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What Freud's Shrink Nephew Thinks Of Your Parenting Skills

Child psychiatrist Joseph Knobel Freud, an Argentine-based descendent of Sigmund Freud, says modern parents are far too loose.

Freud fears that parents are becoming too child-like
Freud fears that parents are becoming too child-like
Irene Hartmann

BUENOS AIRES — How to start an interview with Sigmund Freud's nephew? He sits in silence, waiting for the first question. Did he meet the great psychiatrist or were they ever in the same room? Does he have any of his things, or books or papers? Does anyone in the family know anything about the unconscious, the id, the ego or the super-ego? How does it feel to be related to one of the great figures of the 20th century?

Joseph Knobel Freud is a child psychoanalyst, and has been doing justice to his illustrious name for 30 years now. In a modern way of course, in tune with new times. Clarín spoke to him before his arrival in Argentina in April for a conference on the Impact of New Sexualities on Childhood at the University of Buenos Aires. This relates to some of his recent publications, like New Contributions to Clinical Psychoanalysis with Children (Nuevas aportaciones a la clínica psicoanalítica con niños), My Child is a Teenager (Mi hijo es un adolescente) and The Challenge of Parenthood (El reto de ser padres).

Argentina has the highest number of psychologists per capita in the world, it is no secret. But did anyone know that part of the Freud family migrated there before the First World War? Knobel Freud's maternal grandfather, Samuel Freud, was Freud's first cousin. "Samuel migrated to Argentina before the 1914 war. Eleven of Samuel's brothers, like Sigmund's sisters, died in concentration camps' run by the Nazis, says Knobel.

The Freud surname, as is customary in Hispanic countries, comes from his mother, and Knobel from his father Mauricio, a well-known psychoanalyst and psychology lecturer in the 1960s, when the subject was taught within the Philosophy and Literature faculty at the University of Buenos Aires. Knobel says he does not wish to talk about himself ("for the patients' sake") but words, obviously, tend to slip out of control.

Argentina has the highest number of psychologists per capita in the world

His accent reveals he has been living in Barcelona for some years, though he retains, here and there, the accent typical of Argentina, his birthplace. His discourse also gives the impression of a personal quest — to carry the Freud name with pride, without living entirely off its credit. One inevitably looks for something of Sigmund in Knobel, and it is there, in renovated form. Both have a sense of critical provocation rooted in their shared, theoretical concerns. Joseph's personal innovation is that he expresses these in language common folk can understand.

He may be deemed to be too media-friendly. But on the plus side, he helps people understand something of the very complex psychoanalytical theory, which has taken a beating in recent times from short-term therapies. He says psychoanalysts must "stop talking among ourselves in a theoretical language only we understand, and make the subjects and concepts clearer to the public."

He thus questions certain "trending" issues like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and says he disagrees with administering medicines for certain conditions. Such remedies, he says, "are not treatments but covers. If I take a pain-killer, the headache goes but I do not know why it hurt in the first place. The ADD diagnosis is not allowing to dig into the sources of this disease or the child's concerns."

He says psychoanalysts must stop talking among ourselves in a theoretical language only we understand

Knobel says psychology has not changed in its fundamental methods since Freud, and his concern with uncovering the unconscious remains relevant. I ask him about his opinion on the need to change "family dynamics' today.

In Freud's period, he says, "the maternal function was more defined. It was a more rigid period, but today, hyperactivity is dominant, or obsessions linked to a competitive society with a sense of immediacy. The concept I want to bring is that before, there was greater distance with the father figure, but he was not being questioned. Today's parental knowledge is outdated. Google knows more than parents or schoolmasters. All this leads to parents being "teenaged," where they set no limits and accept the rules imposed by their children: sharing a bed with them or not putting an end to breastfeeding."

Joseph Kneubler Freud – Photo: Juan Alvarez

It's "all in the guilt," he says. "At my practice, parents tell me, "I spend so little time with my child, why would I say no when he asks me for something?", or, "Why would I start a fight to get them to eat broccoli. If he wants pasta, I'll make him pasta and avoid an argument in the short while I'm home." They don't want confrontation. Then the child becomes all-powerful, a great dictator, and the world revolves around them. His Majesty the Baby, as Freud said."

Another issue of concern to Knobel Freud is requests for a gender change for boys who see themselves as girls, and vice-versa. "We're entering a question of who decides what. When a mother tells me, "My daughter Laura wants to be called Juan," I say to her, "OK, let's work with Laura and Juan, and we'll see if it's a gender identity issue." But identity doesn't spring out of nowhere, like some cabbage."

Knobel believes the sex change desire comes "from the way that child was looked at and educated by his or her parents." He says: "I am not worried about their changing their names, but I think it's awful they should start injecting hormones, which is happening in Spain. The hormones have undesirable side-effects, like depression with suicidal tendencies."

Knobel says the parents are complicit in these decisions, implicitly encouraging their children to be "Batman one day and Wonder Woman the next. Deciding to be transgender before puberty is delicate, and I think adults are deciding for the children." Their intervention, he says, "turns children into adults, as if they could decide their sexuality so early on." An example of this fast growth he cites are "televised cooking and singing competitions, which have children's versions. You see these poor nine and 10-year-old children dressed like adults, cutting onions like adults, or singing Devórame otra vez (Eat Me Up Again!). Why won't we let them be children?"

Parents, he says, "are afraid their children won't love them, but they slip into abandoning their parental duties. They then complain about their children being hyperactive, though they expect them to be excessively adult in their conduct." Citing the French psychologist and historian Élisabeth Roudinesco, he says "they are teenage parents of "adultified" children. You can't care for them this way. As Roudinesco said, "Family disorder is more disorderly than ever before"."

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