Interview with Jesper Juul. Questions by Ivana Gradišnik. Edited by Hayes van der Meer, www.familylab.com.au

Are young people beyond pedagogical reach or are the arms of society just not long enough? (Jesper Juul)

If we take a quick look at today’s society there seems to be a lot of existential insecurity, a lot of fear, no common ground on moral values, not one single authority for us to lean on. Everything is allowed … How does this affect parents and parenting today?

I think we are going through a transition period and it will take one or two generations for this to be completed. Parents used to receive important support from people around them, and most people used to share one set of common values. If you asked neighbours on either side of you home, your child’s teacher, your mother and even your mother-inlaw, they would all give you similar answers. Today, you can do two things: To try to figure out what science is saying, which is not exactly easy because scientists are contradicting each other. Or you can try to ask yourself what kind of partnership you want, what kind of parent do you want to be and what kind of values do you want to have. These are your choices and this is a function of democracy – in fact, it would not be possible without democracy. At the same time this is stress factor number one. While it provides great freedom it also means that we are responsible for ourselves. There is no one to blame and no one you can pass the guilt on to – no authority, no state, no one. It is about you and your choices.

You say that there is not one single authority left to lean on. 

This is correct but there is also another side to it. The children are the authority yet they have poor role models. As a child and as a young person you can open any newspaper and read about scandals, crime, corruption, cruelty and plenty of other unfortunate happenings. You are right, there is really no authority with integrity. Except a God – if you believe in one. I think we would all like authority – especially children. Mind you, this authority has to come with integrity. If it does not then the children will rebel – as would we all… or fall asleep.

So what problems do you see parents are having?

Most countries have big problems with young people – teenagers in particular. If you listen to the ministers of education in Europe for example I think they have all been drinking too much red wine because they are all saying the same thing. Unfortunately, what they are saying is not very intelligent. It is this neoconservative idea that we can make society develop backwards, which is obviously not possible. They are dreaming about “the good old days” as if they were really good.

What happened during their schooling? Students were quiet. Now women are speaking up, children are speaking up – I guess this is very disturbing for those ministers!

I am really concerned about this so now we are working with a university in Germany to change things. I was at an international symposium in Bregens and there was this big “guru” on social pedagogical thinking. I was part of the panel with him and he was saying to the audience: “We have these and these groups of young people, blah, blah… and I don’t think anybody knows what to do with them.” Half an hour later I answered him. I said: “I know!” So he said: “Oh, do you?” I said: “Yes, I do.” He wanted to hear how I would do that to which I replied: “You’re very welcome but it will take four days because I need to move things around in your head first, I need to clear some space because we keep repeating the same mistakes.“ What they were saying everywhere was that young people are “beyond pedagogical reach.” My question is: Are they beyond pedagogical reach or are the arms of society not long enough for us to reach them?

So how should parents relate to their teenagers?

Parent should be what I call sparring partners – just like in boxing. They have to provide maximum resistance and do minimum damage. This means that they should say whatever they feel: “Over my dead body, you’re not going to that party!” However, they should not exercise their power! When children have moved into puberty it is too late trying to bring them up – you cannot do that. They need you in the background and they need you as their sparring partners. They need you to tell them what you think is right or wrong but they need to figure it out for themselves. So do not try to raise your 13 year old in the same way you did when he was eight, because nothing is going to change. There is going to be a lot of fighting and that is exactly where we are with the young people, because we are incredibly frustrated, challenged and provoked by their behaviour but this has always been the case! Even Socrates spoke about it. This has simply been on the agenda forever. I would, however, like the adults to become a little wiser and I think that is possible. A female friend of ours came with her whole family to visit my family. She brought her 13 year old and tried to describe to me his difficulties at school. She said: “But of course he’s at the age now where friends are more important than family.” She was talking to me and she did not notice that her son started crying when she said it. I said to her: “Look at him!” and to the boy I said: “What do you want to say?” So he said: “That is not true. It is true I spend more time with my friends but it is not true that they’re more important.” These are the kind of things that adults just blurt out – completely without thinking. I think we are learning a lot, as we have been very willing to integrate the last 15 years of science and research into the care for young children. We have been very willing to integrate our knowledge about adults too. The things we learn from modern psychotherapies, which we often get from women first because they started talking about relationships and how they experienced these. Unfortunately, young people and old people are left out. We are doing the same things, which they did when I moved into a home for adolescents in 1968. It is the same rubbish and it does not work. Well, it does work – approximately 15% of the time. That is all! I think we need a whole new paradigm, which is finding its way around the world at increasing pace. Apart from that, I think a lot of parents are stressed with insecurity.

