Being human means being there for each other

by Eliane Perret

Fortunately, there are still books that invite us to reflect on a particular topic. One of these is a picture book by the author Louise Spilsbury with illustrations by Hanane Kai with the meaningful title “We are here for each other”1. It begins with: “Most people in the world are kind and fair. They treat others with respect and always try to do the right thing.” The current state of the world makes you wonder, but just like that – your thoughts start to circle.
  The images and text are a refreshing expression of the role of parents (and carers in the wider educational environment) as guiding relational figures. It is about rules that help us to make good decisions as the basis for a dignified co-operation. What is mentioned here about each person’s immediate personal environment also applies to living together in a wider social context. It is worth reflecting on the research findings available on this context.

Am I even allowed to do that?

Introducing a child to the world is a big and demanding task. Most parents are aware of this and do not want to make any mistakes. Out of a self-critical emotional state, they often relativise the justified considerations that guided them when making agreements and rules with their children. False (or misconceived) theories now take up a lot of space in the media and in advice literature, leaving interested parents in the lurch with their pressing questions. A young mother with two beautiful little girls recently said to me: “Sometimes I am very insecure. When I do our lunch shopping with my little ones and tell them we’re not buying the sweets they want, or when I decide when we go home from the playground, I get strange looks. Is it an infringement if I deny my child a wish? Am I even allowed to go against my children’s wishes?”

Common values as a basis

Our coexistence is essentially based on a consensus of values that forms the foundation of society. Values are emotionally anchored attitudes and the basis of a responsible lifestyle. We lay the foundation for such an awareness of values in our daily interactions with our children and young people by setting an example of what values mean to us and how we orientate our actions accordingly. Over long periods of time, they have been anchored in the rules and laws of their own country and in the ethical attitudes of the family and the environment – embedded in Christian Western culture. Building on a tradition of natural law and personal values, they formed the foundation of our society as a consensus of values and are still reflected in our culture and our national and international legal systems today. These include a sense of justice, peaceableness, prudence, courage, honesty, respect for others, helpfulness and love of neighbour. This gave earlier generations of parents in particular an inner orientation for their educational task – indispensable if the growing generation is to work for equal, peaceful coexistence and refuse to allow themselves and their fellow human beings to be instrumentalised for wars or as tools for overriding economic goals. A look around the world shows how urgent this is. Unfortunately, such values can no longer be taken for granted today, as this ethical foundation of our society has long been called into question from various sides.

A breach of values with consequences

To understand this development, we need to take a look at history, as is so often the case. In our context, the 1968 movement is important because it caused a clear breach in our moral values. At the time, authoritarian parenting practices that were humiliating or characterised by verbal or physical violence and based on a false image of humanity were rightly criticised. It was believed that children had to be forced to do good. As a result, they lost their trust in their fellow human beings, felt like they were in enemy territory and were unable to develop self-confidence and a genuine bond with their fellow human beings. The anti-educational backlash propagated by the 1968 movement condemned education as a fundamental “crime against the child”. It left it up to the child to find its own way in the world. This was a denial of educational responsibility and, by negating previous social values, contradicted any pedagogical ethos. This is because pedagogically based authority is free from arbitrariness and violence and respects human dignity. The benevolent guidance to a dignified relationship helps the child to find an inner order of values and orientation in life, and the path is cleared for the development of an independent, relational and responsible personality. Without this, children run the risk of chasing after the fiction of quick success and using their fellow human beings for selfish goals.

Letting human interaction erode

This social development opened up a rift between the generations in many families – and not only there. It was combined with neoliberal strategies for social change. A creeping process of declining values and value relativism was initiated in our Western social systems, eroding human interaction.
  Increasingly, the coexistence of peoples is being subjected to economic objectives. These ideologies and strategies also have an impact on the educational theories of our time. The tradition of fundamental human and democratic values has become fragile and unsettles many parents in their educational approach. As a result of these developments, we are increasingly living in a society in which people are isolated and relationships with one another are atrophying. Our young people are particularly affected by this. Many children are not embedded and supported in their family, school or wider social environment. They often feel empty and not needed. Their lives are characterised by inner boredom; they lack a sense of purpose. Human nature would favour and require a different development. This lack of relationships and the resulting personal problems are precisely the breeding ground for the spread of violence, as it arises above all where communities and interpersonal relationships break down. A generation is growing up that has no history and is uprooted, to which any insight into the essential contexts of life is alien and which rebels against the things that are taken for granted in life, develops an exaggerated sense of its own importance and is susceptible to seduction and political totalitarianism of all kinds as a short-sighted, anti-social attempt to solve a grievance. This often manifests itself in a deep-seated resentment towards people, a resentment of being left in the lurch by everyone, which forms the basis for many violent fantasies that are all too often offered by today’s entertainment industry.

