BOOK REVIEW: Happy Children: A Challenge to Parents

Rudolf Dreikurs with Vicki Soltz, 1964. (Republished 1995 by the Australian Council for Educational Research, ISBN 0 86431 160 5)

[NB – there is no current edition of this book at present available in Ireland, but it is in print in Australia ACER Ltd. 19 Prospect Hill Rd. Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria 3124, Australia.]

What a refreshing contrast to current child-rearing theories this book presents! Here the reader will not find guilt-anxiety-blame in any shape or form. Dreikurs claims to be completely practical in his approach to a problem which he states in terms still frighteningly familiar today, more than thirty years after he wrote the book: “Many parents are becoming increasingly upset and bewildered. They had hoped to raise happy, well behaved children who felt sure of their proper place. Instead they see their children becoming dissatisfied, bored, unhappy, contemptuous and defiant. Everywhere paediatricians and psychiatrists report an alarming increase in severely disturbed children. In an attempt to do something about this situation, parents enrol in child study courses, join in group discussions, attend PTA lectures and read innumerable books, pamphlets and newspaper articles. The true significance of this vast program of parent education is recognized by very few. Parental ability to raise children seems to have become lost.” Dreikurs believes that the reason for this apparent loss lies in the increasingly democratic nature of modern society, pointing out that major changes such as racial and employment equality legislation “are more readily perceived than the subtle change wrought by the fact that women and children claim their share in equality.” He goes on to argue that “Adults are usually deeply disturbed at the notion that children are their social equals”, and suggests that “(the) concept of equality has been growing within our culture, although we have not been aware of it and are not quite ready to understand it.”

This analysis of the problem is remarkable in several ways. First of all, it implies no blame at all – there is a time-lag in cottoning on, that’s all. Secondly, it suggests that the reasons for present difficulties in parenting are in themselves healthy and desirable changes in the fabric of society. And thirdly and perhaps most importantly, he demonstrates in the way he addresses his (worried parent) reader the same beliefs and methods that he will subsequently be recommending for looking after children – and which he summarizes at the end of the book as “New Principles of Child-Raising” – especially encouragement, logic, firmness and respect, routine and the avoidance of power-struggles (which he memorably calls, “Taking your sails out of his wind”.) For a reader in the 1990s, however, the most striking quality is likely to be its optimism and confidence.

Dreikurs openly approaches the practical problems in an Adlerian way,

“urging parents to learn democratic methods in raising their children”. This orientation also gives him ruthless insight into the power-struggles which he believes in one form or another underlie many forms of children’s mis­behaviour. He makes no attempt to explain this, taking it as self-evident that even a very young child likes to control its mother or another available adult. The contrast between this way of regarding the problem and the more recent (and thoroughly disturbing) construction of the child as permanent victim of adult power is very thought-provoking. Again I must emphasise that Dreikurs doesn’t seek to blame either the adult or the child – instead he sorts out whose business the problem really is. For example, in tackling the problem of bed-wetting, he makes no bones about this being the child’s business to sort out: “His parents can help him by handing the problem over to him. It is his business.” Similarly with nail-biting and other ‘bad’ habits, Dreikurs points out quite reasonably that it is actually not within the parents’ power to change the behaviour as such and his message seems to be to quit pretending. The most surprising example, perhaps, was that parents should take this line when children refuse to eat. With utter consistency, he explains that it is the child’s responsibility to eat – “We do not have the right to assume the responsibilities of our children,” he admonishes us. “There is always a misbehaving parent when a child becomes a feeding problem.”On the other hand, the maintenance of order in the routine of the house he equally sees as the parents’ business, and similarly advises them to stick to their own rules in spite of the children’s attempts to deflect them. Examples abound – watching TV, bedtime, sweets and treats – all familiar areas of conflict. At the same time, he is clear that jealousy and squabbles among the children are their affair – “Whatever the reason behind the children’s fights, parents only make matters worse when they try to interfere, try to solve the quarrel or separate the children. Whenever a parent interferes in a fight, he is depriving the children of an opportunity for learning how to resolve their own conflicts.”

After his opening chapters on “Understanding the Child” and “Encourage­ment”, Dreikurs comes rapidly to the heart of his analysis. He argues that children may have “mistaken goals”: “Children want desperately to belong. If all goes well and the child maintains his courage, he presents few problems. He does what the situation requires and gets a sense of belonging through his usefulness and participation. 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.” This is the underlying meaning of Dreikurs’ “practical approach” – the “happy” child of the title finds a constructive social existence for himself, first in the context of the family and immediate surroundings (which is the scope of the book) and presumably in life after that. This also explains the “mistaken” quality of the four “goals” which Dreikurs defines thus:

1. The desire for undue attention (he notes that “It may seem difficult at first glance to distinguish between due and undue attention …” and goes on to explain and give examples);
2. The struggle for power which “usually occurs after the parent has tried for some time forcibly to stop the child’s demands for attention … It is a grave mistake to try to overpower a power-drunk child. It is also futile …”;
3. Following the power-struggle comes the mistaken goal of retaliation and revenge – “Such children, who need encouragement the most, get it the least.”;
4. The completely discouraged child demonstrates complete inadequacy: “the seemingly stupid child is frequently a discouraged child who uses stupidity as a means of avoiding any effort whatsoever.”

