We want to help children find their way into life

We want to help children find their way into life

Instructing and guiding are the adults’ duties

Interview with Dr Michael Winterhoff, M.D., child and youth psychiatrist and psychotherapist

Current Concerns: Mr Winterhoff, you have written several different books, the last one carries the title “SOS-Kinderseele” (SOS-Children’s Soul). What is so alarming about the development of today’s children?

Dr Michael Winterhoff: Look at Germany today, we have close to 60% school graduates who are not capable of working. Nobody wants to hear that and nobody wants to talk about it. The only one speaking about it is the industry and nobody is listening to them. They are put off with phrases: “You need to adjust yourselves to today’s youth!” In reality it is this way: graduates are lacking work discipline, the sense of punctuality, the recognition of structures and plans, they cannot set priorities; when their mobile rings it is more important than the customer who is standing in front of them. And, they cannot put into practice, what they have already learned.

Does that mean that the way children are being prepared for life today, will confront our economy and democracy with huge unsolvable problems, one day?

Yes, and that will cause our society to drive into a wall. These are unimaginable circumstances as mass phenomena. And politically, one does not want to see it. In Germany educational policy is ideology. The ideologists, those of the late ‘68 or theoreticians stuck in ‘68 ideas are now in control. Their ideology is to push for everything to be free and open. That means to turn away from focusing on relationships and person-centered education. The result is the children and teenagers cannot develop socially and emotionally.
In Switzerland these phenomena do occur in the same way. We have many graduates who find no apprenticeships. Not because there are not enough of them but because they do not possess the necessary qualifications. Some of which are basic knowledge and others are work discipline. We have a very good dual vocational educational system which has been ruined that way. You speak of 60% of school graduates not capable of working in Germany; here the educational director in Zurich spoke of 20% a few months ago.
At the moment in Germany one speaks of 20% as well. But you need to know that there are no exact numbers. Many of these youths are absolving programs, for example the vocational primary school year or the vocational preparation year and these youth are then not included in the figure, although they are not in the regular work process and actually without jobs. These programs are very expensive. I have patients in my practice who receive 400 euros when they work for some hours per week in a particular vocational educational program. Nevertheless, the politicians boast of having the lowest unemployment rate among youths in Europe. One is cheating the children and the country. And the people who are causing all this today, cannot be held accountable.

Where do you see the main causes?

The causes lie partly in a society with which we are not able to cope. The adults are lacking the calm and therefore the intuition that children need for their development. This will be the theme of my next book.
Our society has become ever more difficult and awards little orientation. Structures are missing. We live in a time of uncertainty, just think about the health insurances or the pensions. Our society is increasingly lacking a positive perspective for the future. However, this is what we people need in life, otherwise we will be missing our share of happiness, satisfaction and the ability to look forward to something. That means: The adults in our society will have increasingly more deficits and the child lends itself for unconscious, unwanted compensation and that is why there occurs a shift in relationships.

What do you mean?

Only a few people see children still as children and give children what they need, namely time, a lot of calm, guidance and much accompaniment. Children are increasingly seen as partners and that means that one has the idea of being capable of educating children by talking and by making things comprehensible that way. But children have to practice first. They also have to be protected from certain topics. In the mid-90s, all these things were still self-evident. Many adults are proud to see children as partners, and lift them to the adult position. This is why today our children are also “self-responsible” in the classroom, for example in the “learning-bar lessons”. There the child can choose whatever it wants to do and has to take responsibility for it. If thereafter it shows that it has covered up that it did not learn anything, it must take the blame itself.

Do you consider this a social trend which is also reflected in education policy?

Yes, because more and more there is the idea that children learn much by themselves and a teacher is seen only as a learning guide.

But that is only a small part of the population ...

In addition, there is the large group of those who absolutely want to be loved by their children. This is for example the generation of grandparents. Formerly a grandmother used to prepare the grandchild’s favorite meal and thus spoil him. But she would have clearly demanded from him: “Wash your hands, stay at the table”. Today, a grandmother who wants to be loved, may not ask this anymore, because she is afraid that her grandson will no longer come to see her. This is a so-called projection. This means, the child is unconsciously abused for what the adult is missing. This causes a reversal of power. The adult is in need and slips into the position of the child and the child into the position of a surrogate parent.

