For the past 18 years, I have been studying and teaching Adlerian psychology and the child guidance practices suggested by Adler and elaborated on by his student protégé Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs.
In fact, my parents taught Adlerian parenting classes, too. That means as a child growing up, I experienced firsthand every method I recommend to parents. One might well ask, “Who needs to take a class on being a parent?” And it is a fair question. We assume it should be natural for any species to be able to raise their offspring. You’d think so, but parenting is always changing and evolving because the task of raising our young is to prepare them for life in the greater culture in which they are expected to participate in and spend their adult years.
Culture, therefore provides context for our parenting practices, and it seems that life and culture are suddenly changing at a whirlwind pace. In North America, our heritage sprang from the slow deep roots of monarchist and colonial rule, where the mighty few on top held most of the power and they used it to oppress the masses.
Imagine what it was like for the child born into that archaic system? Since home is the first social group, or micro-society that a child experiences, family is where children learn about life, its social rules and how to operate within it. In past centuries then, those families would most assuredly be ruled by men, with women in a position of subordination and considered a mere possession of their husbands. Children were at the bottom of the totem pole and thought of as indentured servants who should be seen, but not heard.
In the past, the focus of our parenting was to teach children to take their place in the pecking order, to be subservient, to conform and obey. Those were good qualities for a child to develop in that particular time in our history; one that required obedient workers and citizens. Children were being properly prepared for life in that era.
However, in recent history, we have experienced a very significant change in the greater society. Around the world, we are seeing the spread of human rights. Hierarchical power structures are being challenged and changed. Democracy is spreading and social equality among people is being embraced.
A child born in 2015 will have very different early social experiences from a child born even a few generations ago. It’s most likely they will see both mom and dad working, both doing household chores, cooking and sharing in the childcare. A child born into a family where no parent is subordinated to another will have no early experience of a power hierarchy. They will instead experience a world where all people are treated respectfully, including themselves. Isn’t that great! Children know they deserve to be treated with respect – and I say Hallelujah to that!
The struggle for parents comes when they need to discipline their children. Our traditional methods involved spanking, yelling, shaming and other punishments, none of which are respectful. Those techniques were fear based and aimed at making a child obedient to authority. If you yell or control a child who knows they should be treated with respect, they will surely let you know! They will not respond positively, leaving parents frustrated because old methods of discipline that worked on them, don’t work on their own children. Parents throw their hands in the air and say, “I III NEVER would have talked to my parents that way.”
Parents today need new methods that are both respectful and effective at correcting children’s misbehaviour. Our parenting methods need to prepare our children for life in a democratic, digital age. Today’s workforce needs people who are co-operative, innovative, creative and collaborative – the polar opposite of obedient!
Sadly, in our attempt to eliminate our old era parenting methods, the pendulum of change is swinging too far. Today, our children are indulged instead of degraded. This is just as big an error, but in the opposite direction.
There are several reasons for this trend. Parents don’t fully understand what exactly is meant by a child’s need for emotional security. They also know that if they get it wrong, those early experiences could forever impact a child’s life trajectory. At the slightest whimper, parents feel their child might be suffering emotionally. They feel being firm with their children may injure the primary bond and scar their child for life. Children, who learn which behaviours yield different social reactions, quickly learn that if they become emotionally upset, their parent will yield to their demands. If you want a cookie – cry for one. If you want to sleep in mom and dad’s bed – develop a fear of the dark.
Well-intentioned parents suddenly saw themselves cow-towing to their children’s every demand. Now children rule their parents! This is not respectful training for co-operation. This is over-indulgence and pampering.
Slave/tyrant relationships are not healthy – not between government and the people, not between bosses and workers, nor between child and parent. When children manipulate their parents, it’s still a form of ruling over one another rather than being co-operative with our fellow man. Many see that today’s kids are out of control and feel the answer is for parents to take charge and rule their children. But this is short sighted. This simply leads to a replication of the old slave/tyrant system, which surely will result in children rebelling or submitting.
So how do we get off this crazy teeter-tooter of one-up, one-down type relationships and instead start being mutually respectful while serving up discipline required of child rearing? That’s the million-dollar question!
We need new methods, and the only way to learn them is from parent education! Whether you take a class, read an Adlerian parenting book, watch a webinar series or listen to a podcast… parents need to learn about new ways of dealing with their children if they are to raise children who are co-operative rather than obedient or domineering.