The human being,
an ultra-social being

In order to avoid this and to understand what children really need from us adults, we can now draw on many carefully researched findings from developmental psychology, especially attachment research. They have confirmed the achievements of previous research in the human sciences: humans are ultra-social beings and can only survive and live a dignified life in co-operation with their fellow human beings. Children are already predisposed to this at their birth. It is true that the new-born is a “biological premature birth”, as the Swiss biologist and anthropologist Adolf Portmann described it, and would not survive without loving care. But even the new-born baby is equipped to make contact with its mother and to respond. Its sensory organs are already developed to such an extent that the infant can see its mother’s face clearly when breastfeeding or feeding at the so-called “dialogue distance”, just as it recognises her voice and smell and is prepared for sucking and swallowing with its above-average number of skin receptors on its lips and tongue (and in doing so forms its fine tools for later speech motor skills). In the course of its earliest development, it spontaneously seeks contact with its parents and their emotional affection and affirmation and begins to orientate itself towards them. A sense of “we” can already be observed in a three-month-old baby. With nine months, children typically take a major developmental step – evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello refers to this as the “nine-month revolution” – and focus their attention on another person or object. This gives rise to the phenomenon of ‘divided attention’ between the ages of nine and twelve months. For example, children draw their parents' attention to objects by pointing (as a pre-form of speech) because they have recognised the goal of the action. This primal human disposition is also the foundation for the possibility of developing an attitude to life based on the ability to co-operate, compassion and social responsibility, in which the individual knows how to tackle life’s tasks for the well-being of themselves and others.

Educating for
humanity and co-operation

Fortunately, parenting style research also provides today’s parents with scientifically sound research results. For example, the American developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind, who died a few years ago, made a significant contribution to the debate on a suitable parenting style and supplemented and confirmed what Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, had called for in the first half of the last century. She came to the conclusion that children with an authoritative – not to be confused with an authoritarian – parenting style are best prepared for a successful life and develop humanity and the ability to cooperate.

Appreciative, warm-hearted encouragement
 of activity and independence

Baumrind identified two important factors for educators: Firstly, they should make age-appropriate demands on their children and in this way encourage their activity and striving for independence, but keep an eye on them and, if necessary, provide corrective support, but refrain from demonstrating power and coercion. By exemplifying their values, they are also a role model with whom the children can identify. They encourage them to express their opinions and offer them room for friction in the event of diverging ideas, so that the adolescents can clarify their values and integrate them into their life orientation as an emotional experience. At the same time, such parents are also caring, warm-hearted, appreciative, sensitive and supportive and respond to the children in an intellectually stimulating way in dialogue.
  Admittedly, these expectations of educators are high and are a challenge to their personality. But introducing children to the world with this inner attitude is worthwhile. Diana Baumrind’s research shows that authoritative children are helpful and cooperative even at pre-school age and also capable of resolving conflicts both fairly and compassionately, as well as defending themselves against injustice. As adolescents, such children are less prone to risky behaviour such as drug addiction and delinquency, more motivated and pro-social and happy to take on age-appropriate tasks in social life.

Not only for children

This knowledge is therefore available to us if we want to make our children and adolescents strong and teach them the values that will enable them to develop into a personality capable of forming relationships. This knowledge about people must become part of our common knowledge. It also gives us guidance for analysing current problems, not only in the education of our youth. When we are affected by the events that are shaking our world today, it is crucial that we question the value orientation of politicians and those in positions of responsibility who abuse the trust placed in them, support unjust systems and plunge the world into war and misery. Misguided by ideologies and greed for power, they use their position for their own benefit without consideration or sensitivity for what they are doing. They should have the courage to take an honest look at what they are doing and ask themselves what their own values are.  •

1 Spilsbury, Louise; Kai, Hanane. Wir sind für-einander da (We are here for each other). Gabriel Verlag 2021

For further reading and reflection:

  • Buchholz, Annemarie. “Der Beitrag von Psychologie und Pädagogik zur naturrechtlichen Auffassung vom Menschen”. In: Mut zur Ethik: Schutz der Familie und der heranwachsenden Jugend (Protection of the family and adolescence). II. Kongress 1994, p. 811–815
  • Buchholz, Annemarie. “Personale Psychologie – Der Beitrag von Psychologie und Pädagogik zur Menschenwürde” (Personalist psychology – The contribution of psychology and education to human dignity) In: Mut zur Ethik: Die Würde des Menschen. (The dignity of man) V. Kongress 1997, p. 82–89
  • Burger, Alfred; Perret, Eliane. Jugend und Gewalt. Unsere Kinder und Jugendlichen brauchen Erziehung (Youth and violence. Our children and young people need education) Verlag Zeit-Fragen 2011

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