When I recently drove home at dusk, my eyes caught a small tractor on the side of the road. A toy to sit on and ride around, as many a child fancies. I imagined how it had been unwrapped with shiny eyes on his birthday. Now the vehicle had already had a few runs. I could not get the tractor out of my mind and it made me think.
Why was the tractor standing on it’s own beside the road? And how will it get back home again? Someone had to feel responsible for it, just as with many other things in life. Some children crossed my mind. We are working and need a pair of scissors. “Where are my scissors?”, is the immediate question. I have to suppress the impulse to let my eyes wander. And indeed, now the child asking becomes active and begins to look for its things itself and thinks about where it had used the scissors last. Soon they it is found and the work can go on. Very good, because these supposedly small and unimportant situations lay the foundation for age-appropriate independence and self-responsibility (as is so often demanded from children in the wrong places today). What about the tractor? Was the little owner of the vehicle not used to looking after his own property, treating it carefully and treasuring it, to fulfil his tasks, also in play? A helpful habit that can also be reverted to later in life! It is made of fine tram threads that can be twisted into a strong thread and thus provide safety and support. How could he or she have come to learn that?
On their way into life small children are dependent on the care of their parents. Does this mean to remove all the obstacles from a child’s path? Or should they not be encouraged and empowered to tackle the challenges of their age and stand on their own two feet? This is how they become strong and courageous! Admittedly, the boundary between parental care and pampering that inhibits development is not always easy to find. Of course, you do not want to expose the child to any danger and you do not want to ask too much either. It is natural that a child gradually expands its radius of action and increasingly wants to make its own decisions. The new tractor has to be taken along everywhere, even on walks and to the playground. A great idea! But what if the child’s legs get tired and the tractor becomes a nuisance? Who will take care of it now? Each of us has seen and experienced different variations: A screaming child and a desperate mother pulling the tractor and the child, or a child with bright red cheeks – encouraged by the mother – who pedals along and then – proud of itself – arrives at the destination. This is demanding for the educators. They must develop the sensitivity to distinguish defiant crying with which a child wants to impose its will from crying that expresses a genuine need. This is often challenging. Parents must not only be able to assess what their child is capable of, so as not to demand too much, but also not to demand too little. They may also have to endure the (false) feeling of being uncaring parents if they do not respond immediately to every (supposed) SOS call of the child.
It is these situations – and life holds a multitude of them in store – that enable the child to become self-confident. It learns to think ahead, to divide its energy, to plan and to struggle through for a bit when the situation calls for it. This requires a supporting hand so that the child can raise mentally and physically and thus make the experience that the effort is worthwhile. Not only the muscles develop!
With their upbringing, parents introduce their child to life. It should feel able to meet the demands of life. This includes age-appropriate, meaningful tasks with which a child can participate in the everyday life of its family. Even if this is not as easy in today’s everyday life as it used to be, many things can still be done in joint responsibility. Even a two-year-old child can tidy up his or her toys, perhaps together with his or her mum or dad initially. Or it takes over the dusting when cleaning - even if it is not as clean as it would be when done by the mother herself. Later on, it can take part in drying the dishes or watering plants, and a school beginner can already fold towels, peel vegetables or handle a vacuum cleaner. Everything can be done at a more leisurely pace. Why not in a world where people keep calling for “deceleration”? These small everyday tasks bear the seeds of a later successful life. Even a child’s moaning that it is bored does not have to be an invitation to parents to organise an entertainment programme immediately. Boredom can make you creative and give you the opportunity to once again pick up your colouring pencils and drawing paper, build a cosy “hut” with your bed or immerse yourself in a role play with your siblings or friends.
The desire for social inclusion is a basic human need. Starting the day off with a breakfast together not only promotes a sense of security, but also provides the children with a good physical base for their kindergarten or school day. It does not take big events to shape everyday life together. Often it is the small incidents staying in our memory. The walk in the woods, the lizards on the warm wall, a card game on a rainy Sunday afternoon, reading a story in the evening and many other experiences in the shared real world. On the other side one‘s heart might freeze when watching babies in digitally equipped prams and car seats, engaged with their shut-up toys with game apps and countless short films which are given to them as a substitute for smiling and chatting with their mothers.
The relationship of parents are irreplaceable! Unfortunately, life in front of the screen becomes a normal case at an early age. Children at this young age cannot estimate the consequences for them. For one, it deprives them of the opportunity to explore the world calmly, to observe nature, to discover connections and to develop patience. Even if you keep hearing, the educationally veiled arguments, that today computers are necessary in every profession and children had to learn to deal with them early on. They don‘t stand up to closer inspection! But parents are misguided in their everyday family life and accompany their children unintentionally in an illusionary world of un-relatedness.