I have heard you talk about constructive insecurity.

Yes. I call it constructive insecurity because parents who allow themselves to be constructively insecure are actually doing pretty well because they are engaged, curious, searching and open to change. There is really no such thing as an expert in how to raise children. We have experts in brain function and in pedagogical theory but nobody is an expert in the family’s raising of their children. They say I am an expert but that is not true. I know something about some of the things that you can do when you are not satisfied or are frustrated or if your child or you are not thriving. Then I know what to do – some of the time. I think that this generation of parents is a generation of pioneers – they are claiming new land. I get angry when I hear this generation criticised by grandparents, by politicians over 50 and others. They are all saying: “Why are they so insecure, everybody knows how to raise a child!” It is the same sentiment all over the world.

So you are saying we are insecure anyway and it is bad and destructive if we try to hide it or suppress that.

It is bad because it means we are role playing. We start playing mummy and daddy. When we do that the children start playing children and then it all goes terribly wrong. When you are constructively insecure you are willing and able to talk about it. First with your partner, secondly with your child, and thirdly with your friends. It is amazing how much children know! If you do not know what to do, you are really at the end of your wits and you are almost breaking down – what can you do? Well, break down first, sit down and cry, and then your child will ask you what is the matter. You can say: “I simply don’t know what to do anymore, I would like this, this and this and I don’t know what to do.” Very often the children will respond with some good idea and they will be very helpful. They are always helpful. If they are not afraid – if they are afraid or scared it is different all together.

Do parents hide their fears because they think that if they show the child they are insecure then the child will abuse it to their advantage?

I think that is an excuse more that the explanation. It is simply a tradition that the parents should always know everything and have the answers to all questions – but obviously, nobody knows everything! It comes from the days when raising children was a power struggle and you should never expose your weakness to your enemy. This power struggle is also why parents think they should always be in agreement. They think that if they disagree there is a split at the top and then the farmers will rebel …

Teenagers need you to tell them what you think is right or wrong but they really do need to figure it out for themselves. (Jesper Juul)

It is a new concept to many parents when I say: If nothing else works, try the truth. In Europe I met two young parents, both of them pedagogues. Their eight years old daughter was still wetting her pants at night. She did actually stop when she was three but began again when she was five. The parents had a list of all the methods that they had tried. They said what parents often say: “We’ve tried everything! We don’t know what to do.” I said: “First of all, your daughter is old enough to decide where, when and how to wee. She’s eight years old, she can decide that for herself. Secondly: tell her the truth.” Straight away they said: “But we’ve done that – many times. We’ve told her that we want to help her!” So I said: “No, the other truth, the one you just told me.” I had to help them: “What does your daughter like to drink?” They said: “Hot chocolate!” I told them: “Fine, make her a hot chocolate, make a cake, sit down with her and say: “Listen, for four years we tried to help you with this problem and we have failed. Now we don’t know what to do but we spoken with this man and he said that you are old enough to do this, this and this… so we would like to hand the responsibility for your bladder over to you.”” When they spoke with her and said exactly that, her response was: “Really?” The parents said: “Yes, will you take that responsibility?” She said: “Yes!” Two days later she had stopped and it has not been a problem since. She cured herself. That is of course why we talk about equal dignity. You can say the truth in many different ways. You can also say: “I don’t know what’s the matter with you, I tried everything, something must be wrong in your head!” It is the same truth – just expressed differently – and without equal dignity.

