Neglect with baubles on

Erziehungskunst | What we mean by education has kept changing since the time of Rousseau. What do you understand by education?

Albert Wunsch | Enabling a person to stand on their own two feet emotionally, socially and financially when they reach the age of approximately 25. That may sound banal but that is the goal which is important. Accordingly parents and other educators have the task of preparing for the reality in which the child will live 25 years later. To this end his or her very own personality has to be taken into account in order to give him or her what is relevant.

EK | You start with the uniqueness of each child. Does that mean that education for each new child in one and the same family can look quite different?

AW | Yes, many parents find it surprising when there are educational problems. When they argue that they educated all their children in the same way, how can it be that it all went wrong with this child? Then I have to respond that this is precisely the reason for it not working properly. That does not mean that there are not a number of generally applicable standards. Parents require a lot of backbone for this. Because children like to argue: “Mum, he’s allowed to do it but I’m not. That’s not fair.” Most parents find it very difficult to hold firm and say, “Well, it’s right for him but not for you.”  

EK | Does such an educational approach not assume very precise observational skills – not educating by numbers but presence of mind and flexibility?

AW | Yes! – One of my colleagues once said: “The skill which produces the greatest return is the skill of observation.” But the prerequisite for precise observation is that I let go of my own images. That is quite difficult because of our own bias. One possibility is to have the way we deal with children reflected back to us from a person we trust. This is not about right or wrong but about what I could do better this way or maybe a little bit differently when dealing with the child. Change only comes about when there is openness.

EK | Our children grow up in very controlled environments today. They can be reached at all times through their mobile phones, are taken to and collected from everywhere by their parents. What is this development about?

AW | It is pure control mania. Such parents unconsciously exercise possessiveness and power over the child. On the other hand parents give themselves meaning through such behaviour and thereby realise themselves. It is mostly their wish that the child should do this or that sport, or learn a musical instrument. Then there is the fear that something might happen to the child when he or she is “out and about”. After all, we only want the best for the child and to help him or her in all respects. Parents see it as something positive that they drive their children everywhere. What they completely lose sight of when they do that is that they deprive their children of the opportunity to organise themselves independently and take responsibility themselves for what they do. That weakens their children incredibly. They give so much care that they do not give their children the appropriate space to learn and develop. Two examples from summer camps: the mother of one child came each evening with his food on the grounds that he had his own specific food preferences. Another checked each evening whether the mobile phone was charged up. She always had a spare phone with her so that the child was able to call Mum at any time and send important messages such as “I’m sitting on the toilet and have run out of toilet paper”.

EK | It is difficult not to be part of this mania of caring without being thought of as uncaring parents. Does a child not feel excluded if her or she is not mothered like the others?

AW | Yes, it is not easy. Parents and children have to learn to deal creatively with such situations. If a child is teased because he or she is not being taken to the sports club we have to give him or her the means to deal lightly with it. One appropriate response might be: “I no longer have to be delivered here at the hall in nappies with a dummy. I can manage by myself.” As a rule that shuts the others up. A loving home in which the mother and father are attentive of the child, in which they do things together – that creates the stability which children need, not being chauffeured about. On the other hand parents can also set an example for other parents that things can be done differently – not through confrontation but with a passing remark: “... these constant trips to school, to the youth group, sport, music lessons, ballet – it’s too much for the child and we don’t want that as parents either.” Such a small self-confident remark can come as a relief for the others. Relationship time does not need to consist of ferrying the child around.

EK | How do we distinguish between spoiling and affection?

AW | Affection takes its lead from the other. I turn all my senses towards the other. What is important for him or her? How can I support that? Mostly we do not even see the other but only ourselves. In that case we need a change of perspective! The word “spoiling” has clear negative connotations in the context of education. No one will ever say: “Oh, how nice, here comes a spoilt child, what a pleasure.”

EK | So when do we spoil?

AW | Spoiling is neglect with baubles on. We bury the children under a mountain of consumer goods or suffocate them with our emotionality. Spoiling always comes to expression as the wrong kind of help (functions are taken on which the child should learn himself or herself), lack of boundaries (from too great a need for harmony) and lack of challenges (from anxiety or laziness). In all cases this lays the foundations for lack of ability, dependence and an attitude of entitlement. Learned helplessness and discouragement are the result of spoiling and create people who want everything but cannot give anything!

