Children: The Challenge


The notion of D.W. Winnicott’s “good enough” parent, which I blogged about last week, seemed to resonate with many parents, who found solace in the fact that children’s growth and brain development can only happen when we do not meet their every need.

This week I share some highlights from Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs’s book, Children: The Challenge (1964), which revolutionized the way we think about child raising. During a time of social change, Dreikurs was interested in how parenting was shifting from autocracy (i.e., “because I told you so”) to a more democratic approach (not to be confused with “anarchy”). According to Dreikurs, in order to have our own freedom, we need to respect others’ freedom through “order [which] bears with it certain restrictions and obligations.”

In other words, unrestricted freedom makes “tyrants” of children. Dreikurs observed that when parents assume all responsibilities for our children, cover for them, and give in to their every demand, we lose our influence and we lose their respect. Children become more interested in getting their way than learning the “restrictions and obligations” necessary for living with others—in their family, at school, in the broader community; consequently, their interest in the greater good remains undeveloped. Not only does this path hinder character development, but it also makes our children feel bad. When we allow a child to upend the family hierarchy, the child actually feels maladjusted and at a loss, and no one is happy. Dreikurs points out that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child.

Children are driven by a desire to belong in a group, and their behavior is goal-directed: they will repeat the behavior that gives them a sense of having a place and abandon behaviors which make them feel left out. As parents and educators, we need to understand that children’s natural inclination is to belong through being useful. Respect for children means allowing them the same rights to make decisions as we have; however, this does not mean children are permitted to do what the adults do, because the children play a different role in the family from the adults.

While we may fantasize that we can “mold” our children, we know from experience that children are actively involved in establishing the relationships with each person in their environments. We can capitalize on this knowledge by observing our child’s behaviors and motivations. How do they deal with their inner environments in the face of challenges? When facing difficulties, children either give up or compensate. Our job is to help our children feel courage and encouraged, which more often than not means getting out of their way.

When our children take their first steps, we encourage them by telling them they can do it; we stand with our arms outstretched, just out of reach. With our words and our body language, we communicate our confidence that they can do it, and our pride in their accomplishment. This is a robust metaphor for future challenges that require our encouragement and not a takeover.

Here are some highlights of Dreikurs’ methods:

Never do for a child what he or she can do for himself/herself.

We want our children to experience their own strength, to feel courageous and up to the challenge, to know that they are self-sufficient. This confidence in their abilities shows our respect for them. Whenever we do something for our child that he or she can do, we demonstrate that we are bigger, better, more capable, and more important. We maintain our own image of our indispensability, an understandable desire, but one that undermines our child’s ability to meet and solve problems, and therefore, unwittingly shows a lack of faith in our child. Dreikurs urges us: “Step back, give the child room, deny our assistance, and give the child encouragement.”

Eliminate criticism and minimize mistakes.

Dreikurs encourages us to focus on the positive: talk to our children about what they do well, express confidence in their ability, and encourage them. In this way, “the mistakes and faults may die from a lack of feeding.” Dreikurs urges us to have the courage to be imperfect—in fact, to be “cheerfully” so—and to allow our children the same latitude. Often children make mistakes because of a lack of experience or faulty judgment. When they stumble, they generally already feel bad; rather than criticizing, we can be curious about how the child’s actions led to the mistake and together brainstorm some solutions.

Some misbehaviors are purposeful because a child is unhappy or has found that it pays off in some way. When we separate the action from the child and minimize our reaction to the difficulty, the child becomes aware of our faith in him or her as a person, which encourages confidence to overcome the challenge.

Use natural and logical consequences.

Dreikurs is the originator of this now conventional approach. Rewards and punishments rarely work, at least in the long term because it spurs retaliation rather than mutual respect and cooperation. A natural consequence, in contrast, “represents the pressure of reality without any specific action by parents.” If your child forgets a sweater and is cold at recess as a result, that is a natural consequence. If you keep bringing the sweater to school, your child has no reason to take responsibility and will keep forgetting it. When we can’t bear to see our child disappointed (or cold) and we swoop in, we have overstepped and are minding their business. Instead, we want to respect our children by communicating to them that we believe in their ability to take care of themselves and by establishing healthy boundaries, delineating what is their business and what is ours.

Withdraw from the conflict.

Children’s misbehavior generally reveals a “mistaken goal.” Children want to cooperate, and our job is to help our children abandon the conflict—which has led them astray—and refocus on cooperation. Withdrawing from a conflict is not the same as withdrawing from our children; in fact, withdrawing from a conflict can maintain friendly feelings toward our children, as we often feel frustrated during a conflict (as they do toward us). Dreikurs observes: since children have a “deep desire to belong, they find an empty battlefield most disconcerting.” If their tantrums or misbehaviors are useless, children will sense their limits and find a better way.

This means we must become skilled in immediate withdrawal and do so without a lecture—the less talking, the better. All our grown-up talking bores our children, so they tune it out. Instead, use a simple statement, like: “I’m sorry you don’t feel like cooperating. You may come out again when you are ready.” When children realize how much more they can gain through cooperation, Dreikurs assures us they will “take the requirements of the situation in stride.” When your child shows a willingness to cooperate, remain friendly and receptive to this shift, and then move on.

Public situations require our strongest fortitude because children sense our vulnerability and push the limits. The key is to focus our attention on the situation and not our “personal prestige.” We want to be concerned with doing what is best for our children, not with what people think.

Use care in pleasing: Have the courage to say “no.”

Children need to learn how to manage frustration. It is natural to want to please our children, and it gives us great satisfaction to do so. But when we feel obligated to please our children at the expense of order, we do so at our own risk. In these cases, we promote self-centeredness, and our children’s attention is directed toward themselves and their desires, not upon the needs of a particular situation. Our children are certain to meet situations in life where no one will be concerned with pleasing them; our job is to prepare them to meet these crossroads with grace and make the best of them. As we know, children can respond powerfully when denied the opportunity to have what they want. We must shore up our courage to stick to the “no.” We can respect our children’s feelings of disappointment and resentment, but we also must respect and cultivate our right to say “no.”

In summary, the essence of Dreikurs teachings is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago (within context, of course). Children fundamentally want to belong, they want to cooperate, they want to feel encouraged, and they want to be helpful and successful in overcoming challenges. We can help them achieve these goals by resisting the instinct to give them undue attention, by withdrawing from power struggles, and by creating experiences for them to discover their abilities.

From learning to take those first steps, to learning how to navigate tricky social situations, to managing disappointment and failure, children will meet our expectations when they know we believe they can do it. Dreikurs assures us that the more we as parents learn to really understand our children, the more we can help them to develop a more accurate picture of life and to accept social values necessary for harmonious cooperation and for satisfactorily fulfilling their lives.


Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School

A positive equation for achievement.

Be part of the positive equation.

Let's Connect