Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Bruno Bettelheim had a lot of bad ideas. He’s the psychotherapist responsible for the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism; he also analyzed fairy tales, opining that the "blood in the shoe" in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella (after the ugly stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper) represented menstrual blood. (He also noted that the French word for "glass slipper" was remarkably close to the word for "fur slipper" and you can guess where he was going with that.)

Not all of his ideas are bad, though. I often return to his theory about the moral purpose of fairy tales. Reward and punishment are not the main point; rather, fairy tales inculcate morals by indicating as clearly as possible whom readers are meant to admire. "It is not the fact that virtue wins out in the end which promotes morality," Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment, "but that the hero is most attractive to the child … The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’"

That rings true for me – truer than the theory I came across recently that all human actions have one fundamental motivation: the pursuit of happiness. In Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert quotes Blaise Pascal who claims that "All men seek happiness. …This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves." I do not doubt that a sufficiently creative observer could unearth a happiness-seeking motive in just about any action, but it seems unlikely to me that our decisions invariably stem from such calculations. After the fact, we may be able to say, "Oh, I did that because I thought it would make me happy," but at the time, our only thought, our only impulse, might be pure desire: "I want that, whether it makes me happy or not." I remember reading about the Brontë sisters as a fourteen-year-old girl and weighing their artistic genius against the bleakness of their lives. Would I be willing to endure chilblains at Haworth parsonage in exchange for having written Jane Eyre? I could never decide.

The urge to become what we admire is an elemental desire, not unlike sexual desire. As Mrs. Kensington says of Austin Powers, "Women want him; men want to be him." Both urges exist independently of our calculating, happiness-seeking drives. We do not always pursue romantic relationships with those we believe will make us happy. "I’d rather be unhappy with him than happy without him," Agatha Christie said of her husband Archie (and she was). I always recognized instinctively what she meant. Desire to have, like desire to be, is not always altered by the promise of suffering.

Perhaps because it is so linked to desire, admiration can always be taught or directed – at least not using ordinary methods. Children’s admiration flows in ways that parents cannot fully control. Despite our best efforts, our children may admire Barbie, the Bratz, or Britney Spears. When I was a teenage babysitter, one of my charges cited her other babysitter, Stacey Capp, as an authority on some subject. "I am not an admirer of Stacey Capp," I said drily and the girl stared at me in astonishment. "Oh, I am!" she declared fervently. There is something unguarded and whole about the admiration children bestow in that haphazard, casual way.

Admiration does not always attach to those who have accomplished something worthy or difficult: it springs up spontaneously, before we have time to analyze the value of the object. I want that, we think, when we see in someone that luminous outline of what we might become. Our most rewarding accomplishment aren’t necessarily the hardest or the most important – they’re the ones that allow us to step into the shoes of those we admire.


Blog Antagonist said...

"Not do I want to be good, but who do I want to be like." That's a little frightening when you consider the kinds of people our children have for role models these days.

As always, provocative and interesting. I'm not familiar with this Bettelheim fella, but he seems like an interesting, if somewhat misquided individual.

Jenifer said...

I have read this twice in order to really think about who/what I admire and why. I admire a keen mind, a beautiful painting, a wonderful sunset, but what is it in people that prompts my admiration?

"Our most rewarding accomplishment aren’t necessarily the hardest or the most important – they’re the ones that allow us to step into the shoes of those we admire."

Is it admiration that prompts me to read celebrity gossip? Do I admire them because they can memorize and read lines into a camera or because they have lots of money? Maybe, since I do have that "want that" feeling sometimes. I am not sure that is admiration though, I think it is more curiosity.

I admire those awesome people out there saving the world and making important choices about our environment for example. And I admire selfless people who devote their lives to wonderful causes.

My truest and deepest admiration though is directed at other mother's. Mother's I deem to be more dedicated, more patient and more kind. Those are the shoes I want to walk in and learn from.

To be honest I greatly admire many of the bloggers I visit and read. I see a part of their lives, the parts they want to share and the rest I imagine. How do they manage? How do they balance life for themselves? I want that I think to myself, in moments when I doubt I have it too.

The girls bestow admiration much the same way you describe it and CAN'T (what you meant?) always be taught or directed. My girls show admiration for people and things based solely on desire. I know they will learn and grow and I try not to place too much stock in it. When they wax poetic about someone who wouldn't give them the time of day, I wonder what triggered such devotion.

