ages 3 to 6, things get dicier during the phallic stage, in which their sexual identities take shape around parental attachment; Oedipus and Electra emerge during that time, pandering for the opposite-sex parent's affection. And finally, after a period of latency in the tween years, pubescent youths navigate the genital stage, when parents' previous permissiveness or repression manifests in either healthy or maladjusted behavior [source: Burton].

Since Spock so successfully wove together those Freudian phases with practical parenting advice, it would be interesting to project how Freud might regard the myriad parenting methods practiced today. In other words, as Spock injected Freud into his famous parenting manual, how might Freud inject himself into more contemporary parenting models? Perhaps the groundbreaking neurologist-turned-shrink -- and father of six -- might offer the following five critiques to millennial moms and dads.

5
Breast is Best...But Not Too Much!
Freud probably wouldn't be on board with bottles.
Freud probably wouldn't be on board with bottles.
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League (LLL) formed in 1956 when nursing mothers in the United States were more of the exception than the rule [source: La Leche League International]. In the following decades, the LLL has been influential in bringing breastfeeding into the mainstream, stoking debates about whether breast is best or if bottle-feeding will suffice. Nursing debate aside, if Sigmund Freud were still alive, he would likely be on board with the LLL's pro-suckling stance -- to a point.

Freudian psychology maintains that breastfeeding is one of the pivotal occupations of an infant in the oral stage, which lasts approximately from birth to 18 months [source: Burton]. On the one hand, weaning a baby too quickly from the breast would cultivate oral fixations and pessimistic personality traits, but letting an infant latch on for too long could also have the undesirable effects of honing helplessness and overindulgence [source: Firestone]. By that logic, Freud would probably tisk at attachment parenting models that encourage mothers to breastfeed as long as children wish, even into their third and fourth years. But that's not the only tenet of attachment parenting that Freud might frown upon.

4
Don't Bring Babies Near the Bed
Oedipus rising?
Oedipus rising?
Tricia Shay Photography/Getty Images

One of the most contentious attachment practices is co-sleeping, or allowing babies to sleep in the bed with parents. Never mind warnings about accidentally smothering or suffocating a slumbering infant, Freud would likely be more worried about this practice's psychosexual ripple effects [source: Belkin]. To clarify, co-sleeping is generally geared toward infants, whereas the Freudian phase it would impact the most takes place between ages 3 and 6 years old. It's in that latter, so-called phallic phase that boys and girls supposedly develop subconscious sexual attractions to opposite-sex parents, along with concurrent rivalries with same-sex parents. Boys, therefore, encounter the Oedipus complex, in which their mothers become the apples of their young eyes, and girls battle the Electra complex of paternal adulation. Sleeping in the marital bed, from Freud's perspective, would only aggravate those psychologically confusing conflicts, deepening those love-hate impulses and causing neuroticism down the road [source: Sullivan].

3
Ease Up, Helicopter Parents
Take a cue from Freud and let kids cut loose a little bit.
Take a cue from Freud and let kids cut loose a little bit.
Roy Gumpel/Getty Images

The early 2000s witnessed the launch of the helicopter parent. These overeager moms and dads are easily identified by their constant hovering over kids' activities and interventions at any given moment to dispute unsatisfactory academic grades and generally over-schedule children's lives for success -- hopefully. For a Freudian critique of such heavily managed parenting, look no farther than Dr. Spock's ethos of permissiveness. In "Baby and Child Care," Spock encourages parents to allow children ample time and space to play, explore and even break rules on their own, thereby liberating them to freely transition through their Freudian developmental phases [source: Sullivan].

That doesn't, by the same token, imply that parents shouldn't set any boundaries; as with breastfeeding, proper childcare management is construed as a balancing act between too little and too much. But rather than following strict guidelines and must-dos to help guarantee that sons and daughters will grow up into Ivy League-educated adults with handsome incomes, Spock emphasized parental instinct as the golden guide [source: Koops and Zuckerman].

2
Poo-poo to Forced Potty Training
Don't flush away a baby's chances for healthy development with premature potty training.
Don't flush away a baby's chances for healthy development with premature potty training.
Steve Wisbaur/Getty Images

Although Sigmund Freud didn't bill himself as a parenting expert, he sure had plenty to say about potty training. Just as breastfeeding is the behavioral marker of the oral phase, toilet training is the attendant milestone of a child's anal phase, which lasts from 18 months to 3 or 4 years old. Freud suggested that forcing a child to abandon diapers before entering the anal phase could be detrimental to his or her development, sowing psychological seeds of hostility, not to mention bed-wetting [source: Dewar]. Freud's daughter Anna, who followed in his psychoanalytic footsteps, linked children's gradual control of their bowels, preferably at about 2 years of age, to their internal power to control aggression [source: Erwin]. To enable those external and internal processes, father and daughter Freud proposed that parents should permit toddlers to dictate their own pace of potty training.

Contemporary research on potty training has debunked Freud's bathroom concerns and linked soggy sheets to biological issues, but his warnings make sense, considering what parenting experts in the early 20th century advocated. Guidelines at the time outlined strict potty training regimens, complete with verbal and physical punishments if little ones refused to go, which most certainly would've resulted in a torrent of psychological repression and hang-ups [source: Dewar]. No wonder Freud fretted so much over fecal matters.

1
Dads Don't Matter Much
Freud largely disregarded dads' roles as caregivers.
Freud largely disregarded dads' roles as caregivers.
David Sacks/Getty Images

Freud's interpretation of parent-child relationships, though groundbreaking, was firmly entrenched in the traditional gender roles of his time. Fathers were considered the authoritarian heads of household, and infant care giving existed entirely in the maternal domain. Consequently, dads don't play much of a role in child development, so said Freud, until the phallic phase from ages 3 to 6. During that window, boys especially begin to take note of their fathers, subconsciously detesting their sexual access to mothers. And with that internal conflict and the potential of a father-son Oedipal showdown, castration anxiety -- a fear of dad lopping of junior's penis to defend his patriarchal position -- supposedly arises. But until then, it's mothers that make or break psychosexual development.

Contemporary scholars have taken issue with Freud's decidedly unprogressive portrayal of domestic gender roles [source: Parke]. Even Dr. Spock updated later editions of "Baby and Child Care" to take into account the important contributions that fathers make with child care from infancy into adolescence [source: Sullivan]. Pediatric research has also come a long way since Freud's death in 1939 to establish empirically sound guideposts for raising healthy babies and children, no psychoanalysis required.

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Author's Note: 5 Modern Parenting Tips from Freud

When people think of parenting experts, Sigmund Freud probably doesn't come to mind. But while I was researching the work of Dr. Benjamin Spock who wrote the best-selling "Baby and Child Care," first published in 1946, I learned that Freud played an enormous role in shaping the advice doled out in the popular parenting manual. In addition to Spock's pediatric work, he also dabbled in psychoanalysis in the late 1930s, and he wrote "Baby and Child Care" as a way to translate Freudian theories about psychosexual development into casual language that any parent could understand. Hence, millions of baby-boom mothers and fathers were inadvertently bringing up their babies not so much according to the beloved Dr. Spock, but the formidable Dr. Freud. With that in mind, I wanted to take a tongue-in-cheek look at what Freud might say about modern parenting in its various iterations.

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Sources

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