For how long have you observed this development?

This is a disorder I first met with in early 2000. It took a long time for me to understand the context: Today, for many parents the child has become a part of themselves. They feel like their child, think for their child and go to school for their child. They do absolutely no longer represent the child’s counterpart. They may be controlled and determined by their children for 24 hours. They do not even realise that, because the process occurs unconsciously. Though thereby the children’s development is hampered. The children get stuck in their developmental age at 10 to 16 months and live in the idea of being able to control and determine everything and everyone. They revolve around themselves, are purely pleasure-oriented and avoid requirements. Naturally, this way they are not capable of a relationship, either. Because of this delayed development they have no sense of wrongdoing, despite their parents’ educational efforts. In conflicts they cannot recognise group connections and, therefore, they cannot learn from conflicts. They lack empathy. They do not recognise structures and processes, for example the requirement, that one behaves differently in class than during the break.

In other words, they lack the maturity appropriate to their age?

Yes, one must say: We have more and more children and young people who are very well equipped with intelligence, but who live with the world view of toddlers. You may compare it to somebody who owns a very good computer with Windows 95 and wonders why the programs do not work. In such a case one can play around as long as one wants. It is no use. With such children you may focus on concentration training or assertiveness training, or whatever else – it will not work, the operating system is faulty.

You have much experience in dealing with such children. What is to be done?

Such children could be saved within one to one and a half years. With the deep psychological and analytical knowledge this would be no problem at all. This is also one reason why I write the books. The principle is that the age of development entails how I see the world and how I behave. A five-year-old would execute every job given by his mother, even happily, and when she praises him he beams. An elementary school student would therefore pick up a piece of paper, if the teacher requests him to; not out of obedience, but because he recognises that she has something to tell him. Until the mid-90s, children in Germany have developed this way. At the age of three they were ready for kindergarten, at the age of six ready for school, and at 16 ready for vocational training. This is no longer the case, today, because they have been stuck at earlier stages of development.

What has changed?

In the mid-90s the adult was still resting in himself and was therefore able to draw on intuition. Children were still seen as children. Therefore, they were naturally instructed in many parts in kindergartens. The child belonged to the same group, had the same reference person, the same reaction, the same processes. Today there are open and free kindergartens. Children can select what they want to do. According to my professional point of view this represents an emotional neglect.
But this is reality today. And if in 1995 you had said: “A teacher is only a learning guide, children are to help themselves at the learning counter and learn as much as possible on their own,” you would have been declared insane. Similarly, if at the time one would have abolished handwriting – which the primary school teachers are doing now –, one would have met with the same horror. In our society that was not even worth a discussion.

And this has an impact on the lives of children …

We have to become aware that this way we give our children no chance of developing to the status of an adult. Throughout their whole life they will remain dependent and needy and are not fit for life. We as adults have a great wealth, in the range of feelings alone. We are capable of adapting to others. We are capable of withstanding and to wait and see. Take alone the point that I save toward an item. I am going to make it one day and will be able to afford it. That’s a great feeling. Imagine further the feeling when a child works for something and manages, for example, to correctly paint the letter or write a good dictation. We deprive our children of of these enriching feelings, if we look only after saturating them and give them everything as quickly as possible. Mobile phone, tablet, anything to keep them quiet.

What developments do you observe at school?

If you only look at the modern teaching methods, they would not even work for adults. Let us assume that you want to learn tennis; we do it in a “modern way”: There is a learning station “forehand”, a station “backhand”, there that of the “movement”, and then we still have a “bistro”, in case you want to take a little break. In the early 90s there was a Swiss, Jürg Reichen, who travelled throughout the country saying that children should write like they imagine that something should be written. Applied to the tennis example, we now do it in the following way: During two years you hit the ball over the net, just as you imagine it should be done, so that you do not stop enjoying tennis afterwards, we start with the training. It is evident that this way you will not become a good tennis player, unless you’re a genius. But that’s the way how you deal with children today. It’s not just about the discussion of learning methods! But the most important thing we humans need is the emotional and social psyche. It covers all the interpersonal achievements. It can only be formed in interaction with the other person. If now also in schools and kindergartens the other person, the counterpart is no longer present, the children have no chance at all. We become a society of autistics and narcissistic persons who only focus on themselves and live for the moment according to the pleasure principle.

