Family as school of life

by Sonja van Biezen, psychologist

In psychological practice we are frequently meeting mothers experiencing attacks of insignificance. The feeling to be “only a mother” is stressing the mental balance of many young women.

Both parents being integrated in work processes, the task of education is increasingly transferred to non-familiar institutions like day nurseries. The traditional family unit is undergoing a change and seems to lose significance.

“Research in comparative cultural anthropology has shown that stable systems of relations exist in all cultures, the family – the so-called ‘nuclear family’ – forming their centre. The nuclear family is characterised by the close relationship between the parents and their children. In all its variability – be it small or extended families, kins or clans – the nuclear family is forming the founding unit of communal life. Growing up in a family means to gain positive emotional experiences in the intense relationship to mother and father in the first years of life, to develop a sense of basic trust in fellow human beings which is the foundation for all relationships in future life.”

Family as foundation of our society

Research in comparative cultural anthropology has shown that stable systems of relations exist in all cultures, the family – the so-called “nuclear family” – forming their centre. The nuclear family is characterised by the close relationship between the parents and their children. In all its variability – be it small or extended families, kins or clans – the nuclear family is forming the founding unit of communal life. Growing up in a family means to gain positive emotional experiences in the intense relationship to mother and father in the first years of life, to develop a sense of basic trust in fellow human beings which is the foundation for all relationships in future life. The family is the first community, with parents and siblings serving as a model for future experiences in school and work. In a family, the life tasks at hand can be solved jointly. Likewise, worries and defeats are borne collectively. In a traditional family with mother and father the children can gain experiences with both sexes. The girl can orient herself towards her mother, growing into her tasks as woman and mother by her example. In interaction with his father, the boy will acquire the emotional resources he will need as an adult man. This process is called identification. As a legal foundation of communal life, family and marriage still enjoy specific protection according to their importance. In the family, the achievements of our society and the time-proven traditions are passed on to the new generation.

But what is it now that ensures the continuity of these cultural achievements?

During the years a child is living in a family, it is familiarised with the values defining the communal life of people of a cultural sphere. These are values in accordance with human nature including values like compassion, sympathy, consideration, tolerance, mutual aid and non-violent conflict resolution. Correspondingly, parents are facing an important and challenging task. This is why they are bearing a great responsibility. The education of their children ensures that the historical cultural achievements are conserved. During the educational process, these values need to be actively founded and emotionally anchored.

Insights of depth psychology

In the beginning of the last century scientific psychology has tackled the question of educability of children and the factors governing their development in early childhood. Sigmund Freud realised that man is guided by unconscious feelings. And it was the Viennese individual psychologist Alfred Adler who in the 1920s realised the paramount importance of the relationship between mother and child for the development of the personality of the child. Starting with its first minute, the child is seeking contact with the mother, because this emotional contact with its mother is vital for the child. Thus Adler considered it the mother’s task to establish a strong emotional tie with the child. For the child, she mainly has to be a responsible fellow being whom it can rely on and whose support is certain. This first relationship is forming the foundation, the basic trust for all further relations in a person’s life. These fundamental insights of Alfred Adler regarding childhood development were later confirmed and substantiated by numerous studies of developmental psychology.
Freud’s psychoanalytical hypothesis that for children the forming of social relationships comes only secondary, as a consequence of the satisfaction of physical needs, has been refuted not only by Adler but also by the development psychological studies of attachment research.

...and attachment research

The thesis of exclusive satisfaction of needs was incomplete. This was first shown in studies of the Viennese School with institutionalised children by Charlotte Bühler, René A. Spitz and later the research of the English psychiatrist John Bowlby regarding the consequences of emotional neglect in children. The reference person, that was now clear, was not only serving to satisfy physical needs like hunger, thirst etc. but from its first day the child is oriented, also in its activities, towards entering a relationship with the mother.
Recognition of these signals and this orientation and the mother’s adequate reaction on them are part of the social-emotional process of the mother-child relationship.
Later these scientific studies were extended and detailed such that the relationship between mother and child was investigated in all their emotional aspects. The studies of American researchers like Mary D. Salter Ainsworth, Mary Maine and the German researching couple Karin and Klaus Grossmann confirmed and specified Alfred Adler’s insights from the 1920s. This research now allows us to state what a child needs for the development of its personality.

The mother’s importance

In addition it is the mother’s task to transfer the attachment formed between her and the child to the other members of the family like the father and the siblings, then to arouse and to maintain the child’s interest for communal matters beyond the context of the family. The mother’s guiding orientation helps the child to find its way in the smaller and larger community.
To make sure that a child will be able to become a fellow player in the community of humans, educators also need to set an example regarding values which are essential for communal life. The basis for this is the child’s trust in its parents which has been formed during the first months. The process of education is to be understood as an interaction between parents and child during which the mentioned values are imparted and value systems are actively founded and emotionally anchored. For the child, this process is facilitated in a trusting attachment. If parents, teachers and other adult persons are reliable role models, that is, only if the child holds them in such high esteem, the child can orientate itself by and learn from them. In addition to the imparting values, the goal of education should be to enable the adolescent to cope with the tasks of life. Alfred Adler pointed out three areas which every person needs to deal with in life: love, work and community. Coping with these three tasks of life requires every person to have a healthy degree of ability to build relations and to cooperate. Adler has characterised this with the term “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” (sense of community). This is why education can neither be arbitrary nor can it be deducted from some philosophical ideas but it has to follow the logic of human communal life and our cultural achievements. An education can be called successful if the adolescent can face these tasks of life. The degree of “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” in a person is not only apparent in the style of his personal life but also in the question if an adolescent is willing to take over tasks serving the common good and to contribute to the solution of current concerns as a fellow being and fellow citizen. Each threat to family is a threat to society itself.

Summary

Family is a place deserving of protecting where children can develop and unfold their personality while acquiring the emotional equipment for their future life.
Hence we should do all we can to strengthen and to conserve consciousness for the importance of education and family.    •

(Translation Current Concerns)

Literature:

Alfred Adler. Neurosen. Fallgeschichten, Frankfurt 1981
Alfred Adler. Menschenkenntnis, Frankfurt 1970
John Bowlby. The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, 2005
Manfred Endres; Susanne Hauser (ed.). Bindungs-theorie in der Psychotherapie, München, Basel 2000
Annemarie Kaiser. Das Gemeinschaftsgefühl - Entstehung und Bedeutung für die menschliche Entwicklung. Zurich 1981