Braving the storm

Democracy and peace need independent thinking people

by Dr Eliane Perret, Psychologist and Remedial Teacher

When a violent storm swept through our countryside during the night recently, I woke up in the morning to the sound of a chainsaw. It soon became apparent that the fire brigade was sawing down a tree that had fallen on the neighbouring property so that the road could be cleared again. I was a little astonished. Next to the tree was a very tall columnar poplar, whose trunk and branches bend and lean so much in the wind that I was always afraid the tree would break apart. But now the spruce was lying on the ground.
    In the meantime, I know from experts that it was due to the roots of the two trees. The spruce is a shallow-routed tree and spreads its root network in the shape of a plate. In addition, this spruce was also weakened by red rot in the trunk. So, the wind had an easier time with it. The columnar poplar, on the other hand, is firmly anchored in the ground with a taproot and uses its roots to seek water in the depth of the soil.

Standing still despite strong winds

During this morning experience, I was forced to make a comparison with us humans. Why do some people form their own well-founded opinions and others go along with the propaganda? I have always been fascinated by personalities who have found a way to remain humane in adverse circumstances, to keep a clear head and to confront injustice – aware of the risk involved. The question of why is all the more pressing for me today because our world situation has slipped into a threatening imbalance and demands that we humans develop inner strength and take our own point of view, even when a strong wind is blowing against us. And what can we do to help our children acquire this inner strength?

Develop emotional
safety and joy of exploration

Let’s return to the picture with the two trees and the roots with which they anchor themselves in the ground. At the beginning of a child’s life, is it not also a matter of it “putting down roots and beginning to feel at home in the Human Family? This requires the closeness and protection of those in its relationship. In developmental psychology, we speak of bonding security, which a child has to build up at the beginning of its life. In addition to the need for closeness and protection, which is supposed to be guaranteed by bonding, the need for interaction (exploration) is also an inherent human disposition. The two needs regulate each other. In this first interpersonal context, the child begins to build basic trust and a stable personality core. A decisive step towards inner strength!

Curiosity – a cornerstone of independent thinking

Watching children discover their environment is fascinating: With great perseverance Annina tries to stack toy blocks on top of each other until a high tower is created – which collapses again and demands a new start. When Annina finally discovers that a large block at the bottom increases the stability of the tower, she has discovered a first law of physics that she can use in the future. So, there are a thousand questions that children would like to have answered – a natural field of learning, nourished by curiosity and the need for echo and appreciation by those who relate to them. Parents have a lot in their hands to support their children’s need to experience something, to know exactly and to learn. Marco, who is a little older, wants to know how to draw a house so that it looks “like real”, and thus learns about the parallel perspective. Or Celine, who, with impressive reliability, brings her parents the free newspaper home every day, which she can take out of the box at the bus stop. Perhaps she will want to know at the family table one day why this newspaper is actually available for free – today, when everything costs something.

Develop a sense of right and wrong

A child handles all these impressions and experiences in its own individual way and develops an image of itself and the world. From this, it forms an idea of how it gains security and status among its fellow human beings. This development must be taken care of, which means that parents and other important related persons have a demanding task. Even young children orient their mood and behaviour towards the model of their parents and internalise their norms and values. These include, for example, a sense of justice and peaceableness, prudence and courage, honesty, respect for others, helpfulness and charity. In this way, the child forms a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. It thus has an inner standard with which it learns to overview the consequences of its actions for itself and other humans and can carefully weigh up its decisions.

Spoiling or strictness?

A successful educational process gives the child guide in life that is oriented towards the common good, which is in no way contrary to the well-being of the individual. “But what should this educational process look like? Is more indulgence or more guidance called for? Pampering or strictness? And what will enable my child to think and act independently later on?” These are questions many parents ask themselves today. Some are unsure, lacking the guardrails they could follow in dealing with their children. Certainly, no one wants to go back to authoritarian parenting. It was right to distance oneself from the harshness associated with it. However, it was wrong to throw the values associated with it overboard at the same time and, for example, to devalue respect as submissiveness and honesty as conformity.
    Today, we meet many children who are in danger of getting lost because their parents no longer want to give them any room for friction and unthinkingly give in to their wishes or even anticipate them. This spoiling attitude of educators is nothing new, but today it shows a somewhat different face. Whereas in the past spoilt children were rather passive and waited to see what “good thing” would happen to them (and sulked if it didn’t), today’s spoilt children are often highly active. They argue eloquently and unabashedly demanding and try to get their way by various means. Frequently, parents mistakenly associate this with a strong personality in the child and admire it because it seems to know what it wants. That inner strength that parents want so much for their child cannot develop in this way. On the contrary, we then have children before us who do not feel up to their tasks in life, who cover up their insecurity with an overheated urge to show off and can thus be easily manipulated. It is hardly possible for these children to take their own stand and stick to it even in the face of resistance.

Growing up – a challenge

Such a development can be very delicate, especially during puberty. The process of becoming an adult challenges young people. They are often preoccupied with a feeling of insecurity, aimlessness and discouragement – not surprising given the state of the world today. They want to belong, to have status. This is something natural – but how? Depending on the environment, this need can be abused and young people can be (purposefully) put in a position that makes them feel honoured. This has nothing to do with independence and self-confidence. Taking one’s own stand does not mean being quick to contradict oneself out of a personal emotional state (for example, in dissociation from a sibling or as a provocative call to talk to the father).

The school is also called upon

In addition to the parents and the immediate environment of a child, the school is also called upon to make its contribution so that the child can become an independent thinker. It is time that those responsible for education, who have been entrusted with this task by the people, remember what the task of the school is, that they take scientific research results and criticism seriously and correct reform projects that have failed for a long time. Then the school can once again fulfil its mission and educate children and young people to become independent, mature citizens. The school class must be an important model of coexistence where a child can experience how knowledge is acquired through joint work and with the necessary care, and how opposing points of view are discussed in dialogue and mutual respect, empathising with the concerns of the other person. They must also be able to experience that the power of the strongest does not prevail. A modern education system must meet these demands for social education and go hand in hand with appropriate forms of teaching and educational content. Then concepts such as democracy and human rights will not remain hollow phrases for children and young people, which can be used later to make discussions come to nothing and to portray the other person as an inhuman being. Especially today, our growing generation is dependent on recognising how hidden needs are seized upon by the zeitgeist, emotions are boiled up and opinions are steered by propaganda and disinformation. Young people like to think their way into such issues and in this way become capable of thinking for themselves and forming their own carefully reasoned opinions.

Let us imagine …

Today, we are bombarded with reports from all sides that want to explain world events to us. How can a young person know how to judge this? Often, propaganda techniques operate on the level of sympathy in order to spread untruths and to be able to deceive people with language manipulative techniques. That is why, in addition to a sound education, it takes precisely that independent thinking that allows one to see through such processes and maintain a clear view, rooted in the feeling that it is me who matters. And let us imagine: In the family and with friends, there is once again more engaged discussion about why certain opinions are distorted and their exponents defamed or even psychiatrised. One observes and sees through these very authoritarian processes and names them as such. In such a mood and with the appropriate education, the upcoming generation will want to know exactly what the antecedents of war were, what international humanitarian law is and why and by whom the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written. They will also ask why Switzerland has been put under such massive pressure in recent years and why it is imperative for it to remain neutral. Such young people will compare the media reports and wonder when everywhere – linguistically somewhat varied – the same thing is written over and over again, and they will carefully inform themselves as to what the reality is. Their anchoring in a network of interpersonal relationships protects them from going astray. In this way, they create the basis for their own opinion, which they can defend with internal secureness. Let’s imagine that!

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