You have touched on three of the values that you propose for the current generation: self-responsibility, authenticity and equal dignity. The fourth is integrity …

Let me say that integrity was part of that example as well. If you turn your child or your child’s problems into a project – it will become a real problem. This might be a practical issue such as wetting the bed or it might be something the parents imagine: “My child is very slow compared to other children.” or “My child is very active compared to others.” Then there is a thin line between reality and imagination. In Sweden we often meet parents who want their children to be happy all the time – they want happy children. So when I give a lecture there I say: “You’re crazy. You want happy children? It’s impossible! You cannot have happy children! Who here is happy all the time?” Nobody is happy all the time. Then somebody from the audience always says: “I hope they are happy. Everybody wishes for their child to be happy.” So I say: “Yes, that’s fine but there’s a big difference between wishing for your child to be happy and turning it into a project. If you turn it into a project you turn your child into a thing.” Doing that is violating the child’s integrity, which is exactly the same as if you try 12 different methods. It is a violation – the child feels more and more like an object!

What happens with the child if she’s turned into a project?

Well, two things happen. She will love her parent for it because she will get a lot of attention. If you want to turn your five year old into a tennis star – she will love the attention and she will learn. Children are easily fooled. So whatever attention they are given they believe in their parents and they believe they are loved. You know: “I’m cold – but they love me. So something must be wrong with me.” They collaborate. The second thing which happens is that at some point, usually as teenagers or a little later, they break down because they have no idea who they are anymore. Children want nothing rather than to please their parents. So if my mother and father want me to do something or to be something I will do anything in my power to be that person. At some point I will lose myself. I do not know who I am any longer so of course I become depressed or I start taking drugs or alcohol or whatever… It happens – it happens all the time and it happened in the good old days as well. A few generations ago parents had mostly social ambitions for their children. My son is meant to take over the family business or trade. Everybody knows how unhappy children were with that! Now the ambitions are financial, educational or emotional – they differ from country to country. In Croatia the ambitions are material. So every young child should have at least five pairs of Nike shoes or something like that. Mum and dad will work extra hard just to make that possible. This is crazy but it is happening – and it has always been happening – and it will probably always be happening. We want our children to live better lives than we did even if we do not think that ours were terribly bad. We want them to have a better life and this turns us blind!

Is being “blind” also the reason for this epidemic of children who seem to be selfish, inconsiderate and egocentric little tyrants?

Yes, that is because they have what we call curling parents – you know the game that is played on the ice and you slide a stone towards a particular point. In front of it the players run with brooms sweeping the path and trying to make the stone slide 1 millimetre to the left or right. These are the curling parents who want to make the lives of their children and their families a paradise. They do not like conflicts, they do not like their children to be frustrated, they do not want them to be unhappy, they do not want them to get hurt… and so on. It is all like that and what obviously happens is that the children spend the first couple of years without any real people around them. They just see these always obliging smiling faces. How can they learn that other people have needs, values, boundaries, bad moments and all those real human traits? These children will not properly develop their ability to be emphatic towards other people neither will they develop a social orientation, the ability to read faces and to read behaviour. You are right, this is an epidemic. Here brain research and neuroscience can help us.  As family therapists we have always known the reasons for this and how to cure it. We also know that it takes just as long time to cure as it takes to become like that.

Interesting, could you elaborate on this?

Parents have to become real people but they are told that they have to set boundaries. That is not true, they do not need to set boundaries around their children but they do need to be clear and they need to be personal in their contact. Neuroscience and research tells us that children who are not allowed to be frustrated during the first two and a half years of their lives miss out on an important development of the brain, namely the link between the left and the right side which deals with the ability of empathy. Of course the brain is a developing organ so it can change but parents need to stop role-playing – they need to stop aiming for total bliss! If you are treated like a princess for the first 18 months of you life you will start behaving like a princess. Parents must be real in their contact with children. They have to learn how to say “No!” and they, especially mothers, have to learn how to brush their children off. It is all right to say: “Go away… I want to read my magazine!”, “I want to cook my meal!” or whatever it might be.

