The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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Chapters 12–14 Summary

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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

Chapter 12: Horticulture on the Moon: Parenting, Undermined

Parents are assailed with a huge amount of advice, from self-help books to social media groups to TED talks. However, the author believes that human beings naturally know how to parent their children well, and it is the toxic culture that has made them forget this knowledge. There has never been any shortage of advice to parents on how to raise their children unnaturally. In the fourteenth century, they were advised to mold children like wax or clay, while in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, children were expected to conform to adult expectations by playing well with others and not causing trouble.

These approaches put the dictates of society before the needs of the child. Traditional societies, such as the Cree and the Inuit, form much closer bonds between parent and child. This bond is necessary not only for the child, but also for the mother, who receives in it a natural reward for affectionate parenting. The neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp has identified the “love cocktail” of chemicals that flood the brain of a mother nursing her child, including oxytocin, endorphins and vasopressin.

Dr. Darcia Narvaez writes of various parenting practices shared by groups of hunter-gatherers. These include prompt responsiveness to the infant’s needs, extensive touch and physical presence, breastfeeding, and creative free play in a natural environment. The author points out that motherhood is often an isolating experience for women in developed countries, but this is only because an alienating culture makes it so. He writes that “horticulture on the moon would doubtless be a maddening endeavor, but that tells us nothing about gardening.”

Parents pass on their stress to children, being less responsive and more preoccupied when under pressure. The child interprets this behavior as meaning that she is not worthy of her parents’ attention, and most work harder in order to be loved. Often the stresses are largely financial, as the parents try to ensure a better future for their children, but they place academic achievement and economic stability above emotional well-being. Parents are also isolated and under stress because nobody helps them, whereas in traditional societies, the whole community shares responsibility for raising children. In the developed world, communities have been pulled apart by the isolating effect of globalized capitalism, and natural relationships between adults and children are no longer the norm.

Chapter 13: Forcing the Brain in the Wrong Direction: The Sabotage of Childhood

The author wants to take care not to blame parents for the problems he identifies in modern parenting. Parents are responsible for their children but not for the world in which they must raise them. James Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University, lists some of the problems faced by parents and children, including “violence, poverty. . . disruption of relationships, nastiness, despair, depression, paranoia, alienation.” He concludes with one which he says people barely notice: the absence of adults from the lives of children.

Unable to form attachment bonds with adults, many children seek approval from their peers. While it is perfectly healthy for them to have friends of their own age, emulating these friends will not help them to develop into thoughtful, healthy adults. Other children are too inconsistent to be relied upon and may bully or reject peers or lead them into deviant behavior such as drug abuse. Corporations spend billions of dollars in direct attempts to manipulate children, and those who are subject to peer pressure rather than adult influence are ill-equipped to resist such attempts. The main message conveyed by the thirty thousand television advertisements which the average American child watches in a year is that happiness and acceptance can be achieved by spending money on products.

In addition to their peer group, digital devices take the place of adults in the lives of children. These devices make life easier for caregivers in the short term, since children focused on iPads, computers, or cellphones are quiet and passive. These devices are engineered to reward children’s brains with dopamine, “the essential chemical in the addiction process.” Children now play most of their games on computers, missing out on the type of creative, imaginative play which builds both cognitive skills and emotional stability. The digital world in which children now exist undercuts the efforts of parents and educators to raise healthy children.

Chapter 14: A Template for Distress: How Culture Builds Our Character

People are far less autonomous and individual than they like to think. The author likens people to ants in the way they fit into specific roles within a community, deriving status and purpose from these roles. The roles people play in society also determine many aspects of whether they are healthy or not, and which illnesses afflict them. People who appear successful because of the role they play may have sacrificed their authenticity for social attachment. The author cites the examples of Ulf Caap, a respected business leader, and writer-actor Lena Dunham, both of whom have said that their lives seem or have seemed hollow and fake, built on values that are not their own.

In their quest to be accepted, people create what the psychologist Erich Fromm calls the “social character.” This is different from the authentic individual character and consists of the core attributes and values that society accepts as normal. The author points out that this collective character is “blind and dangerous.” Most individuals would not want to see people sleeping on the streets or the planet imperiled by climate change, yet society treats these calamities as normal.

The social character includes many toxic traits. One is separation from self, conditioned by the need to fit in and gain the approval of others. Another is consumption hunger, which persuades people that they will be happier and more valuable if they possess more products. A third is hypnotic passivity: people are trained as children to stop asking questions about why things are as they are, and this training continues in adult life, preventing them from questioning the system or attempting to change it.

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Chapters 8–11 Summary


Chapters 15–18 Summary