The Good Mother: A New Look at Psychological Parent Theory


Psychological parent theorists argue that a child is inevitably and deeply harmed by separation from a primary caregiver and by any interference with that caregiver’s parental authority. Working from this premise,Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit urge that child welfare policies and laws be reformed to protect children against disruption of psychological parent relationships and against any contact (in the form, for example, of court-ordered visitation) unwanted by the psychological par-ent. They counsel non-interventionist policies to deter unnecessary disruptions of families of origin, but once disruption has occurred, they counsel action to protect the dyadic relationship between each child and the “psychological parent” then providing day to day care.

The recommendations of Goldstein, Freud and Solnit have never been closely followed in contexts of deciding whether to remove a child from her home for placement in foster or orphanage care. Poor families, the only families that receive close supervision from child protective systems, are often disrupted without adequate attention to the harms of family separation. But once children come into care, the Goldstein, Freud and Solnit recommendations are enthusiastically embraced.

In the years following publication of the Goldstein, Freud and Solnit prescriptions, “permanency planning” became a preoccupation of child welfare; if a foster child could not be swiftly returned to her family of origin, parental rights were to be terminated so that the child could find permanence through adoption. As a result of permanency planning mandates, terminations of parental rights skyrocketed. But termination proved to bean uncertain route to permanence. Martin Guggenheim’s recent empirical analysis of termination of parental rights in Michigan and New York reveals that “[t]he number of children freed for adoption goes up every year; the number of children adopted fails to keep pace with the number of adoption-eligible children; and the total number of orphaned children not adopted continues to increase fastest of all.” The number of unadopted children whose parental rights had been legally severed rose in Michigan from approximately 1,700 in 1986 to 3,030 in 1992, a seventy-three percent increase. In New York, the numbers of children freed for adoption but not adopted rose from 648 in 1987 to 2,383 in 1991, a 225% increase.

One might imagine that severance of legal ties to an absent parent would yield benefits without regard to the likelihood of adoption. There is, however, no evidence that this is so.

n the pages that follow, I want to evaluate the theoretical assumptions that have led to the dismemberment of so many families in an often un-availing quest for permanence and emotional stability. I want to look be-hind the argument that children need, above all else, the uninterrupted nurturance of one psychological parent. I want to discover why the argument has had such influence. And I want to invite focus upon issues that psychological parent theory tends to obscure.

The discussion will proceed as follows: I will first sketch out the elements of psychological parent theory and review its bases. I will then turn to empirical research that is more extensive and less culture-bound than that available when psychological parent theory was developed, and to psychoanalytic theory that is grounded in the experiences of caregiving and the perspectives of mothers. I will use these resources in an effort to persuade you that child welfare planning should be redirected to take account of two developments in the human sciences: 1) rejection of the monotropic view of child development in favor of a family system view, and 2) a grow-ing conviction that cognitive and emotional growth require encouragement of child-caregiver relationships in which the child learns to recognize and accept the autonomy of others. The first development teaches us that children can -and should – have multiple bonds. The second development teaches us that the inevitability of separations can be managed consciously and used constructively in the maturation process. I will rely on these teachings to argue that we should abandon single-minded focus on preserving a primary bond in favor of acknowledging – and allowing children to acknowledge – the full network of kin attachments, whether they are old or new, and whether they can promise to be interrupted.

Suggested Reading

Matthew I. Fraidin∞  This is a transcript of a speech given by Professor Fraidin at the N.Y.U. Family Defense Clinic’s 25th Anniversary Celebration Symposium, held on April 7, 2016. This is the life of a family defense lawyer: A 17-year-old

The child welfare system exists to protect children from harm. Yet, in most jurisdictions in America, courts fail to consider the trauma that children will suffer if they are removed from their parents.