So becoming real is the real answer. How can we convince parents of that?

The two books: “The art of saying no!” and “Who am I? Who are you?” will tell you that in much greater detail. The basic principle is that children are real people! In fact, all people are, yet some adults still have this paradise fantasy about their relationship. You should have that paradise fantasy – but in the beginning only. When the hormone levels go down reality hits and we know that two people cannot live together without having at least 25 conflicts a day. There is a conflict when you have one wish and I have another. This happens all the time and then we can make adjustments or make a compromise or make love or whatever – we have to do that. What we cannot do is compromise ourselves – at least not without paying for it.

You mention the conflicts. When do they become destructive?

Conflicts become destructive when they repeat themselves over and over again. When the subject does not change and the tone gets more and more negative or aggressive. When interacting with children, this should not be confused with one of the things that frustrate parents the most. Namely, that many parents want their children to mature much faster than they can. We need to give them time to integrate our family values, the rules of the home, what we like and what we do not like, and maybe also what happens in Kindergarten. It takes about four to five years but many parents say: “Do I really have to say the same things 3000 times!?” So I say: “Yes! You have to because children at that age need emphatic and friendly guidance. That is exactly what they need. After that they might need a little bit of education but that is basically it.” As a parent you have to be very clear about what you want! Are we talking about raising a child or are we talking about conditioning a child? If we are talking about conditioning then it is hard work and it has become even more difficult because it is generally not seen as acceptable to use violence. It is much easier to condition people when you can hit them: women and children – and men, which also happens. If we are talking about socialisation – the things that happen – nobody has to do anything. Children learn and are socialised through interactions. They notice how we are talking and what are we doing. They learn from that. If you tell them: “Say hello to the man!” they might not obey – or do it but look down so they are not really saying hello. It is the same at Kindergarten where they say: “When you hurt someone you have to apologise!” So they learn how to say: “I’m sorry!” That is all, they do not learn what it is like to feel sorry. This is what I mean when I say that it will take a couple of generations because we are changing the whole concept of what is it like to raise children.

But why is being real so difficult?

Because we have always been taught that we have to be nice. You have to learn the social language which is perfect when you meet people on the bus, when you go shopping and those situations but it does not work in personal relationships. Some parents are getting very frustrated with me. They tell me that their children are not listening. So I say: “Well, then I have to know how you’re asking them something.” Then they say: “I would like…!” To which I say: “Of course your child is not listening because that’s how you speak to the baker: “I would like a cake!”” When you talk to someone in your family you need to say: “I want…!” Then the parents say: “What!?!?!” Some think it is almost criminal. It is very difficult for women in particular to say “I want…!”

You are talking about “I would like” and “I want”?

Yes, and “I would like, please, if it’s possible…” This is why we are having all those hidden conflicts. Many people do not like to say something personal so they begin by saying: “Please don’t be angry with me…” Or: “You know that I like you but if possible some day I would like you to…” Of course it does not work, it only works in shops. If you go to a supermarket and stand in the middle of the isle and say: “I’m hungry!” nothing is going to happen.

The interesting thing is that once you try it in your family you will realise that it does work. I do not understand why some people are not willing to even try? This is because we for generations have learned that our own selves are a danger to others and that if we become real we will become impossible for our parents and a danger to society. Child psychologists were saying 50 years ago! Children however, start with the personal language: “I want cake!” and “I want more cake!”

Then parents correct them because they do not like them to say “I want”. Instead they ask them say “I would like to!” Exactly, and if the child wants the cake badly enough they will start saying it like that. However, then they grow up, they get married and they are not able to say what they want anymore. What is even worse is that they have learned that saying what you want makes you a bad person. Makes you irritating or not loyal or whatever.