Well, a bit too much thinky thinky for this morning.

I will retreat now. Great post B&P.

bubandpie said...

Yes, "can't" is what I meant there. (Worst of all breeds of typo - the omitted "not".) Argh. :(

Julie Pippert said...

That's funny (funny odd, funny weird, funny anethema) to me in a way, the concept of, "The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’"

I'm not sure what I thought as a child, but I can't think my base line of thinking has morphed that much; I think it has simply matured.

I think I looked for "who do I most relate to, least relate to and why?"

And then I always tried to be good.

It was loud and clear to me that to earn love and admiration one had to be *good.*

That's a vague, amorphous, and ever-shifting goal...a lot like happiness.

In the end, both are means rather than ends.

I guess they are actually pretty similar.

And both might attach admiration in a direction that, well, might not be most beneficial.

Karen said...

Mmm, I've recently I've been struggling with talking to my oldest about good guys and bad guys. It's tricky. He has the black and white mind of an elementary school child and the heart of much younger (or much older) person able to completely accept others It's hard to teach moral right and wrong in this war climate. It'd be easier on him if we actually believed there was a good/bad side. He naturally wants his country to be the good guys. He naturally cannot distinguish between military individuals and the administration of this war. We hesitate to give him too much information lest he speak out of turn and hurt a friend at school who may have family or friends overseas in the military right now. This post is making me think of a whole different tack. If this war were a narrative, who does he want to be? That's much easier to answer as he's been admiring the Dixie Chicks: quote "The Dixie Chicks are the best ever because they said their own feelings about the war no matter what." He's already got an answer, he wants to protest because he loves his country and doesn't want it to be an agressor in our fragile world. He could never verbalize that, but he's not yet 8 and all he needs is a hero to hang on to.
Thanks B&P, I'm gonna have Matt read this and we're gonna switch our tack with The Thinker and see what happens. I hope I can reduce his stress about war, good and evil. It's hurting me to see him so worried. (sorry for overlong comment, but am rather relieved to have a new plan!)

Beck said...

The Uses of Enchantment is one of my favorite books - how fun to see it mentioned! I've always found the idea that fairy tales were codes for children's real lives VERY interesting. I also find the idea that the heroes of fairy tales give children the necessary illusion that their wits and their cleverness are all that is needed to get safely through life.

kgirl said...

so, was she unhappy with him, or happy without him?

When I used to think of Jane, I would wonder if I would want her miserable past in trade for her happy future. The drama queen in me said yes, but the comfortable middle class young girl wasn't so sure.

Andrea said...

Hmm. I can't say I've ever read a fairytale and wondered which of the characters I'd rather be like. Anymore than I read a novel and wonder which of the characters I'd rather be like--I may find them admirable, or not, but I have a very clear idea of hte person I want to be and I don't find her popping up much in literature, whether ancient or modern. To me, fairytales, like any art, are simply a description of how the artist sees the world.

That said, while happiness isn't my overarching motivation my life as a whole, I think Gilbert's thesis is reasonable for most people, and for everyone when considered in the context of the many hundreds of decisions we make in a day. If I go to get a drink of water, it's because I'm thirsty, and I'm anticipating that water will allow me to slake the thirst and be happier. And while the person I want to be and the life I want to live are certainly not directed by material pleasure (not sure how far you've read, but just in case, he distinguishes happiness from the consumerism/shopping therapy it's often confused with these days), it is absolutely true to claim that the reason I want to be that person is because if I can be, I believe that I will be satisfied or contented with that accomplishment. AFter all, Gilbert points out that people who we often think shouldn't be happy--that man who was hung for a union drive--are, because they have accomplished a goal, however costly.

In other words, I don't think you adn Gilbert are defining happiness in the same way, which is always the difficulty of talking about happiness. But if I were to put words in his mouth, I think he would argue that the heroes of the fairytales ARE happy, even in adversity, and that children are meant to realize this on some level.

PunditMom said...

I love a woman who can combine philosophy with Austin Powers!

nomotherearth said...

That's funny - I love interacting with children precisely because their admiration doesn't stem from a complex series of evaluations. To them, it's all about who is funny, entertaining, interesting, and 'in the moment'. It's refreshing, and takes me out of myself. It's so much simpler, and I find myself becoming the (simply) good person that they believe me to be.

