“You know, if you do it like this, it’ll go well ...”

Why we need to pass on our experience to the next generation

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and remedial teacher

“Oh, look at those cute little swans!” Many people will surely associate the image of this swan family with security, protection and warmth. The mother swan is swimming ahead of her young and, with the necessary care, she introduces them to life. To do this, she can fall back on her innate natural instinctive behaviour. In this way, her young can acquire the necessary tools for coping with life, while being protected from danger as far as possible. The same task presents itself to us when it comes to the education of our children. What swans, and of course other animals, are endowed with through their species-specific instincts, humans must acquire by means of a learning process. But what should this look like?

“Should we act like this or like that?”

If you keep your eyes open for the problems of parents, you will observe a picture of great uncertainty. “Should we do it like this or like that?” Parents have difficulties in making decisions, in leading the way for their children and in passing on their experiences to them. Accordingly, many children today lack the basic skills they need for a healthy development of their personality. 
  This is also shown by a large-scale new study from Germany in which 1,231 educators and primary school teachers were asked about their perception of the children they care for. The study involved 22,511 children. The results show that thorough reflection is called for and action is needed. 40% of the children show abnormalities in the area of language, 19% in their motoric and 30% in their social development. Interestingly, the interviewees were particularly struck by the lack of pronunciation, a skill that the child acquires in dialogue with its caregivers. This dialogue seems to be missing or to be reduced alarmingly. Incidentally, this is a development that has been observed for some time (cf. Nestor, 1995). The study also described that many children are no longer able to engage in a game in an age-appropriate way. This affects 47% of two- to three-year-olds, 56% of four-to five-year-olds, 37% of six- to seven-year-olds and 24% of eight- to nine-year-olds. This finding is particularly thought-provoking, as we know how important play is for the healthy development of a child’s personality and that it lays the foundations for successful learning (cf. Perret, 2020). In other words, the learning process of the child seems to be fragile at the beginning of life, and any insecurity of the parents can promote undesirable developments.

“Now we simply give him his pasta …”

Carlos has been a pupil in a second primary school class in a day school for a few weeks. Everyone has lunch together there. Now he is sitting in front of his plate with rice, meat and some salad. He puts his head in his hands and big tears roll down his cheeks. The food remains untouched. This is always the case, except when there is pasta. Then Carlos has a gigantic appetite. Of course, the subject is brought up in the next contact with his parents. His mother explains her son’s behaviour very frankly: “You know, Carlos had problems eating even when he was a little toddler. That’s why we had a total fuss at every meal. It’s not that he had allergies, which should have been taken into account. No, Carlos simply didn’t want to eat anything he didn’t already know. His favourite food was pasta or sushi. At some point I had enough. Now he just gets his pasta and sometimes sushi. Fortunately, he likes eating fruit and drinking milk, so he has no deficiencies. For my husband and me, of course, I then cook something else ...”
  Obviously, Carlos has learned something that is wrong, and he has not been guided to change it. Many mothers and fathers feel like Carlos’ mother does. They rightly do not want to use any drill or harshness to teach their children to behave sensibly. But what other ways are there? In Carlos’ case, it was obvious not only at mealtimes how insecure and helpless he was in the face of those everyday situations entailed in a child’s life. But independence is learned – just as is a lack of independence. So, Carlos was actually left high and dry. But do children not have a right to learn what it takes to succeed in life and enjoy living together with their fellow human beings? Article 11 of the Swiss Federal Constitution states: “Children and adolescents have the right to the special protection of their integrity and to the encouragement of their development.” But what is needed to this end?

