Democracy does not mean simply doing what you want!

It needs education in the sense of the common good.

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and curative teacher

The summer holidays are coming! Switzerland, Croatia, Thailand, Spain, Majorca, whatever the holiday destinations may be, they give us the opportunity to get to know other cultures and other ways of living together. Over long periods of history, each country has developed its own cultural identity with its values, traditions and forms of coexistence. The history of a country therefore includes myths and historical facts. Knowing them is important for rooting people in their country. They are therefore an essential part of the school curriculum as a component in the formation of a child’s personality and for his or her sense of belonging beyond the narrower circle of the family. In Switzerland, for example, people live together in four different language regions, each with a different cultural background. They have come together in long processes of debate and agreement to form a direct-democratic nation of will, in which today people can co-determine the fundamentals of living together to a very high degree. This includes rights and duties. Seeing them as part of shaping one’s own life is laid down in education.

Love, warmth and security

It is human nature to join together and to organise the tasks of life in joint support and according to local conditions. This gives rise to the feeling of being rooted in one’s culture. For every child, therefore, the task is to feel at home in its own living environment. In order for this to succeed, the child needs supportive relationships that begin in the first hours of its life. Through the love, warmth and security that a child experiences in its first relationships, it begins to connect with its fellow human beings and builds up a feeling of security and being protected. Of course, it is part of protecting children from danger and therefore also prohibiting them from doing certain things. But such prohibitions must always be combined with respect and compassion for the child. In the successful scenario, the child will develop the necessary courage and strength to face life’s tasks. This corresponds to the social nature of the human being and is the basis for the free development of its personality. However, this also includes introducing the child to its tasks in life and demanding of it an age-appropriate contribution to social life.

“Out of the Children always a surprise”

The author of books for young people, Ernst Kappeler (1911–1987), thus described the hope that opens up with each new human life when it finds its way to a fulfilled way of life and thus contributes to the light and warmth it needs in our world. A secure bond with its adult reference persons makes it possible for it to explore the world more safely and freely every day, to have personal experiences and to develop its abilities and skills. We can and must pass on our knowledge and life experience to it and be a model for it how to connect with its fellow human beings. But being free and finding one’s place in life can only be achieved by observing the good of all. Only then will its sun rise. This is what the adults have to model for the child and guide it to do. Then they accompany it on its way to becoming a responsible fellow player. But what does that mean?

Making life “easier”?

Time and again there are encounters that make us think. Recently, a little boy was on his way to kindergarten on his scooter. Next to him walked his father, with his offspring’s small rucksack dangling from his hand. It probably contained the snack box with healthy delicacies. But I asked myself, aren’t these funny little backpacks meant to hang on the shoulders so that the hands remain free for pushing the pram – or for riding a scooter? But now it was rocking on his father’s hand, literally “making life easier” for his son. But is that really a help, a labour of love for a child? The “distribution of tasks” between the two of them seemed very natural to me, as if it were often usual in their common everyday life. Such situations are not unusual and can be observed in many forms today. But how was the little boy supposed to develop the feeling of being able to tackle his tasks and contribute something in this way? In other words, it is about giving already young children age-appropriate tasks in living together, because a healthy relationship always consists of mutual give and take.

“I am big and I can do it already”

Recently, I came across a compilation entitled “I’m big and I can do it already” which listed age-appropriate housework (chores) for children. For the little ones of kindergarten age in the above example, this would include putting away his toys, wiping the kitchen table, drying dishes, preparing a small snack, making the bed, cleaning up spills, etc.1 Carrying your own backpack with your own snack to kindergarten would fit right in.
  Marty Rossmann, an American researcher, has studied the importance of such everyday tasks for the development of children and has followed their life courses into adulthood. She came to an interesting, but actually obvious conclusion: Children who were already involved in the tasks of everyday family life at the age of three to four were best prepared for a successful life. If, on the other hand, they did not have to take responsibility for living together at home (domestic life) until the age of 15 or 16, they were most at risk of serious problems in their professional and personal development.2 Not surprising, but once again reason to think about what this means!

Ability to think for oneself and helping out

The desire to help and to contribute to living together is part of human nature. It is worthwhile, for example, to study the surprising research findings of the American psychologist and anthropologist Michael Tomasello, stating that even very young children between the ages of 14 and 18 months are able to grasp the intention of an adult who is looking for something and to give him the decisive hint with a pointing gesture.3 This is not made possible by genetic programmes, but rather the child’s thinking is already socially predisposed at birth.
  Psychologist Kiley Hamlin and her research team were also able to show that even infants react positively to figures who help others and reject those who behave unfairly. The little ones saw three different coloured figures, one of which was trying to climb a hill. One figure pushed her up the hill, while the third figure prevented her from doing so. Afterwards, the babies were allowed to choose a character and, regardless of colour, they chose the helper character whose behaviour they obviously liked best.4

Supporting a healthy need

The children thus have the prerequisites to develop into fellow players, so that later in life they are not primarily concerned with “self-optimisation”, but derive satisfaction from making their contribution to the common good. For us adults, it is important to take up this wish and strengthen it. But unfortunately – if we are honest with ourselves – we adults make it impossible for children to help spontaneously. It takes us too long when a child tries to peel the potatoes, or we unnecessarily fear that the child might hurt himself. However, it is worth putting up with a possibly less perfectly peeled potato and a dirtier kitchen to support the child’s healthy need to participate, take responsibility and use their own skills.

