“Over, under, around and through, meet Mr Bunny Rabbit, pull and through”

Overprotection is harmful – why children need challenges

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and curative teacher

Next to a classroom, in the wardrobe are the children’s shoes. Nicely arranged, as is obviously required. I think it is interesting, that all the shoes have Velcro fasteners  and they can be put on without opening a fastener. One single pair has laces, but even those seem more ornamental; at least they do not seem to open as the heel is squashed down. Aha, apparently it is uncommon to purchase shoes with laces, which are a bit more tedious to put on and require the child to learn the technique of tying shoes. I wonder why? 

In terms of his fine motor skills, a child is able to tie his own shoes at about four years of age. Many use a little children’s rhyme for this: “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.” If you are unfamiliar with this method, you should try it out, it works amazingly well! 

Is it all superfluous?

But are children supposed to learn such things at all? Isn’t it all superfluous? Skills that can be learned in a given case with a YouTube tutorial? Presumably, these skills are not listed in the competencies of new curricula either? Well, to me it seems worthwhile to think about this, because the above observation is not an isolated case and is representative of many others. Many children today lack the basic skills they need to cope with life independently. Fortunately, in recent years this has increasingly been recognised as the consequence of an unfavourable educational/parenting trend.

What does science have to say about this?

When it comes to the causes of such phenomena, we must look to the personal human sciences, specifically education and psychology. One of their research areas has long been concerned with the effect of different parenting styles on a child’s personality development. Researchers distinguished between typological or dimensional concepts. Representatives of typological concepts were the German American psychologist Kurt Lewin and the American researcher Diana Baumrind; they distinguished between an authoritarian, authoritative and permissive parenting style. In the seventies of the last century, these concepts were criticised as inadequate because they would only include behaviours, but not dimensions that could be captured in scales and their interactions. This approach was taken by the German psychologists Annemarie and Robert Tausch and distinguished between a steering dimension, which described control and authority, and an emotional dimension, which captured warmth, affection and appreciation. Thus, they added four further parenting styles to the previous categories and distinguished an autocratic, authoritarian, democratic, egalitarian, permissive, laissez-faire and a negating style; of course, these are never found in pure form.

Children should have it better

And which style of education determines the educational environment today? Social developments and contemporary trends must be considered when asking such questions. In the first half of the last century, which was marked by world wars and economic uncertainty, the authoritarian educational principle prevailed in Europe. People were busy securing their livelihoods and rebuilding their lives. There was little room to consider educational issues and attempts were made to force the growing generation onto the right path with strictness, humiliation and harshness. In the sixties, there was a certain material prosperity in broad sections of the population and a pampering (permissive) style of upbringing has since become more and more common. The children were supposed to have it better. Not only materially, but also in other ways, one wanted to protect them – with the best of intentions – from the hardships of life. 
  A few decades earlier, in the first half of the 20th century, Alfred Adler, the Viennese doctor and psychologist and founder of individual psychology, had already identified the importance of parenting. and thus distinguished himself from Sigmund Freud who based the development of personality on the theory of drives. Adler devoted his attention to parental issues and made a name for himself by providing appropriate training and further education for parents, teachers and doctors. When he spent most of his time in the USA in the 1930s, his case studies only spoke of the pampering style of upbringing. Obviously, Adler had encountered other forms of upbringing in America than were common in Europe at the time. Today, the term “spoiling” has become accepted for this.

Stay on the useful side of life

In his reflections on a child-appropriate style of upbringing, Adler proceeded from the anthropological fact that a child in its first period of life is dependent on the nurturing attention of its caregivers, otherwise it would not survive. If parents/caregivers respond appropriately to the child’s physical and emotional needs, the child increasingly gains the confidence to grow out of this dependency according to its physical stage of development and to participate independently in life. Embedded in a relationship of trust, the child’s caregivers should accompany this learning and developmental process in an encouraging manner, sharing the difficulties and successes in a supportive way. In this emotional exchange, it is important that an even give and take is created and maintained. This means taking the child seriously and not belittling it, so that the child develops the courage to continue learning and shifts its activity to the community-affirming, useful side of life. Adler classified undesirable developments based on this background.

It is snowing – now what?

In the last few weeks, our villages and towns were temporarily submerged in snow. A kindergarten class passed by our house. They spent the morning on the nearby sledding hill. The children’s pleasure and exertion were visible. How many times did they pull the sled up the hill before they whizzed down again? Some mothers and fathers were waiting in front of the kindergarten and the interesting interactions continued. One boy silently put the pull rope of the sled into his mother’s hand. Side by side they made their way home. The mother pulled the sled, he trudged blithely through the snow to the left and right of the path. Another curtly greeted his father, sat on his sled and was pulled home. Soon a girl walked past me. She was obviously tired. “So, was it nice?”, I asked her. She beamed and stopped for a moment, “Yes, I went down twenty times and fell over three times and now I’m hungry!” Three children, three ways of tackling life!