So these are all the things that we have learned not only through science and research but we have learned this from psychotherapy with adults. I have a beautiful example from group therapy in Austria. One of the participants was a 42 year old psychologist, very intelligent and with a lot of capabilities – or should I say “a lot of potential” because she was not really using it. At some stage I said to her: “Listen, when are you going to use your potential? Are you just going be this nice girl for the rest of your life?” She did what women do: she felt hurt at first, then she started crying and left the room. She went home. The next morning she came back and said: “I want to talk to you!” We sat down in the middle of the group and she said: “I didn’t sleep last night and now I know why. I know that what you were saying is true and I know why.” I asked her: “Why is it true?” She replied: “Because when I grew up my mother would at least once a week tell me: “You cannot stand out, you have to fit the norm!” She would say this to me either directly or indirectly.”

That is rule number one: never stand out. So this woman had plenty of potential but she was not allowed to use it, not with her children, not with her husband, not in her job – because of her niceness. There is nothing wrong about being nice, its okay to be nice and children learn how to be nice if they see their parents being nice to other people. You do not have to teach them that. You do not have to teach them to say “Thank you!” They will pick that up by themselves – if you say “Thank you!”. You cannot manage personal relations by being nice. It is not possible to solve conflicts or problems with your colleagues, your boss – and especially not within your family – by being nice.

As you say, some people are trying to be real and find out that it works wonderfully, others are simply too afraid. Like this woman said: “It’s almost like being naked. It’s like taking my clothes off in public! Suddenly I’m personal.” This means that when I am personal, I am vulnerable! Which is true. That is the price you have to pay for being personal.

I must say that these ideas are spreading like a wildfire. The Danish Crown Prince has become an icon of the new real  fathers. When he was interviewed outside the hospital straight after his second child was born he was crying. When he got married he was crying. The media cannot really decide whether this is a scandal or not? It is what happens at work, with friends, at university or where ever… you start crying. People say: “He or she is having a breakdown!” but it has nothing to do with having a breakdown, it has everything to do with breaking open.

You mention fathers. Some seem to be a bit lost because they have lost their primary role as breadwinners so they are being undermined. What can they do? Can women help them?

I do not think women can help them, maybe indirectly. They can, first of all, start spending more time with their children. Not because it is good for the children or because it helps the mother but because it is good for them. The problem men have – which is very different to the problems of children, young people and women – men do not really have any enemies. Well, we have ourselves, but there is nobody to fight against. So there is nothing to fuel development. We do not need to say: “This is not fair…!” So we have to fuel our development on our own and we have to see the benefits of it. In Germany they have introduced shared parental leave when the child is born. Only women used to have that option and now there is a female junta who wants the men to take as much time off as they are legally able to. For 15 years the media has wanted to interview me about how good it is for children. I say: ”I’m not going to talk about that. If you want an interview then let’s talk about how good it is for the fathers.” They never want to talk about that. Two Danish CEOs, one who works with the biggest newspaper and the other with a famous consulting firm, became fathers and took their paternity leave. They both wrote books about it and said: “I spent six months with my child on my one – and I learned more from those six months than I learned in all of the seminars and workshops that I had previously attended!” They wrote about their experiences which made other fathers think and say: “Okay, it’s not another duty. It’s a possibility I have for personal development!”

So being with children is, in a way, the most therapeutic thing for mankind?

Absolutely! Most importantly because it confronts you! You have to learn everything about your personal boundaries, you learn that you have much more power than you ever thought you had, you learn the basics of communication, you learn about leadership, you learn multitasking, you learn… everything. You learn a lot about yourself – if you want to.

That is where the division is right now. It is between fathers who say: “Okay, partnership and children are a wonderful source for personal development!” Or the attitude along the lines of: “Partnerships have become a mess because women started speaking up. I’m going to Thailand to find a real woman!” They think that educating the child is something you do to the child. They do not see it as a two-way street. That is the division which is going through Europe and the western world right now. The first group is growing bigger and bigger very fast.

