One of my psychology professors, a genial, graying, slightly potbellied pedagogue with a distinct dislike for popular trends in the field, was fond of saying that the Bible was "the greatest psychology text ever written." When asked to explain, he'd point out that in its parables, history and myth, the Bible instructs us concerning the full breadth of human emotion and motivation.
"It's all there," he'd say. "You just have to know what you're looking for."
I was reminded of the good professor several years ago when one day I realized that few, if any, of my clients were answering the first "clinical" question put to them - "What brings you to my office?" - with the truth.
Instead they'd say, "Our child has a problem," and would proceed to describe a lingering misbehavior or irresponsibility that was driving them crazy. As they told their tale of woe, the child in question would usually be sitting on the floor of my office, playing nonchalantly with a toy.
It became obvious that many, if not most, of these children didn't have any problems at all. Their parents had the problems. I then realized that all these children from all these different family backgrounds shared something in common: the Biblical concepts of penance and atonement were not functioning in their lives.
To simplify somewhat, penance involves the idea that when someone does something "bad," that person, and no one else, should feel bad, or penitent, about it. The same person is also responsible for whatever atonement is appropriate, meaning he should correct the problem created by his misdeed.
In these upside-down families, the children were doing "bad" things of one sort or another, but the parents were feeling bad and the parents were trying to solve the problems - problems only the children could solve. The children, therefore, were off the hook.
Penance drives atonement, or so the Bible tells us. Without penance, atonement will not take place. Translate: Unless complete emotional responsibility for these problems was assigned the children, the children would not, could not, solve them. So "therapy" amounted to helping the parents unload the problem from their shoulders onto the shoulders of the child.
To give an example: Ted - by all accounts a capable 9-year-old - was not finishing his class work or turning in homework. His parents agonized and even spent lots of money having him tested and talked to by various professionals. But the more Ted's parents tried to solve the problem, the more it appeared Ted simply didn't care.
Finally, they began checking in with Ted's teacher at the end of every school day. If Ted had completed all his class work and turned in all his homework, he was free to do pretty much as he pleased that afternoon and evening. If not, he was confined to his room after school and went to bed early. What he did in his room was his business, but Ted quickly learned that what he did affected his freedom the next day. So Ted began completing his class work and turning in his homework.
Chalk one up for "the greatest psychology text ever written."