And all that on the basis of false theories …

It is hard to take, how a whole generation of adults follow the wrong track. Furthermore they are still convinced that everything is right, and do not even permit any discussion, but simply enforce something that misses the child completely by using an atavistic exercise of power. This is hard to endure. In my opinion, we are well on the way of becoming a developing country, where the knowledge about and the feeling for children and their needs, is getting completely lost. One day, we will have to clarify all this in a way, that is unimaginable, because the adult becomes an illiterate with respect to how to deal with children. But this will come, I am confident about that. Otherwise I would not do that. I cannot change society. I’m doing my part as a physician. I do point out, I clarify, I do not keep quiet.

In such contexts one is often reproached of blaming …

That is not the question. I’m just the one who points at the facts. I do not judge, I analyse. I never thought, that from an analysis, an analysis of a family I would arrive at an analysis of society. But the society is well on the way to abolish itself, because the younger generation is no longer fit for life. It is not my intention to paint a gloomy picture here, because we still have the chance to counter this development. We have the possibility to bring the children up to their appropriate age within one and a half year.

What must happen?

Education policy must stop to be ideology. Professionals must be asked here. Above all teachers, who experience the children every day have to be involved. I would like to see all kinds of professional groups.
First of all those pedagogical methods should be examined in order to see whether they lead to an improvement – in the framework of a double-blind study, with hundreds of children being taught with, and hundreds of children, being taught without this methods. Today this is not the case. Let us take as an example the method of learning to read by Jürg Reichen again: A person invents something in the educational field. Coincidentally, 20 years later it was examined whether this method proves successful. The results were devastating: One person had brought up a whole generation to be dyslexics. Insane mistakes are made because nobody has the idea to examine this.
And moreover, I would like the teachers to cease being muzzled. Teachers should get together and via their teachers’ associations should ensure that something happens concerning the learning contents. Teachers must cease being immature. We can all do something. In other words, I can still teach in a person-centred way. In addition, I can also make up my mind and seek allies. The whole thing will only change if we have allies, I’m rather hopeful here.

At the political level, as well?

I had a meeting with the educational speakers of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) in Germany, who realise now that more and more young people are not going forward into life. They are now beginning to take certain efforts for a change to education via personal bonding, so that the relationship to the teacher will again be in the foreground. That change will come, but presumably the damage must at first even become worse. Please ally yourselves against all these ideas of “freedom and openness”. School only works in a person-centered way and never otherwise.

Where would be the starting point for the parents to change?

Parents in symbiosis usually do not notice that they support a false development in their children. That is a severe problem. They live in a symbiotic relationship with the child, it has become a part of their selves. It belongs to them like their arms. As long as the arm does not hurt, they are not aware of its existence. 90% of parents come to see me, because the school sends them. And then I ask them: “Do you wonder about your child not participating in the classroom or disturbing lessons?” Then they say: “Yes, because I have no problem with my child.” These parents do not know what does not work at school. They do everything for their children, and do not realise that they are in a wrong system. When I say “Your child does not listen!”, they reply, “It does!” and when I have another go, “But not for the first time? If you say: ‘Lay the table’, they answer ‘Why always me!’”. Then the parents respond, “That’s true, but that is not why I have come to see you.” Only when I say, “Well, if he does not listen to you for the first time, then he won’t listen to his teacher as well.” Then we slowly get into a genuine discussion. There lies the problem. Parents do not realise that the child has become part of their own nature. Therefore, they are not able to classify the problem and cannot see that they are also responsible for the fault.

And breaking out of this system is necessary?

Yes. I call it the “arm system”. If I have a pain in my arm, the question immediately arises, “What is the reason?” I then go to see a colleague and I already have an idea. “It is probably because of my playing tennis! What can I do so that the arm will become well again?” That is different with parents, who live in a symbiosis with their child. They are looking for a diagnosis at best, a therapy, some guidance, of which there are a whole lot. The children then all suffer from ADHD, ADS, dyscalculia, dyslexia, highly giftedness. They are given Ritalin or some other therapy. But that cannot solve the problem of children with development disorders because their problem is quite different. That is, the children in our country are increasingly labelled as pathological. That should be changed.