“I can do it myself …”

Kindergarten is over. Viola rushes into the cloakroom. She quickly has the shoes with Velcro fastenings on her feet. Then she takes her jacket off the hook and holds it out to the kindergarten teacher. Her silent expectation is: “Put it on for me!” When the kindergarten teacher does not react, Viola angrily throws the jacket on the floor. Jonas, who shares her school desk, wants to put on his jacket, too. First the wrong way round, the fastener is at the back. But then he has done it, and with a flushed head, he pulls up the zipper and laughs: “I can do it myself!” Jonas has already been able to acquire a bit of independence. He is proud of this and it encourages him to take the next steps. This is how he grows in his self-esteem. This need neither pressure nor drill, but a new challenge – or the next “zone of development” (Lev Vigotsky) – into which the adult carefully guides him. In between, Jonas is allowed to linger a little and be happy about his learning success, because learning also includes emotional reverberation and always the necessary leisure. When a child associates its learning success with itself and its own efforts, its self-esteem will grow. Not so, however, when the obstacles are removed from its path. In that case we raise children to be princes and princesses who hardly have to deal with the reality of life, and therefore cannot grow along with this.

The satisfaction of getting to know one’s own skill and ability

Parents have no greater desire than to raise a self-confident child who moves freely and faces his or her life tasks successfully. For this, children need a strong and stable relationship with their parents, who provide food, physical closeness and security. In this way, they instil in the child trust in interpersonal relationships and a sense of social connectedness. This is the basis for becoming an active member of the human community. Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, drew attention to this as early as in the 1930s. Later research in developmental psychology, especially on attachment theory, confirmed Adler’s findings. For parents and educators, it is important to correctly perceive the signals and needs of the child and to react adequately to them, but also to involve the children in the activities of everyday life as players and to give them tasks appropriate to their age. If children are spoiled and not asked for anything in return, they hardly learn to defer their wishes, to tackle unpleasant things or to control impulses, as for example, not to simply hit the other child in the sand box, which does not immediately surrender its shovel, but to ask for it and to accept the answer. Otherwise, children are blocked from achieving success and mastering difficult situations on their own. For this, they must have the opportunity to deal with upcoming tasks and to show what they can achieve – something children would like to do!
  “Pampering prevents the child from testing its own abilities and from having the satisfaction of getting to know its own skill. So, it is tempted to avoid demands and to obtain attention with behaviours practised in early childhood,” stated psychologist and psychotherapist Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser. Unfortunately, pampering and overprotection are very common in our countries. Not because today’s parents mean less well for their children than those in the past, but because they are insecure, align themselves with fashionable trends and hesitate to show their children the way based on their life experience. They often attach too little weight to their own person and their task, or they hope that any problems will later be straightened out in the playgroup, kindergarten or school. In this context, we sometimes have to speak of an actual role reversal, because the child sets the tone in the relationship.

“No other generation of young people has so far shown as many disruptive patterns as today’s”.

Whether we call them helicopter-, curling- or lawnmower-parents; their protecting their children from all challenges deprives these children of the chance to gain their own age-appropriate experience, to accept consequences, and not to resign in the face of failure but to seek better solutions on their own initiative. They therefore lack the emotional experience that success and failure bring. Unlike Jonas who is proud to have closed the tricky zipper through his own thought and effort. These emotional experiences would be important, such as the disappointment over the shovel that was simply not obtainable, the enjoyment of a shared meal, the sadness over the teddy bear that has been explored with meticulousness and scissors, and which is now lying there with an open belly (and hopefully will not be thrown away, but “healed” with the help of mum or dad), the guilty conscience over a wrong committed and the liberating feeling of relief at having made something good again. These are all important steps on the way to emotional maturity! Many children today seem to lack this, and this lack can leave pathological traces, as the generation researcher Rüdiger Maas writes: “No generation of young people has so far shown as many disturbance patterns as the generation of today. Disorder patterns such as ADHD, ADD, anorexia, bulimia or borderline appear more and more often.” The aspects mentioned must be included when researching the causes of such disorder patterns. Did these children have a training ground to learn to control their impulses, to empathise with the emotional state of those around them, to not constantly revolve around themselves, to endure frustrations, to concentrate on another person with interest and attention and to not be constantly driven by inner and outer restlessness… And this is to mention only a few symptoms relevant for diagnosis?