Let’s look at the core conditions for stimulating co-operative behavior:
Getting along with others and caring for our fellow man is innate in humans but, it must be stimulated by parents. Alfred Adler called this “social interest” or Geminschaftsgefuel in his original writings. Social interest is developed when we ask our children to help others. That could be as simple as: handing out a plate of cheese to company; pushing in the chairs when dinner is done; not interrupting; placing coats on the hooks so the foyer is clear; waiting one’s turn. The list is limitless of all the ways a child can be contributing and participating in helping the group function as a unit from the youngest age. In these small ways, the child is experiencing the give and take of living in a group. All too often children only experience life in the early years as a place where they “take, take, take” and others serve them. Unchecked, this will eventually develop into a “what’s in it for me?” mindset that is the hallmark of a child who has a sense of entitlement.
A healthy group (aka family), on the other hand, harnesses all the various talents of its members. Each should contribute to their level and ability, and no one should be unduly burdened. One for all, all for one! When a member feels that he/she is a stakeholder in the team, they are helping to build it and a deep sense of belonging and purpose is felt. So while many parents might mistakenly think that doing things for their children is an act of kindness, it is actually robbing them of precious development and connection to others.
Once children feel they belong and are important contributors to a group, they willingly co-operate with others and do what the needs of the situation call for. Adults have a hard time believing children could ever willingly wake up on time, get to school on time, study their homework or eat healthily if a parent didn’t force them or control them. This is not true – in fact it is precisely the opposite. A child only dawdles or bucks their responsibilities when a parent is belittling their capacities by nagging and reminding them. Parents frequently attempt to control their children instead of respecting their abilities and granting them autonomy to prove they can manage. This is not to say children won’t make mistakes, but given a chance to make decisions on their own, they will learn from their mistakes, too. Mistakes are opportunities to learn, nothing else. Don’t shame them or be disappointed when your children make them.
Another core condition for simulating co-operation is appropriate distribution of power. In a democracy, people have a say about things that impact them and they have a mechanism to change the social order if they don’t like it. If you don’t like the speed limit on your street, you have ways to request a change to the speed limit. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily be successful. In a democracy, you always have a say – but you don’t always get your way.
Let’s look at an actual example of democracy at work in the family: meals. It’s not respectful to unduly burden mom or dad’s time and energy by demanding that they make a different meal for each child according to that child’s whims and wishes. We can, however honor that different people like different foods and we can try to come up with ways to respect differences.
We do this through discussions and problem solving our issues together at family council meetings. The family council meetings are equivalent to having a town council meeting in your community to discuss changes to speed limit zoning. It’s a democratic structure that ensures that everyone has a voice and a say.
Here are some of the creative solutions children have come up with for meal planning:
- Each person in the family gets to pick one night of the week. On their night, they pick the dinner menu. On other nights of the week, they agree to eat what others have picked.
- There should be at least ONE item on the dinner menu that each person likes.
- Kids can have their beloved chicken fingers, but only three times a week. The kids can pick which days those meals will be served.
When children feel they have a voice and a say in how the family operates, it is empowering and is proof that they are indeed an important part of the family. Each element stimulates the intrinsic desire to be more co-operative with others in the family. It’s a fact: children are more likely to live with rules they help establish.
Family meetings are great for problem solving, but there are other disciplinary techniques too. Because discipline comes from the root word “to teach,” proper discipline should educate children. Children learn experientially, so the next two tools are both about allowing them to make choices for themselves and to experience the outcomes or the consequences of those choices. These can be either natural or logical consequences.
A natural consequence is just that – from the natural world. When you drop a pea from your highchair it always falls to the ground. When you touch a hot stove, you get burned every time, whether a parent is there or not!
Children learn the most quickly from natural consequences. It only takes one pinched finger in a spring loaded cupboard door for a toddler to learn to keep their fingers back!
Yet, how many times have you said “stop jumping on the couch” to no avail? How come they have not learned the social rule of feet off the couch yet when they were such a quick study about pinched fingers? Why? Because there is no consequence for jumping on the couch, (and they likely enjoy the attention they get when you nag them). So a parent must INVENT a consequence. That is a bit more work because they take some thinking to create. Designed wrong or enacted out wrong and a logical consequence simply becomes punitive and we are no further ahead.
So what makes a good logical consequence? It must be respectful, reasonable, related and revealed in advance. “We need to keep our feet on the floor. Can you get off the couch or do I need to put you down?” or “Can you be in this room without jumping on the furniture or do I need to put up a baby-gate and make this room off-limits?” If a parent can create a consequence and follow through in a firm and friendly way, a child learns to make more pro-social choices.
There are certainly more tools and techniques to share with parents, but the scope of this article is to demonstrate how parenting needs to change and why we have lost our way. The hope is for parents to see the benefits of taking a parenting class and to learn more about our children and how to guide them in our families to fulfill their greatness.