We have had the same experience. Many children have diagnoses: ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome or whatever syndrome there is. Currently they are often diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders, which is rather new.

When you ask ten people, you will get ten different answers. There is no method to assess the psyche. That’s the big problem. It is the question of the model that the one prefers from which you seek advice. And you have to keep in mind that ADHD is not a disease. It is a model which is treated as a disease. This serious diagnosis is no help for the children, possibly parents might be relieved. But there will be no assistance for the development of the child’s emotional and social psyche. Society is overwhelmed by these children with disorders. If I categorised the children as I once learned, I would also get false results – to my mind. If you have a certain flexibility you will find out that there are developmental disorders. That’s why I wrote books on this topic. I see it as a medical task, even if it is sometimes very exhausting. I do this because things must get on, because people need to be informed.

What should the school do?

If there is a child disrupting the class, this child has a right to his teacher showing him that he is misbehaving. But nowadays the teachers themselves make diagnoses. We have more and more teachers who send the kids to a therapist and say, “He suffers from ADHD!”. They don’t realise that it is themselves who are not taking the position they should take and that they are not performing their task. Being a teacher means to assume responsibility for the child and not delegate it to the child. It also means that I clearly say, that’s right, that’s wrong; you’re writing this once more and here you will have to work more. We are probably becoming unpopular by this behaviour. However, we want to help the children into adulthood. As a teacher, I must be able to give low marks in case they are justified.

How can we help children with developmental disorders?

It would be important to establish a preparatory year for school which is not about the learning of cultural techniques, but about achieving the maturity for school. That would be possible in one or one and a half years. It would take small groups of eight to twelve children, with whom person-centred work is done. To form the psyche of a child, I have to teach it and accompany it. Adults who want to be loved by children or see their children as partners, classify such behaviour as authoritarian or reactionary or patronising. But it is the determining factor for a child to develop. The development does not just work on its own. We have to accept that. This insight will result in a new task for educators and teachers.

In other words, we are facing a comprehensive task for society as a whole?

We live in a society that is under delusion; in a society that is thinking only for the moment, a society that is just oriented towards the symptom: symptoms need to be eliminated. Nobody is thinking about what the situation will be in five years, in ten years, in 20 years. With children you have to think in periods of 20 years. So if you don’t, we might have a kind of pseudo-peace right now. But these children are not fit for life. However, this is neither to be solved by strictness in education nor by therapy. Ultimately ours is a cruel time for children; a time when it looks as if we were doing everything for children. Actually, we are not doing the most important thing that needs to be done for our children: establishing an emotional bond and relationship and thereby making development possible.

Our starting point was the great number of adolescents unfit for work. These are the children that have grown up but have not become adults!

Yes. In many companies you will be told that in their trade there are many vocations disappearing. In the skilled trades sector – a friend of mine is an electrician – you will hardly find a German speaking employee of German origin under 30 years of age on a building site. In this sector apprenticeships are hardly ever started, and the IHK (Chamber of Industry and Commerce) will tell you that in Germany every second apprenticeship is broken off. We have high drop-out rates in higher education, more than 30%. And we have a high percentage of adults who cannot be kept in a company although they have been adequately trained.

What happens to them? Will they become the concern of the social services?

The problem is that the social services become active only in case the parents are destitute. In other words, in Germany parents have to pay for their children until they are at least 26 years of age, whether they are employed or not. And since parents do not see through this, they assume that their child has an ADHD or anything else and cannot do anything about it.

For the next few years, but afterwards ...

There are not many people thinking so far into the future, today.

But at some point the child will be 26 years of age!

Yes, but when I wrote my first book in 2008, there were already two million twenty to thirty-year-olds in Japan, spending all their lifetime in their rooms with 24-hour internet access and a well stocked refrigerator, so their parents have their peace. But as soon as they are challenged, they go wild. As soon as their fridge is empty or their computer doesn’t work any longer, they freak out. They are called Hikikomores. It is the future model of German families that the children as grown-ups remain seated on their parents laps. In other words, we will have an increasing number of people who are in need of support and are unable to work. It is not that they do not want to work.