I keep meaning to read "The Uses of Enchantment". I think I will have to now.

bubandpie said...

Kgirl - Both. She was miserable with Archie, then much happier without him - but she still didn't regret marrying him, even though it turned out badly.

Andrea - If there were a way to alter yourself so that you could experience equal satisfaction while falling far short of your current ideals (and thus experience that satisfaction sooner and more easily), would you take it?

It's not a trick question: arguably I do that all the time when I lower my expectations of myself and others. But when I picture myself about to swallow the ideal-lowering pill, there is a kind of struggle between the value of the happiness it offers and the value of all the other things I would be sacrificing in order to achieve that happiness. That's why I don't think that ALL our drives can be reduced to a desire for happiness.

Maybe it's more accurate to say that the struggle arises from the tension between two different kinds of happiness - the kind that comes from achievement vs. the kind that comes from relaxation. But really, I don't think achievement lures us with promises of happiness - it would be a bad gambit, because relaxation makes far more persuasive and immediate offers.

Susanne said...

Again I haven't read the comments before me (shame) but when I re-read the Grimm's fairy tales recently I was shocked to find that most protagonists were not good. They were beautiful. They were the youngest, or a prince. I feel that those fairy tales refer to a moral code that got left behind for a reason.

But then most people don't read these tales, they think it's all the Disney version. (Not you, of course.)

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My 5-year-old son recently exclaimed, "I want to be Pippi Longstocking!" From the movie, the girl who builds airplanes and can attach a bed to a hot air balloon and who finds treasure. Then he said, "But Pippi Longstocking is a girl. So I'll have to be Speed Racer" -- also from a movie -- "and I can be Pippi's friend."

As for me, I have always wanted to be characters in novels. As a preteen I wanted to be one of Madeleine L'Engle's protagonists -- any of them would have been fine -- and now I want to be one of the wise mothers from Ursula LeGuin's books.

So I buy that hypothesis.

It does make me wary about the movies & books I let my kids access. That stupid Speed Racer movie -- it was a gift from my sister-in-law and I would NEVER have let my kids watch it except that, you know, it was a gift. Speed Racer is a horrible role model! He's a nasty fellow. OTOH my kid only notices that he drives fast.

slouching mom said...

Bruno Bettelheim was unquestionably bright. However, his "refrigerator mother" hypothesis regarding the etiology of autism was so damaging for so many years to so many women. Not necessarily his fault, because he was a psychiatrist of his time, and Freud ruled the day. So be it.

But he apparently molested his young patients, and now I cannot read him anymore. I just can't.

Gwen said...

I always wanted to be characters in books, first of all, but my nature is more romantic I think than Andrea's.

I have noticed the truth of what you hypothesize about admiration in my children more than in myself, probably because I analyze my reactions carefully, before I'll even admit I have them, and what my daughters feel, they just feel.

Pieces said...

Well put. I agree in every particular. I think we rarely take our future happiness into account when we act. If I did, I wouldn't eat another cupcake in my life.

Occidental Girl said...

This was a good read, very thought-provoking.

I wonder what Charlotte, Anne and Emily Bronte each thought of her lives? Who did they admire? How did they find motivation to keep going, to try? They certainly couldn't know their books would become classics, as widely-read as they are.

Omaha Mama said...


Lately Brenna will say regarding any pretty girl or woman on the television, "I'm that girl."

Who I want to be like. That is really interesting.

Mad Hatter said...

Leaving a comment is one form of admiration. Writing a lengthy post in response is another form altogether. Come on by when you get the chance.

Mary G said...

I'm labouring through Gilbert at the moment, as he was recommended to me by the younger daughter. I wish he would stop trying to be cute and just make his points. However, I will perservere. And yes, I am off Bettelheim for good. Fairy tales and folk tales have endured so long that there must be merit in giants and cruel stepmothers and Bre'er Fox. Why do we retell them to our children? I'm not sure that the hero is always the most attractive to the child. I think that the 'story', the different world, the magic, is the compelling part. It's why I read SciFi and Fantasy, the adult version of fairy tales, myself.
I was always 'in' the story when I was a child and adolescent, but not one of the characters. Just being part of the construct world, enjoying the drama, the colour and the excitement of it all.
In all honesty, I don't know what 'happy' means, pace Gilbert. I want to be interested, engaged, caught up, made to think and to learn. I suspect that something like that drove the Brontës.
This is a super post, B&P. Thanks a lot!