Every generation has different tasks

The next generation is our future. Just as the young swans count on their mother, our children must be able to count on their parents to pass on their knowledge and experience to them. However, this natural process seems to have been stalled. Not in all families, of course, but studies point to a large number of children who are affected. Such an erroneous development can only be explained by analysing processes in society as a whole.
  Every generation of parents has different challenges. In the years after the Second World War, parents, marked by the war and the misery of their childhood years, organised their lives economically. They were hardworking and disciplined and complained little. And they hoped to spare their children their own experiences of horror and deprivation. The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s helped the next generation of parents, the “baby boomers”, to achieve a modest prosperity, which they acquired by means of diligence, determination and loyalty to their employers. They wanted to pass on these values, unfortunately often combined with rigid educational concepts, but with the well-intentioned goal that their children should one day be better off than they had been.
  The passing on of previous experiences was called into question a few years later by the 1968 movement, as this was associated with a break with values that is still little reflected or is even idealised today. A new style of parenting, the so-called anti-authoritarian upbringing, was now the order of the day; children became “partners” who were to be helped to live a life free of “constraints”. Not all parents adopted this radical form, but they tended to distance themselves from the educational practice they had experienced themselves and wanted to do things differently, better than their own parents! It was argued that children should have a good time and not be burdened too early with the demands of life. But how else can a child acquire the feeling that it can count on its own strengths? This development was continued by the following generation of parents. Today, many parents seek to make the relationship with their children as friendly as possible. Being one’s daughter’s “best friend” is considered a sign of quality. Parents’ own experiences are passed on only hesitantly, “after all, it’s a different time now”.
  The digitalisation of our everyday life gave an important boost to this development. You no longer have to ask the more experienced generation. Google knows, too ... But despite the apparent closeness, the distance between the generations is in danger of increasing, because the value of previous experiences is relativised. An (unintentional) distancing can also be observed in other areas of everyday life: The small child in the pram no longer looks at the mother, who would chat with it, show and explain things to it again and again (and thus encourage it linguistically!); the child looks out into the world and discovers – left alone – this and that, while the mother is on the mobile phone with a friend.
  This leaves the child feeling insecure and empty, and it will seek to fill this emptiness elsewhere. Today, consumerism and digital devices offer corresponding opportunities and court the customer segment “children”. A true feeling of emotional connection, reliability, warmth, protection and security cannot develop in this way.
  Mothers often feel a diffuse lack and unconsciously try to compensate for it by praising their child excessively and accommodating its wishes. In doing so, however, they do not help their child to face life’s tasks courageously and confidently. Instead, a generation of princes and princesses is growing up who care little about the concerns of the community but insist on their exclusive status. Is it not time to discuss these fundamental educational issues in depth?  •

The following books and articles have accompanied my writing:

Kaiser, A. (1981). Das Gemeinschaftsgefühl – Entstehung und Bedeutung für die menschliche Entwicklung. (The feeling of community – origin and significance for human development.) Zurich: Verlag Psychologische Menschenkenntnis
Kissling, B. (2022) Sind Inklusion und Integration in der Schule gescheitert? Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung. (Have inclusion and integration in schools failed? A critical examination.) Bern: Hogrefe-Verlag
Maas, R. (2021). Generation lebensunfähig. Wie unsere Kinder um ihre Zukunft gebracht werden. (Generation unfit for life. How our children are being deprived of their future.) Munich: Yes Publishing
Nestor, M. “Besorgniserregende Zunahme schwerer Sprachstörungen” (Worrying increase in severe speech disorders). In: Current Concerns of 23 September 1995.
Perret, E. “’Scrabble’, ‘Ligretto’, ‘Chicken out’, ‘Halma’ and ‘The Nasty Seven’ – what are these?” In: Current Concerns No 27 of 11 December 2020.
Wunsch, A. (2013). Die Verwöhnungsfalle. Für eine Erziehung zu mehr Eigenverantwortung. (The indulgence trap. For an education towards more personal responsibility) Munich: Kösel-Verlag

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