Following this list (which is plainly as relevant to the parents as to the children, I feel), Dreikurs goes into italics – “Under no circumstances is there anything to be gained by telling the child what we suspect may be his mistaken goal.” Again, this is the parent’s business and a basis for action, not “a flow of words.” Time and again, Dreikurs identifies the endless flow of words which parents may lavish on their children as being a way of continuing the problems. He even coins a phrase which is so strikingly accurate that I am surprised it has not yet passed into the language – “mother-deaf”. The parent “reasons” with the child. “In a conflict situation, however, the child is unwilling to listen, and words become weapons. Nothing can be conveyed to a child by means of words at a time of conflict. At this point his deafness is total … Many times the parent’s action should be nothing more than keeping the jaws together. Parents who try this for the first time may find the effort very great indeed …”

Perhaps one of the most challenging ideas in the book is the elimination of the system of rewards and punishments. “Punishment, or the authoritative idea – ‘obey me, or else’, needs to be replaced by mutual respect and co-operation. Even though children are no longer inferior, they are untrained and inexperienced … Our children need our guidance. They will accept it if they know we respect them as equal human beings with equal rights to decide what they will do …” Dreikurs disapproves of rewards on the same grounds, that they demonstrate lack of respect: “We reward our ‘inferiors’ …” The good logic of Dreikurs’ position is clear, but the expectation that parents will be able or willing to abandon their accustomed patronage is remarkable.

In fact, I feel that Dreikurs’ work is very remarkable. Like most books of advice or guidance, its effectiveness or otherwise will always remain solely in the hands of its readers; so I do not think that can be the criterion of judgement. Instead, I would like to offer the idea that this man’s work demonstrates some human powers and abilities in parenting which seem to have been obscured, forgotten – lost, to use his own expression. First of all, there is the confidence to analyse, to be logical and clear. Along with this, he explicitly values courage -believing children are courageous and it is only through discouragement that they become uncooperative (learned helplessness). He takes a robust attitude towards the subject – this in itself is quite unusual these days, but as Dreikurs points out: “Many think that the ‘new psychological approach’ means yielding to the children, giving up any adult leadership. The opposite is true …” I found this particularly challenging as I read an example he gave in a late chapter (“Take it easy”). He recounts the story of a woman who placed her son in a foster home at sixteen months, took him back when she remarried and he was two, placed him in the foster home again a year later while she had another child and “Now, at five, Billy seems dreadfully unhappy,” observes Dreikurs, “Whenever his mother has to say ‘no’ or denies him something he wants, he cries and sobs, ‘You don’t love me.’ She is at her wits’ end trying to console him.”Fashionable words like “emotional abuse” started to go round my head as I read this case – but Dreikurs had me sufficiently interested to see how he would handle it. This is what he says: “The trouble lies in her guilt feelings about having put Billy in a foster home. Although it was the only sensible thing to do under the circumstances, she feels that she has failed him. Now she is dreadfully overconcerned about the effect this experience had upon him. She assumes Billy felt abandoned. Billy responds to his mother’s attitude and even uses it for his purposes. He knows her vulnerable spot and uses it as a club over her head to keep her deeply concerned with him. This provides him with a never-ending source of control. As long as he expresses his doubts in her love, she will bend over backwards trying to prove it. His mother knows that she loves Billy. (He knows it too!) She can stop falling for his ‘doubts’. She is a good mother as long as she fulfils every present necessity. She has to learn not to be afraid of Billy. Becoming aware of the purpose of his behaviour, she can render it ineffective. When Billy sobs, she can casually respond by saying that she is sorry he feels that way.” The first detail I found startling in this account was the word “overconcerned” – but if I had fully taken in Dreikurs’ earlier admonition, to avoid pitying, I wouldn’t have been so surprised. As in every example, Dreikurs is attending to the power play involved here, not to the emotional content as such. I became ashamed of myself as I realized the corollary – that I had to some extent shared Betty’s harsh judgement of her own behaviour to her son. Dreikurs does not. She did her best and it was good enough – “She is a good mother as long as she fulfils every present necessity,” he said. It took me some time to absorb the full meaning of ‘present necessity’ – and during that time, I also realized how absurdly I had emphasised the mother’s importance over the son’s. Dreikurs knows quite well that Betty is on a guilt trip – how revealing it was to me to notice that I almost went along with her! Betty was looking backward to the past – Billy was unhappy in the present.

Thinking about this advice, I began to wonder whether the real difference between so much recent popularized child psychology and this book could be summed up quite simply – Dreikurs is optimistic. His view of human children is that they are lively, resilient, clever, resourceful and full of mischief. How different from our prevalent view of fragile, damaged, frightened and passive little victims!   Perhaps your local PTA could write to Australia and get a copy for the parents to read?