Last week I found a copy of Children the Challenge in a used book store. It has been years since I lost or gave away our copy but it was the influential parenting book we used raising our own children. Both Crystal and I were trained as Adlerian Psychologists. Alfred Adler was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Austria back in the late 19c, along with Carl Jung and others exploring this new enterprise called psychology – the study of human and animal behaviour. Adler developed his own brand of psychology and Rudolph Dreikurs was a disciple of Adler who eventually came to the United States to promote Adlerian psychology in North America.
Children the Challenge is his classic work on improving parent-child relations. It was originally published in 1964, then re-issued in 1987 in the paperback edition I found, but it is still as eminently practical for today’s parents as it was for us. It was a great read for me, as it reminded me of my Adlerian roots and reinforced, among other things, my preference for the term coaching, as opposed to therapy, I use now in dealing with couples.
Adler’s contention was that all of us as children, develop what he called a life style, dependant on how each of us, subjectively, found our place in our family of origin. He likened it to a map, a very accurate map, say of Windsor (our family of origin). What brings people into my office at 30 or 40 or 60 is, metaphorically, they are in Toronto, but still using their Windsor map – the beliefs they learned in childhood – which are no longer working. However, Adler’s conclusion was not that there was something wrong with a person (therapy), but rather that what they had learned at 4 or 5 was no longer working and they could (if they so choose) learn better and more constructive ways of interacting in the world (coaching). To me this is just a way more optimistic approach to life.
Dreikurs takes many of the key elements of Adlerian theory and applies them to parenting. The book is filled with example after example of children’s unproductive behaviour and then suggests different ways to handle the same situation to ensure a better outcome. I am certainly not an expert on parenting by any means but the one take away that I think all parents (and grandparents in my case) can be reminded of is the importance of recognizing the child’s mistaken goals.
“Children want desperately to belong….but if he has become discouraged, his sense of belonging is restricted. His interest turns from participation in the group to a desperate attempt at self-realization through others. All his attention is turned toward this end, be it through pleasant or disturbing behaviour, for, one way or another, he has to find a place. There are four recognized “mistaken goals” that such a child can pursue. It is essential to understand these mistaken goals if we hope to redirect the child into a constructive approach to social integration.” P. 58
The 4 mistaken goals young children have, albeit they are unconscious for the child, are: 1) They want attention; 2) they are in a struggle for power; 3) if this goal intensifies the result can be the goal of retaliation or revenge and finally 4) a completely discouraged child demonstrates inadequacy. The key to recognizing the child’s mistaken goal is our own emotional response. If I get irritated by the child it is probably the goal of attention. If on the other hand I find myself in a power struggle, it is a clue to the child’s goal of gaining power. The urge to get back at the child, to retaliate, is a good indication of goal #3 and if I, as the parent, feel helpless or end up doing everything for the child, his or her goal is probably #4. Using real life examples, Dreikurs clarifies these points, helping parents become more aware of the unconscious goal of the child and then to take more appropriate steps to meet the underlying needs of the child.
A second take away for me was his insistence on the importance of encouragement (we all need it, as children and adults). For Adler, a misbehaving child is a discouraged child.
“Parental love is best demonstrated through constant encouragement toward independence. We need to start this at birth and to maintain it all through childhood. It is made manifest by our faith and confidence in the child as he is at each moment. It is an attitude which guides us through all the daily problems and situations of childhood. Our children need courage. Let us help them to develop and keep it.” P. 55.
“Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs has created an extraordinary guide designed to meet the needs of all parents – helping them to develop a consistent approach to raising children in a warm and nurturing environment. Children the Challenge is the classic book on parent-child relations and is a great read for any parent or to be parent or teacher or coach who works with youngsters.” (Introduction)