Karianna said...

I must say a "fur" slipper sounds much more comfortable than a "glass" one.

As for who I would want to be like, it is a very difficult question, one which I will ponder for some time to come.

I recall being pretty stumped when a friend asked me whether I would rather be "respected" or "well liked." My answer changes frequently.

hautemama said...

Wow the hamster wheels turning. The first thing that comes to mind us I admire people who help others. Whether, it be fantasy or real. That's on an emotional level. On a more superficial level, I admire beautiful people. And I guess that's why I buy those trashy mags! Am I weird? Thanks for the thought provoking blog. I certainly admire blogs like yours too!

Owlhaven said...

My 8 and 9 year olds are begging to see the latest Spiderman. I have been less than thrilled with the previews because it seems that Spiderman turns to the dark side (don't know for how long during the movie, since I haven't seen it).

But this concerns me because my boys adore Spiderman. And I don't want them to identify with a dark Spiderman (though of course we do all have a dark side).

Finally my husband and I decided that we will let them see it, after talking about good and bad choices in life, etc. Part of what led me to that decision was my desire not to make the movie tha even-more-attractive forbidden fruit.

But still, I want so much for my children to admire the truly admirable that there is a touch of uneasiness about the movie... I hope Spiderman stands for what is right in the end.

Even more passionately, I hope and pray that as they grow to men, my boys are strong enough to stand for what is right.

Thanks for this post.


NotSoSage said...

Another form of admiration is being in such awe that one cannot find anything worthy of comment.


I'll try again next time.

Andrea said...

I couldn't. I've tried for ten years under the guises of "growing up" and "making compromises," and all it has resulted in is an acute sense of misery. I can't even conceive a rough outline of the person I would have to be, or make myself. The glimmer of her I'm able to get is not someone I would want to be; and in any case, I'm not sure she's happy, either, even if her life is easier and she has fewer hard questions to face.

TrudyJ said...

"Would I be willing to endure chilblains at Haworth parsonage in exchange for having written Jane Eyre?"

This is such a great question. It's always been on my mind in one form or another and I've always known in my gut that my answer is an unequivocal NO. My desire for happiness will always stand in the way of my being a great writer, and I'm OK with that trade-off.

Interesting about "good guys" vs "bad guys" too ... my kids are going through that with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. "Is Jack Sparrow a good guy or a bad guy?" "Who are the bad guys in this movie?"

I tell them that PotC is more like real life than most movies because there aren't really good guys and bad guys. In real life, of course, pirates would be bad guys because they steal stuff and burn people's homes, but in the movies we sympathize with them. I tell them "In this movie there are just people who want different things, and the things they want sometimes conflict with each other. And that's what real life is like -- not a lot of good guys or bad guys, just people who want different things."

Her Bad Mother said...

The ancient Greeks got at this idea through analysis of eros - any beautiful endeavour is, Socrates says, necessarily erotic because it is always, always a pursuit. Often - but not always - mimetic.

The whole idea of the muse, too, follows this logic - that we strive to capture something of what inspires us, and in that 'capture' or that imitation we create beautiful things. Art. I think that what you're getting at with the idea of admiration really gets to the heart of this - admiration is a sort of love, understood erotically, and that love is at the root of so much creative energy and production.

Or maybe I'm reading in here. Either way, luvverly food for thought.

Jamie said...

Veeeeerryy interesting indeed. I had never questioned the fairy tales...

I need to start questioning more in general.

Thanks for the post!


bubandpie said...

HBM - Yes, yes. To equate admiration with happiness-seeking is to deny the difference in directionality: our happiness-seeking endeavours involve pulling things toward the self, while admiration/eros/art is about throwing the self at something else.

Your comment also reminded me of why people valued courtly love: it extracts that other-centered part of love and separates it from the "will you make me so happy for the rest of my life" part.

kittenpie said...

Stumbling on Happiness was a fscinating read, wasn't it? Made so really by his levity, which kept it engaged rather than living up to its potential to be quite dry, but never mind, I quite enjoyed it.

And you know, I had heard the theory of the fur slipper as an explanation for the fact that the molding a glass into such forms wouldn't have been developed in Europe at the time that Cinderella was written, though I'm not sure how accurate that is... Bettelheim is a bit of a weirdo, thoguh there is certainly something to the whole morals and warnings aspect of his work.