In Stockholm the libraries have cafes. A few years ago you would see thousands of mothers with small children getting together having lunch or coffee or whatever. Recently, I noticed that there were more fathers than mothers! Of course they are struggling, as you say, to work out what it means to be the father. We cannot learn this from women because women have no idea about that. Similarly, I cannot teach a mother to be a mother – I can give her some idea that is all.

Women started putting their feet down and demanding: “We want to be treated as real people!” Now the children are doing it. I hope one day men will do it too. Women have been blind because men had the financial power, political power, social power and so on – and to a large extend they still do. Women did not see how isolated men were – in a human sense! Our fathers’ generation suffered on the factory floor every day. They were not asked to be humans they were expected to be machines. This is what is also wrong with our school system. We are trying to “educate” our children into machines. The politicians have not realised that the world does not need more machines – we need people.

Aggression seems to be one other thing that we do not want. It is presented as a huge problem. In Kindergartens little boys are taught not to show any signs of aggression, so it is being suppressed.

It is true. Women do not like aggression so female pedagogues are suppressing boys everyday and have unrealistic expectations! They want four year old boys to be able to intellectualise conflicts. Often they want the boys to deal with conflicts in a way they are not able to themselves.

 Children who grow up learning how to express and deal with their own aggression do not become violent! Those who learn how to suppress their aggression become violent. (Jesper Juul)

I think – I hope – there is a misunderstanding and they confuse aggression with violence. Maybe they think that aggression leads to violence. For small children this is true because they cannot articulate what they want so they will bite you or hit you or kick you when they are not satisfied. Reality is that children who grow up learning how to express and deal with their own aggression do not become violent! Those who learn how to suppress their aggression become violent. That is what is happening now.

More men in the educational system?

Sure, that would be wonderful!

It is also difficult to see children’s behaviour as a symptom, as a reflection of what is going on in the family – the relationships between the family members.

You are right, this is difficult. I sometimes say to parents who talk about their guilt: “If you took your child and hammered him to the wall and his scull broke open, than you’re guilty. But guilt doesn’t have any place in psychology, guilt belongs in church and you can go there with your guilt.”

I have done this for 35 years now. We started saying these things in Denmark and the first 10 years parents would come with their children and want them to be fixed – so to speak. No parents want that any more. Later they came with their children and said: “Our child is this and this… We know something must be wrong with the system we’re living in.” The current generation does not carry this guilt or blame. They are simply saying: “I must be doing something wrong, tell me what it is and what I can do.” I tell them what it is and what they can do so they go home and do it. They do not waste their time feeling guilty. It will take some years for this attitude to become part of every society.

Two or three generations?

No no! Recently, we have become so globalised that the input which is coming in this direction is much greater. When I started we were a small group of people who were these “strange” people talking a strange language. We started talking about the family and not just about children. Now it is a whole different world and with the internet and you are not only listening to your own parents or your family doctor but you are looking up information and listening to anyone anywhere in the world.

So you are optimistic. We are better parents?

Absolutely! Politically speaking I am not so optimistic, though. I do not know much about politics but politically things seem to be moving in the wrong direction.

Is this a paradox? The saying goes that if we raise our children well then the world will be a better place. We are doing better as parents… how come the world is so stuffed?

We will see changes – we will…! Firstly, this is not due to what we do now, it due to what happened 50 years ago. There is a very famous German neuro biologist called Dr. Gerald Hüther. A while ago we were interviewed together. This was interesting because the interviewer would ask me for statements and he would support these with examples of international research findings. One of the things he said was: “I talk to politicians, I talk to people in the government and they listen when I suggest schools should be changing in a certain direction but they very openly say: “We don’t think we want that kind of school. Because if you get that kind of children it’s going to be a whole different society and we don’t want that. We would like to modify the school system but we would not like to change!” They are like the general public, they would like to feel better but they would not like to change.

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