What vivid images Greek mythology used to explain the world around them! Mere poetic stories for the children, perhaps, or sincerely held beliefs about the unseen realm co-existing with mortal man? Some type of explanation had to be made about the mysterious forces that seemed to move, to guide, and to bless or curse humanity. One of the most intriguing and lasting images is that of Pandora's Box.
Endowed by the gods with every attribute of beauty and goodness, Pandora was the first woman on earth. Happy the man given her as wife! Her dowry from the gods included a box, which she was warned never to open. No one but the gods knew what was hidden inside. Why, oh why could she not open the box?
Finally overcome by her curiosity, she opened the mysterious box... from which flew innumerable plagues for the body and sorrows for the mind. Terrified, she rushed to shut the box, but could do nothing to stop or retrieve the evils unleashed. Only Hope, the one good thing among all the evils the box had contained, remained to comfort humanity in its misfortunes.
Today, the dictionary tells us that the phrase "to open Pandora's box" means to perform an action that may seem small or innocent, but that turns out to have severe and far-reaching consequences. It means taking an action that was intended to alleviate a problem but instead becomes the source of many unforeseen troubles.
Surely Benjamin Spock's guide to parenting, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, was intended to bring help. He didn't foresee the troubles his advice would spawn. It had a life and power of its own. First published in 1946, selling over 50 million copies, it became the springboard for many more guides to modern parenting. But his guide opened a Pandora's Box of social and personal troubles as the children trained under his advice grew into adulthood. And the first evil to fly out into the unsuspecting postwar society was fear -- parental fear.
Despite beginning his book with the reassuring words, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do," he went on to displace parents' confidence by telling them what they should do. By the end of his career, he could admit that he had seen this fear overtake, indeed, overwhelm parents in America. And through his influence, through his opening of "Pandora's Box," the same fear came to parents in many other nations. He identified several times in his mature years what his efforts had set loose. He knew it could not be recalled.
In 1967 he admitted that:
It's professional people -- like me -- who have gotten the parents afraid of their children's hostility, and I don't know if we can undo it. Pandora's Box has been opened.1
Seven years later, addressing the generation of brats he saw growing up in America, he had this to say about the "cruel" influence of professionals like him:
In the 20th century, parents have been persuaded that the only people who know for sure how children should be managed are the child psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers, social workers and pediatricians -- like myself. This is a cruel deprivation that we professionals have imposed on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it with the best of intentions, by giving talks and writing articles on child rearing with the idea that these would be helpful. We didn't realize, until it was too late, how our know-it-all attitude was undermining the self-assurance of parents.2
And what were the real results of this subtle but actual and effective undermining of parental confidence? The children gained the upper hand as the parents abdicated their authority. Father really didn't know best, as the television show proclaimed.
The commonest reason, I think, why parents can't be firm is that they're afraid that if they insist, their children will resent them or at least won't love them as much. You can see this clearly in an extreme case in which a bratty child can get what she or he wants by shouting, "I hate you!" The parent looks dismayed and gives in promptly.3
So Spock's advice was to "be firm" because, after all, "I've seen it work for thousands," he said. By 1974 he sensed in his soul that this "commonest problem of parents in America" was getting worse, not better.
What he could never face or admit or disown or undo was why children became hostile to their parents. This dedicated follower of Sigmund Freud, the famous psychoanalyst, would not say that children needed discipline, that is, a spanking, to end the estrangement and alienation that resulted from not taking their parents' words seriously. Instead, he left open, so to speak, the Pandora's box of authoritative "expert" opinion. Thus he left unchecked a worldwide flood of advice based on his own faulty reasoning which swept and is still sweeping away the confidence of parents to rule in their own families according to their own hearts and the traditions of their respective cultures.