Reward and praise? Yes, but …

Rewards and praise are often an unquestioned part of education today. For emptying the dishwasher or vacuum cleaning you get a treat or a bonus on your pocket money, for tidying up you get to stay up an extra hour. Such reward systems are also common in many classrooms, in the hope of steering children’s behaviour in a positive direction. They are borrowed from behavioural therapy concepts and hardly do justice to the differentiated emotional life of a child. Often, however, rewards destroy the child’s plan to bring joy or surprise to the other person and undermine their feeling of community.
  Here too, there is now careful scientific evidence that clearly shows that reward limits children’s readiness to help.5 Wanting to help is an expression of natural compassion and is already present in very young children. Often, therefore, more would be done with a smile, a delighted encouragement or a friendly glance as an expression of emotional closeness. Or how about a game or trip together in the time gained through mutual support?

Equivalence does not mean equality!

If we want our children and young people to grow into life with confidence and feel strong, it is not just a question of what we can do for them. It is just as important to give them the opportunity to contribute to the coexistence of all. In recent decades, there has been a great deal of uncertainty among many parents in this regard. They do not know what role they should play towards their children. They rightly try to avoid humiliating behaviour towards their children, which they may have experienced themselves, and want to be their children’s “best friends”, to treat them with equivalence. But they cannot ignore the fact that they are ahead of their children in knowledge and experience, and must assume educational responsibility. Because equivalence is not equality! Equivalence means to know and to feel that the children and all fellow human beings in general have the same right to respect and human dignity, regardless of personal differences and abilities.6 

“I take care that nothing happens to him …”

It is true that in recent years and decades there has been a rough atmosphere in interpersonal company, especially among young people, which gives cause for concern.7 But it affects only a small part of the growing generation, who lack meaningful tasks and goals in life. For the majority of children and young people, the desire to participate and contribute is still there. I recently experienced an impressive example when I stepped out of the front door to get the newspaper from the mailbox. There was a little boy of kindergarten age crouching on the street, a brown something in front of him. I thought it was risky, because there were always cars coming along the neighborhood street. When I came closer, I realised that the brown something was a ponderous hedgehog that had strayed into the street in the bright daylight. The boy looked at me perplexed. Obviously, he was aware of the danger the hedgehog was in. But what to do with this prickly thing? I went over to him. It was clear to us that we had to get the hedgehog to safety. I suggested to him that I could go to our house and get a shovel to take him away from the road and bring him to safety. He was visibly relieved and said, “Yes, and I’ll stay with him during this time and take care that nothing happens to him!” Our plan succeeded, and together we reasoned that he would be fine in the bushes of a meadow on higher ground. Then we said goodbye. The little boy continued on his way home. It seemed to me that he had grown a little. Reverence for life begins in the small, I thought.

It’s human nature

It is a need inherent in human nature that drives us to join together and support each other. For each child, his or her family environment is different again and is also interpreted by him or her individually. The child experiences how economic, cultural, religious and social influences shape his or her environment and how adults react to them. Family and social life is shaped by these influences. Here, too, it is important to take the relevant research findings seriously, which show that people feel freest and happiest when they can shape their lives together in equivalence. Constitutionally guaranteed rights of co-determination, as is common in direct democracy, increase life satisfaction and thus also the willingness to make a contribution. For democracy does not mean the freedom to do what one wants! Without mutual respect for the freedom of the other, without human togetherness, there is no real freedom.  •

1 Müller, A. (2018). Schonen schadet. Wie wir unsere Kinder heute verziehen. (Sparing harms. How we spoil our children today.) Bern: Hep-Verlag, p. 133
2 Müller, A. (2018). Schonen schadet. Wie wir unsere Kinder heute verziehen. Bern: Hep-Verlag, S. 132
3 cf. Tomasello, M. (2009). Why We Cooperate, MIT Press.
4 This experiment by Kiley Hamlin and her team is described in: Grolimund, F./Rietzler S. (2019). Geborgen, mutig, frei. Wie Kinder zu innerer Stärke finden. (Secure, courageous, free. How children find inner strength.) Freiburg i. B. Herder-Verlag, p. 110
5 cf. Tomasello, M. (2009). Why We Cooperate, MIT Press.
6 cf. Dreikurs, R./Soltz V. (1991). Children: The Challenge, Penguin Books.
7 cf. “No! We don’t want that kind of interaction ...”. In: Current Concerns No. 15 of 8 July 2021

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