We are now seeing these children in vocational schools who often fail to recognise that they have to work in order to pass their final exams.

You could bring all of them to a level appropriate to their age within a year and a half in case you worked with them in a person-centred way and see that behind their moroseness and their utterances there are infants. This is my job I am doing for the industry. I often find myself invited to country-wide meetings by the industry, also in Austria. They ask me what could they do with these trainees. If you are aware of this background and ultimately recognise that there is an infant behind this behaviour of the adolescent there is a way. I don’t respond to them but I take the position to give them all the support they need and to guide and instruct them in many proceedings. If you work with these youths for three months in an intensely person-centred way, if you instruct them all the time, they are growing in their psyche. The further they have come in their development the more differently they will perceive things and the more differently they will express and behave themselves. That is the way. That is what works. Especially in skilled trades. It is not about teaching them a skill but about promoting them in the development of their psyche. That would be hopeful. I am able to rescue even 17-year-old youths. However, there are 17-year-old youths whom I cannot help in their familiar environment. If their parents are lucky enough to own 40000 Euros I will send them to England to a boarding school. There they have a language barrier. This means, when I say in German: “set the table”, the child would reply: “Why me again?” That’s no refusal, but he only checks his view of the world: you’re a table, a chair, a machine, you’re to manipulate. Here is the language barrier: When the Englishman says: “Set the table!”, then before the response is translated: “Why me again?”, the Englishman has already moved on. There are teachers in the private schools working in a person-centered way who build up a relationship with the students. Those who do not take an active part during the lesson have to work during the break. The teachers accompany the students to the hockey games in the afternoon and comment: “The way you play hockey now, you will participate tomorrow in my classroom”. They give a lot of guidance and apply ritualised processes. Every lesson is clearly structured. The fact is, they have changed after three months; after six months, they leave their disorder behind because the process is so intense. If a twenty-year-old would take part in a project, go through a year abroad, an ecological year, a voluntary service year, he would also reach an age-appropriate level within that year. You will not recognise him after that. So, everything is possible! This can neither be resolved by strictness nor by therapy. This can only be solved by person-centered working, as it is usually done with small children.

In Switzerland we also have opportunities to counter such wrong developments by democratic means. As far as Curriculum 21 is concerned, for instance, initiatives have been launched in several cantons to finally bring a discussion under way and to prevent the introduction of this curriculum. There are also parents who have become involved. Attempts are being made from various quarters to create a counterweight to this process.

That is why I was particularly pleased that I now have also been invited to Switzerland.
But if in Switzerland you have opportunities to work with initiatives, please do it. I am glad to put the know-how at your disposal. With my publications you have the best line of argument. Especially my book “SOS-Kinderseele” clearly shows that prevailing concepts and ideas cannot possibly succeed. To anyone endorsing such trends I would also recommend to make a trip to the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and visit some schools. You will then see the disaster you will end up with. At primary school level we have by now 80% children with developmental disorders. These are data provided by teachers. But this is not only the case in North Rhine-Westphalia. In urban areas in Austria (Vienna) the teachers speak of 70% and in rural areas we have 50% to 60%. In Zurich they will also reach 70%. You can recognise these children by the fact that you always have to give instructions twice or three times A child prepared for elementary school would realise: “I am in class, now. If my teacher says: “Take out your German book”, I will take it out. That goes without saying”. This is not obedience but a cognition process. Such a group of children look as if they were absent. You say: “Sasha, Timmy, take out your books, too!” The other group is walking around and discussing. When you have said five times: “Take out your German books”, they will take it out. All these children are not ill, they are not fully developed. If we don’t recognise this group and do not see that these modern concepts are completely contrary to the needs of those children the group of the people concerned that are unable to cope with life will steadily increase.
But go to Germany, and you will find it entirely convincing. If you take a look at schools and kindergardens in urban areas and talk to teachers and trainees and if you publish those interviews Switzerland should also wake up and say: “This is not where we want to go!”

Mr Winterhoff, we thank you for your intense commitment and dedication, for your books and for the interesting discussion.    •

(Interview by Eliane Gautschi and Erika Vögeli)

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