Perhaps the Best Parenting Advice – Ever!

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It was several years ago while browsing through a used book store, that I happened upon the book. Hardback. Green cover. Red ribbon book marker, like those found in Bibles. Were it not for the tattered “green” cover, I might have mistaken it for a Bible. Upon closer inspection, the title read: Children: The Challenge. Copyright: 1964. Retail price: $9.95. Sale price: $4.95. A “good deal” by most standards. Even now as I craft this blog post, the book continues to lose bits and pieces of its aging green cover. The author? Rudolph Dreikurs, MD, the Viennese-born psychiatrist who migrated to the United States in the late 1930s. The “good deal” instantly became a “good steal.”

Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs was born in Vienna, Austria in 1897. He graduated from the medical school of the University of Vienna, after which he spent five years doing his internship and residency in psychiatry. In the process, Dr. Dreikurs became interested in the teachings of renowned Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Adler, with whom he became a close collaborator. Dreikurs moved to the United States in 1937 until his death in 1972. At the time of death, he was Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Chicago Medical School and Director of the Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago.

Developing the Adlerian system of psychology into a pragmatic method for understanding misbehavior in children, Dreikurs (and Adler) believed that “encouragement” was essential to improving human behavior and relationships. Simply entitled “Encouragement”, chapter three begins:

“Encouragement is more important than any other aspect of child-raising. It is so important that the lack of it can be considered the basic cause for misbehavior. A misbehaving child is a discouraged child” (author’s italics).

“A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” 

Whatever else modern research adds or subtracts from this statement, discouragement and misbehavior are indeed linked. Dreikurs continues:

“Each child needs continuous encouragement just as a plant needs water….However, the techniques of child-raising that we use today present a series of discouraging experiences…..Children respond to their various predicaments with a tremendous desire to gain skills and to overcome the deep sense of their own smallness and inadequacy. They so dearly want to be an integrated part of the family. However, in their attempts to gain recognition and to find a place, they meet with constant discouragement….

Three-year-old Paul was putting on his new suit so that he could go to the store with Mother. ‘Come here, Paul. Let me finish for you. You are too slow.’

Paul is made to feel inefficient in the face of Mother’s magic ability to do things quickly. Discouraged, he gives up and lets Mother dress him.

In a thousand subtle ways, by tone of voice and by action, we indicate to the child that we consider him inept, unskilled, and generally inferior. In the face of all this he still tries to find his place and make his mark….

Whenever we act to support the child in a courageous and confident self-concept, we offer encouragement. There is no pat answer to the problem. It involves careful study and thought on the part of the parents. We must observe the result of our training…and repeatedly ask ourselves, ‘What is this method doing to my child’s self-concept?’

The child’s behavior gives the clue to his (sic) self-estimate. The child who doubts his own ability and his own value will demonstrate it through his deficiencies. He no longer seeks to belong through usefulness, participation, and contributions. In his discouragement, he turns to useless and provocative behavior. Convinced that he is inadequate and cannot contribute, he determines that at least he will be noticed, one way or another. To be spanked is better than to be ignored. And there is some distinction in being known as ‘the bad boy.'” (Dreikurs is reminding me of the “Law of the Soggy Potato Chip”, attributed (I think) to psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson. Give a child the choice between a crisp potato chip [positive attention] and a soggy potato chip [negative attention], s/he will choose the crisp potato chip. But, give a child the choice between a soggy potato chip [negative attention] and no potato chip at all (ignored), s/he will choose the soggy potato chip. In other words, anything is better than being ignored.)

In chapter four of Children: The Challenge, Dreikurs discusses four “mistaken goals” which often motivate a child’s misbehavior in lieu of encouragement: undue attention, control, resentment, and inadequacy. Significantly, these four “mistaken goals” can be reduced to three of four categorical emotions: MAD, SAD, and SCARED. Conversely, “encouragement” promotes GLAD.

Chapter six of Children: The Challenge, discusses “The Use of Natural and Logical Consequences” versus the ineffectiveness of punishment, and even reward.

Today, we may be more familiar with the helpful concepts and methodologies of Foster Cline, MD and Jim Fay–namely, “Love and Logic”–but many of the original concepts and methodologies clearly belong to Rudolph Dreikurs and Alfred Adler.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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