Bruno Bettelheim, Children of the Dream (1967)

I wanted to read some psychoanalysis, and I settled for this book, completely by chance. I’ve heard a little about Kibbutz life, but definitely not much. My most recent encounter with these communities has been in fiction, through Batya Gur’s mysteries. Still, I found this book surprisingly challenging.

I’m aware that Bettelheim theories and his fame as a psychoanalyst and a child development specialist are now disputed, but the book itself, a study made after a (probably too short and biased) 6-weeks sojourn in a few kibbutzim in the late 1950s or early 1960s, is still worth it.

Bettelheim doesn’t try to hide the limitations of his study, nor the subjectivity of his findings. Yet his objective is rather to see if kibbutz are successful in educating children, with the somewhat obscure idea to see if it would be viable in America. His point, if I sum it up, is to argues that broken homes in impoverished (1960s) city centers are failing to create good citizens, so why not look abroad if communal rearing does a better job?

Bettelheim tries to explain kibbutz rules by a (repressed) refusal to follow the traditional Jewish shtetl life, where the mother has a very strong influence on her children. He argues that kibbutz women of the first generation didn’t feel confident in their mothering skills, so they preferred to entrust their children to professional caregivers (metapelet in Hebrew). Kibbutz women wanted to be as strong as men and favoured equality and communality over family, privacy and individuality.

The kibbutzim he describes have rules to start the communal rearing of children quite early on, at about 3 months of age, and to let the babies and children spend days and nights at a specific children house. Bettelheim shows that the children form very strong attachment to their peers and not to adults, resulting in somewhat skewed relationships and sense of insecurity (the wikipedia article on Kibbutz is quite informative and discuss this in depth). In that respect, Bettelheim concludes that kibbutz education contribute to educate good kibbutzniks, but not really balanced, mature individuals for the “outside world”. Yet even that conclusion has been disputed, because many Israeli leaders have been born and/or brought up in kibbutzim.

In the age of attachment parenting, such methods seem cruel and harsh. They mean that babies are weaned extremely early, encouraged to take the bottle instead of breastfeeding from the birth on, and when your child is in a cot in a different building altogether, co-sleeping is a world away. It seems that such strict arrangements have been abandoned in kibbutzim a long time ago. Nevertheless, the book forced me to consider choices that I thought “natural” for children rearing, and see them as the products of our culture and our present time.

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One thought on “Bruno Bettelheim, Children of the Dream (1967)

  1. My understanding is that very few Kibbutzim now practice the style of child rearing that Bettelheim describes. It is also my understanding that the children bonded very strong with each other, so that an incest tabpp developed against having sex with others in your group, as if they were brothers and sisters. That strong bond can be useful or not, depending on your values. If your first value is preservation of the group, then it was a successful child-rearing practice. If your first value is individual achievement and pleasure, then it was not. With greater wealth and security, individual demands seem to have won out.

    Another group that tried communal child rearing (without any psychoanalytical underpinnings) was the Oneida Perfectionists. They believed that individual families with strong ties between parent and child encouraged selfishness and that we should love all members of the group equally. This approach lasted about 20 years, then broke down completely.

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