If a child squawks at eight months and mum and dad come running immediately to see what is the matter, children have no possibility of also experiencing an emotional drought on occasion and to develop frustration tolerance. Children have to develop emotional muscles. That includes learning to cope with the fact that things can also be tiring, unpleasant or even painful. If children can experience that they are not going to die of thirst if on one occasion they do not receive something to drink immediately, but that they can wait, then they have the opportunity to practice vital deferment of need gratification.

That does not mean not showing any emotions, being cold, not comforting a child. It is a matter of limiting our own feelings of insecurity otherwise children automatically develop emotional star behaviour and feel themselves to be the centre of the world. Then they get to school where we have a procession of princes and princesses. The child today is the be all and end all.

He or she is put under a bell jar, is secured, equipped with an alarm so that he or she cannot be stolen, is constantly checked and monitored. An independent life is not possible under those circumstances.

EK | If children diverge from the norm in their behaviour they are immediately given therapy. They are not allowed to be funny, sensitive, sad, aggressive or angry. What are the reasons for such therapeutic inflation?

AW | The more children are cut off from everyday life, the more they have to learn separately what they would otherwise learn quite naturally. If you have many children then the children have plenty of conflict among themselves. You do not have to hire a conflict coach. A child who grows up alone is automatically in the position of not experiencing typical conflicts in an ordinary way in his or her everyday life.

And if the child displays excessive self-confidence, then he or she will not be able to deal with conflicts in kindergarten because he or she will always have to win. He or she does have conflicts but asserts himself or herself on every occasion. If that is not enough, the mother becomes involved and asks the childcare worker to look after her child separately. Frustration tolerance and conflict management cannot be learned in this way. The more intensively counsellors and support services try to kid us that it is right for the child to receive special support, the more we fall for it. We buy food supplements instead of thinking about what is in the food. It is winter, we need vitamin C, so we buy vitamin C tablets. Is it not simpler to peel an orange and eat it? Many parents suffer from anxiety that their child, because he or she is such a little gem, will be unable to find a job once he or she leaves school.

It is a tragedy: parents fall prey to support mania so that their child is given the best possible “start” in life. He or she learns Chinese in primary school and how to use a computer at the age of three. The only thing that is not taught is how to use the off button.

EK | So how do we make our children strong? To what extent does resilience form the basis for personal development?

AW | Resilience goes with a stable I. Both those things are the prerequisite for living an independent life. Having a stable I means also being able to disregard our own needs, not always taking ourselves seriously everywhere and at all times. To quote Martin Buber: “The human being needs a You to become an I.” And a good 70 years later the sociologist Ulrich Beck added: “No We without an I.” The giving You is the pivot for the emergence of an I, which in turn is the prerequisite for the emergence and growth of belonging and attachment in the We. No community can survive and act successfully in the long term without stable personalities.

EK | What supports resilience, what obstructs it?

AW | On the one hand, everything supports resilience that produces a “deep sense of basic trust”. Crèches are not one of those things but tend to be inhibitors of resilience because the parents are particularly important as primary caregivers in this key phase for the development of a stable I. The child has to feel, I am secure, mummy and daddy are there for me. Then the child can develop a strong I. When I have a secure port I can venture out of it, but there is always a place to which I can return in a storm. The parents as the primary port are the prerequisite for the child being able to approach others and conquer the world. Children require a lot of age-appropriate physical and emotional challenges to develop resilience. To that end parents and other educators have to learn once again to offer and permit challenges. The basis for supporting children to develop such a strong personality is a basic attitude among all those involved which is oriented towards self-efficacy. Because without mental encouragement there is no learning, no positive living together, no social growth.

The questions were asked by Ariane Eichenberg

About the interviewee: Dr. Albert Wunsch is an education researcher, psychologist, social education workers as well as an art and crafts teacher. He teaches at the College for Economics and Management in Essen und Neuss and at the University of Düsseldorf. He also runs a practice as a relationship, life and education counsellor. He has two grown-up sons and three granddaughters.