To hell with the demands

April 2017

Why parents can end up being their own worst enemies: the Danish family therapist Jesper Juul, founder and director of the Kempler Institute and author of numerous handbooks on parenting, tackles this issue.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Erziehungskunst | When taking a look and the vast amount of literature on the subject of raising children and young people, you could almost come to the conclusion that being a parent is the hardest job in the world. Has it always been this way, or is this a new phenomenon?

Jesper Juul | I don’t believe that it is the most difficult job, but it’s most certainly the most important, especially in terms of our future. Until the 1970s, the development of education and parenting certainly happened at a much slower and more natural pace. Every new generation modernised the rules a little, but the basic values, that is the prevailing paradigms, remained as solid as a rock. As a result of the anti-authoritarian movement, the raising of children became much more democratic, which in turn led to uncertainty and confusion for both parents and children. The question of why parents are also required to have leadership abilities wasn’t talked about at all; and what’s more, at the same time the amount of knowledge we had about the development and nature of children was exploding. Slowly an new paradigm was being established, namely to think from the perspective of the child. The raising and education of children had to be completely rethought.

The members of my generation who had children in the 1970s and 1980s were primarily concerned to do the complete opposite to what their parents had done – but that didn’t work. Since the turn of the millennium, millions of parents and teachers have been endeavouring to find a completely new and innovative approach to the raising and education of their children. A similar development also took place in terms of the relationship between men and women. It became clear that simply ending the oppression of women wouldn’t be enough. Instead a complete reinvention of marriage and partnership would be required. This process is still far from over. We still have a lot to learn, and we are in need of the inspiration to find a better way.

EK | So on the one hand we have innumerable handbooks and guides to raising children, and on the other we no longer have any inner knowledge of how children should be raised. What can be done about this?

JJ | The challenge doesn’t lie in knowing ever more about our children. This knowledge can meanwhile be found online. The real challenge is that we need to be willing to recognise ourselves and develop ourselves as human beings so that we can find our new understanding of parenthood within this process. We still have a wealth of wisdom available to us, as long as we don’t let ourselves be scared away from looking for it and then trusting what we find; but the majority of parents feel bad because parenthood is no longer something self-evident. This then leads to the danger that parents try to simply imitate what experts, including me, say, without taking the time to reflect on their values and behaviour and to get to know their children properly. However, the most important things that parents today have to be prepared to do is to be able to learn together with their children and acknowledge that every parenthood, just like every child, is unique. Handbooks and guides won’t help in this regard.

EK | Why have parents become so full of fear, and what then turns them into helicopter parents?

JJ | Sometimes, when parents are uncertain, they try to compensate for this uncertainty with perfection. They are less concerned with doing well but rather with preventing mistakes. Helicopter parents represent an extreme form of this perfectionism. They are so fixated on safety, control and prevention that they completely forget the reasons for doing all of this in the first place. Ultimately they only any longer protect their own vision and self-image, all the while neglecting the needs of their children, needs that have to be satisfied for the sake of the child’s emotional and social intelligence. Perfectionism is the death of all interpersonal relationships.

EK | If I were to take the sensible advise of the seminars and handbooks to heart, I would spend the entire day only ensuring that I was controlling myself, the children, and our parent-child relationship. I would lose the directly lived experience to the events taking place. How can this self-observation trap be avoided?

JJ | Permit yourself to make twenty mistakes a day and don’t scrutinise your conscience more than once a month. Children don’t need perfect parents, they need parents who are human beings just as they are, so that they can experience a reflection of themselves in a real and not a fictitious environment.

EK | How can we free ourselves from the idea that my child has to develop properly, they have to play, they have to do this, they have to do that?

JJ | I know only one trick: give your child affection, take joy in them and love them in every single moment just as they are. If the child can absorb this elixir of life, then they will be able to develop to their full potential, and they will be able to do this at a pace that suits them, and not some statistic.

EK | Why is it that young adults no longer spread their wings and become independent, and end up still living with their parents at 30?

JJ | This is because one or the other of the parents won’t admit that their child has grown up and has to take responsibility for themselves. The parents take satisfaction in the fact that they still care for their children, and the children (mostly sons) eagerly and mostly to their own advantage, at least superficially, fulfil this need of their parents. A lot of these parents play that classic game of the double bind. They spoil their child while all the while bemoaning their lack of independence.

EK | According to surveys – for example, the Shell Study – young people have a strong desire for a family and children. However, they aren’t having any children and aren’t starting families. What led to this contradictory phenomenon?

JJ | I won’t flatter myself by pretending to have an answer to this question. These surveys portray a similar picture to others in which parents assert that they want to spend more time with their families, while all the while working increasingly longer hours. Young people are living in an exceedingly complex society that puts incredibly high demands on them, and all the while they are demanding the impossible from themselves; be a perfect partner, have perfect sex, be a perfect cook, be perfectly fit. This is all an unreality and, because of this, young people are becoming increasingly afraid of entering a partnership with a real, unavoidably imperfect person.

EK | In your opinion, what does raising a child mean, and what can lead to somebody wanting to avoid becoming a parent?

JJ | When raising a child, the most important aspect is to impart a system of values and behaviours that convey a sense of safety and comfort, and if you feel that that is something you can’t do, there is a strong temptation to focus instead on other aspects of your life, aspects about which you feel you are more competent and have more esteem.

EK | Is there a reason why parents are no longer capable of, on the one hand, developing along with their children and, on the other, showing them in a kind manner where their boundaries are?

JJ | I suppose there has to be, but I don’t know what it is.

EK | How can we keep our direct joy, our happiness in being able to be together with children in the face of all the stress that comes with having to raise and educate them?

JJ | The only way I know is to draw up a list of all the demands placed upon you by the outside world, and they say to yourself and to others: “To hell with it all! I want to enjoy my life and my family. I won’t submit myself to this competition.”

The interview was conducted by Ariane Eichenberg and Mathias Maurer.

For more information see: www.familylab.de; the family workshop that offers advice to families, schools and businesses.

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