Preventing disappointment

In many families today, everyday parenting is organised so that the children experience as little (warming!) friction as possible. They are surrounded by a protective wall so that real life can only penetrate them to a limited extent. Yet there are many learning opportunities to be had in and outside the parental home and school. Often, lazy compromises are made to avoid  expected unpleasant reactions. This gives the child  an erroneous expectation of living together, and it will have trouble settling in and finding its way in the larger community of kindergarten and school. 
  This also does not allow the child to develop into a reliable fellow player who makes an age-appropriate contribution to social life. On the contrary, children are tempted to avoid the demands and to give in to the relationship with previously practised behaviour in order to secure attention for themselves. 
  This parental flight into overprotection makes it difficult for children to accept conflicts and disappointments as part of everyday life. They avoid taking responsibility but are well versed in the main role of the “not me – him too” game. They have a low threshold for frustration and become champions in procrastinating more strenuous tasks. Procrastination, however, does not bring life satisfaction. Therefore, it is advantageous for a child to become familiar with the principle of LJAM – better now than tomorrow! – at an early age.

The path leads in a different direction

A spoiling parenting style therefore withholds important learning opportunities from the child because life does not work like a PlayStation. There are challenges that must be faced. You must overcome yourself to either do something or not. Waiting periods must be filled meaningfully. Disappointments and defeat can sometimes become opportunities. When there is a dispute, sometimes you have to negotiate and that may seem exhausting, because you have to take a step back from your own ideas or views. This can be tedious, and yet that is precisely why it is worthy. If these experiences are missing in the children’s life, they too seldom realise that they can overcome difficult situations by their own efforts. Without these experiences children never learns what they are capable of. However, educators who make these experiences possible for their children, who also stand up and demand social norms, lay the foundation for success in school and in life.

Not only a pedagogical problem

Spoiled children and adolescents grow up to be spoiled adults. They bring the attitudes they acquired as children into the world of work. Meanwhile, master craftsmen and company bosses complain about the sense of entitlement of some of their employees, their constant need for attention, praise and recognition, but also their unwillingness to do less attractive work reliably and completely. They observe a lack of initiative and a lack of impulse to work  above and beyond the call of duty, as well as a lack of teamwork and a constructive willingness to engage in conflict, and last but not least, they also complain about often careless language. This is not only true of Generation Z or “snowflakes”, as those born after 1995 are sometimes called. Spoiled lifestyles and demanding attitudes have also become a problem at management level.

Being able to test one’s own abilities

It is the heartfelt wish of most parents to give their children the best possible start for a fulfilled, self-determined life. By pampering the child, however, the parents get in the way of themselves and the child. And now? Research into the causes must always include all involved. Therefore, the focus is not only on the child, but also on its parents. The “education of the educators” has long been one of the cornerstones of education and psychology. It is never about assigning blame, but about a differentiated understanding of unfavourable or also favourable conditions for the personality development of a child, so that they can be changed if necessary and open a way out of a messy situation. With the way they approach their life questions, how they shape their relationships and their different areas of life, the parents are role models for the children. From this basic substance, they in turn develop their own individual way of being in life. If the path is to be constructive, they need tasks, real tasks, from which they can test and develop their abilities. Parents cannot delegate this responsibility. Children need challenges for their development, wherein it is easy to recognise the word challenge.

Even in times of crisis

Young people who like to get involved, who find excessive care and indulgence annoying and who have not booked a room in the “Hotel Mama and Papa” for nothing in return do exist. Who does not fondly remember the engagement of young people in the first wave of COVID-19 disease?! Many of them offered unsolicited help to their elderly neighbours and took over, for example, shopping and gardening, running errands by bike or skateboard and using digital media to chat or even read a story aloud. They volunteered  in hospitals and did not let themselves be lamented, as the media has been doing for some time, because they had a purpose in life other than partying and drinking. They also found ways to maintain and even deepen their social contacts with their peers without endangering themselves and others. They  found a way into life that gave them support, orientation and inner satisfaction even in times of crisis – pampering stands in the way of this.  •

The following sources were helpful to me in writing this article:

Kaiser, Annemarie. Das Gemeinschaftsgefühl - Entstehung und Bedeutung für die menschliche Entwicklung. (The sense of community – Origins and significance for human development), Zurich 1981.

Müller, Andreas. Schonen schadet. Wie wir heute unsere Kinder verziehen. (Sparing harms. How we spoil our children today), Bern 2018, ISBN 978-3-0355-1088-1.

Berner, Winfried. Verwöhnung: Der Kraftakt, verwöhnte Kulturen zu verändern (Spoiling: the feat of changing spoiled cultures); https://www.umsetzungsberatung.de/psychologie/verwoehnung.php. Retrieved 1 February 2021

The eight year old Yuna has a heart of Gold

Yuna is eight years old, comes from South Korea and lives in Switzerland. She knows that up to now, she has had a lot of luck in life. For her eighth birthday, she had a special idea. She asked her father to contact the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). Instead of wishing for presents from her friends, she would rather collect money to help those who are less lucky in life than herself. She decorated a box with pictures which show the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and explained to her friends why she wants to support our organisation. Yuna wants to help to give joy to those who don’t have much, because she is aware that not everyone has the possibility to celebrate their birthday. Additionally, she wants that people think more about others. Yuna could hand over the box at a personal meeting; since then she is even more motivated to support the International Red Cross Committee. We would like to thank Yuna, her friends and her family for their support. Generosity knows no age.

Source: Das internationale Komitee vom Roten Kreuz. In Aktion 
(The International Red Cross Committee. In action.) 
December 2020, No. 8, p. 4

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