“When the baby cries we pick her up, but our parents say she’s manipulating us and she’ll never learn to live without us if we keep getting her. We’re worried she will be traumatized – and our parents worry she’ll become a spoiled brat. How much frustration is OK for a kid? How do children get ‘spoiled?'”

Your parents are expressing versions of a widespread theory of childrearing. For example, their parents may have read it in such places as the U.S. Children’s Bureau pamphlet, Infant Care (1924), which told mothers not to pick up their baby between feeding because he might learn that ‘crying will get him what he wants, sufficient to make a spoiled, fussy baby, and a household tyrant whose continual demands make a slave of the mother.’

The most sophisticated version of this theory has been developed in psychoanalysis and is called “optimal frustration.” In my opinion, much psychoanalytic thought is very useful, but this theory is both wrong and potentially damaging to children. Because we base our actions toward children on ideas about their nature and needs, it is important to examine this notion of “optimal frustration.” This column completes the series I have been writing on how best to deal with the wants of children.

The theory of optimal frustration has these main points:

  • Children, especially young ones, have fundamental tendencies toward being dependent, selfish, and irrational.
  • The child must be forced through frustration to develop: a sense of self separate from caregivers; control of emotions and impulses; respect for others; adaptation to reality; and the skills of independent living.
  • While caregivers should be sensitive and nurturing (that’s the “optimal” part), frustration is the necessary and primary pathway through which children build the cognitive and affective structures of the self.

The case against “optimal frustration”

The case against “optimal frustration” is that:

  • Frustration has many negative effects.
  • Children develop optimally when they are mainly gratified, not frustrated.
  • The idea of “optimal frustration” can serve purposes which harm kids.
  • “Optimal frustration” is poorly defined.
  • There is little scientific evidence for the purported benefits of frustration.

The negative effects of frustration

Frustration has many well-documented negative effects. First, the aim which is blocked is usually developmentally positive, so that an opportunity for growth is lost when it is frustrated. Second, kids learn skills through pursuing their aims; when that pursuit is stymied, no skill is learned. Third, each incident of frustration is a bit of evidence to a child that “I cannot influence things to get what I want, grownups get in the way and don’t care about what I want, and wanting anything hurts.” Fourth, frustration is usually upsetting, so each episode of frustration adds one more bit of hurt, sadness, or anger to the individual’s “affective core.”

Children grow best without frustration

The overwhelming research evidence is that children separate from parents, develop sturdy egos, master their impulses, acquire skills, and grow morally when they are raised by sensitive caregivers who gratify, not frustrate, most of their wishes most of the time. The child develops as a self and adapts to reality largely through processes which have nothing to do with frustration, including modeling, play, physical maturation, language development, problem-solving, direct instruction, and responses to various tangible and intangible rewards. Frustration is neither the necessary nor the primary path of self development.

A discriminatory pretext

There is a long history of groups – women, Jews, and African-Americans among them – being oppressed in part through seemingly benign doctrines. For example, until quite recently, a prevailing notion was that women should be protected from the world of commerce and the burdens of the vote “for their own good.” The theory of “optimal frustration” says not just that frustration does occur but that it should, it must occur. Can we imagine a similar idea applied publicly to any group besides children in America today? It would be like saying that thwarting the aims of Latinos is necessary in order to build their character.

Kids are often a royal pain, and it is so tempting in the heat of things to grab some beguiling idea “for their own good” which lets us off the hook. “Optimal frustration” can be the rationale for less than optimal care of children, and even neglect and mistreatment. It is a seductively dangerous notion.

An ill-defined concept with unproven claims

The purported benefits of “optimal frustration” would have to be well-defined and well-researched to outweigh the proven costs of frustration. Yet they are neither. “Frustration” is not clearly defined in a scientific sense, nor are the conditions required for it to be optimal. Additionally, I am unaware of any research which establishes that frustration per se is the central factor in the development of ego, self-structure, independence, or competence in children.

It has been established that frustration is toxic to children. By analogy, toxic substances are prescribed in medicine only when dosages can be related to diagnoses with great precision. The greatest moral imperative of the physician is ‘to do no harm.’ Anyone who advocates the ‘optimal’ administration of something (frustration) known to be subjectively painful and developmentally hazardous, especially to dependent and vulnerable children, must bear a burden of clarity and evidence which as yet the proponents of optimal frustration have not shouldered. On this foundation of sand is based a doctrine which has widely influenced psychotherapeutic technique, professional advice to parents, and parental practices for much of this century.

The narrow role of frustration

Parents do need to control their children and thwart their wishes numerous times each day. Not because frustration is good for kids, but simply because kids often want things that are not good for themselves or for other people. Not exercising appropriate control or not communicating reasonable achievement expectations can lead to children who are “spoiled.” But it’s not the absence of frustration which leads to “spoiling.” Frustration is an unfortunate side-effect, not a desirable goal in itself.

Second, children do need to learn that life is difficult. But even the most nurtured kids experience many moments each day when they get bumped and bruised physically and emotionally. Grownups don’t need to add any extra! Experience with adversity can provide opportunities for children to learn ways to cope when difficulties appear again. But that learning occurs best when the immediate situation, and the child’s history, contain mainly nurturing, gratifying, and fulfilling elements.

Therefore, parents should try to keep frustration at a minimum, and explain and soothe as best possible when it can’t be avoided. That is how frustration is optimal.

* * * * *

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.