Well, actually it is clear: In order to achieve something, you must do something for it. You cannot purchase success in the shopping centre. You have to be able to deal with failures constructively. The tower with the building blocks has collapsed, the cat drawn on the picture does not look as good as that of the bigger brother, the math test has not scored the top grade. Actually no reason to get upset, for tears or a tantrum. It is of no use to put the blame on the others either. Mama is not guilty if I have cold fingers because I did not wear the gloves: But what could I do better next time?
In early childhood, the course is set for emotional reactions that are not favourable and that can be become set without correcting these hindering behavioural patterns. This is an emotional maturing process. Those who learn early to reflect on their own actions, grow in their personality. Learning to walk is a good example for this. Children learn that it is worthwhile to practice with patience and perseverance and to make an effort. Human development takes place just outside wellness zones where relaxation and idleness lead to success. The adults are also required to be in the situation with inner peace, goodwill and feeling certain. It is part of the normal circumstances of life, to endure states of tension. It doesn`t help anybody, if you want to protect the children from disappointments, even if this is often part of everyday life in the upbringing today. By this, children are deprived of the opportunity to grow on challenges and overcome a short-term need or disappointment in favour of a higher goal. Media and advertising often delude the children (and not just them) to thinking that life can be handled with a simple click and those who do not want to believe it are losers. It is no coincidence, many children and adolescents dream of becoming a superstar, blogger or influencer and spend hours on digital media, Netflix series and in social networks. Genuine and sustainable success and inner satisfaction are the result of a long-term and exhausting process, tied to your own efforts. As adults, we support them and show them their way in an age-appropriate and empathetic way.
Let’s get them out of the cabinet where they were banished by the zeitgeist: Diligence, reliability, gratitude, decency, consideration and honesty. It is these virtues (or social-emotional competences, as they are called today) that help to shape a fulfilling life among fellow human beings.
Today, many children live in privileged situations. In contrast to previous generations, daily life is secure. Parental upbringing is often lead by the wish that one’s own children should have it better than they had. This does not mean, however, that the children should become indifferent to the life achievements of their ancestors. It is up to us to pass on this sense to the children. It promotes solidarity with one’s fellow men, compassion for the fate of others and the desire to contribute something yourself.
Are politeness and decency really outdated? The magic words “please” and “thank you” -– are they not an expression of attentiveness and care in dealing with each other? Shared meals are a good learning field for this. Children not only practice the common table manners, but also experience the conversation culture in the family. Listening to each other, thinking along the thoughts of others and refining them, instead of always putting oneself in the centre, are important experiences. Compassion and sympathy can grow. And what about honesty? It is a precious asset and the basis of prestige and trust among fellow human beings. Lies are common practice in the illusory world of digital media. One puts beautified photos of oneself on the net, takes on another identity with a nickname and presents the sunny sides of life on Facebook or in other “social” media. In real life, such habits lead to the end of friendships, marriages, work relationships, etc., and to great disappointments that are often difficult to overcome.
It is up to us adults to find the courage to guide the children so that these seemingly out-dated virtues take the place they deserve in their emotional world.
In recent years, many values, attitudes and behaviours have gradually changed. This can be regarded as normal and any concerns can be brushed aside as completely outdated. Thereby one becomes absolved from having to do something about it. It saves you of conflicts, even if exactly these frictions can produce (interpersonal) warmth and help everyone to reconsider an inner position. An excuse is at hand right away: “Alright, I’ll make an exception, but this will be the last time”. Yet, for how many times? Those, however, who stay firm in that certain developments in the children’s behaviour could endanger their future life, must take action at the risk of contradicting themselves, others and social trends. The children are careful observers. They sense exactly where the other person retreats and where it stops inwardly. This becomes a model for them. For example at school, where not every task is fun, perhaps at times even a bit boring and requiring perseverance. A sense of satisfaction and pride after work is completed will be the reward. Those who have experienced this most probably will be less hesitant and more confident in their next task, because their self-esteem has grown. Resistance and conflict can become an incentive to find a solution, and children are capable do that, too.
The following day the tractor no longer stood beside the road. Yet, how did it get home? Perhaps, its owner had remembered and set off again to get the vehicle. Let us hope so! Then he would have made progress in his development. If he continues along this path, he will be a valued fellow human being as an adult who tackles his life’s tasks with confidence and is courageously committed to the interests of his fellow human beings and society. •
Among others, the following books have inspired me to write this article and have accompanied me in my writing:
Adler, Alfred. The Education of Children. United States 2011, ISBN 978-1614279952
Druckerman, Pamela. Parenting Secrets from Paris. French Children don’t throw Food. Munich 2013. ISBN 978-0552779173
Müller, Andreas. Schonen schadet. Wie wir heute unsere Kinder verziehen (Pampering is harmful. How we are spoiling our children today). Berne 2018 ISBN 978-3-0355-1088-1
Seif, Leonhard/Zilahi, Lad. Selbsterziehung des Charakters. (Self-education of the character). To Alfred Adler for his 60th birthday, dedicated by his students and staff of individual psychology. Leipzig 1930
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