What went wrong with your upbringing

The parent-child relationship cannot be democratic

"I want to eat you !!" The piercing whistling tone of a three-year-old makes all the customers and saleswomen in the bakery startled. The child reaches for a large piece of packaged tree cake, an annoyed father tries to prevent his son, twelve adults pretend that they do not notice these attempts at raising children and try to continue with their actions. "This, this, this ... ..!" The screaming of the defiant child fills the whole shop.

“No, we take this,” the father tries to calm and distract his child and at the same time prevent his son from demolishing the tree cakes on display. It fails. The shouting is getting louder. All other adults must also raise their voices in order to be able to communicate further. It's the father's turn. He tries to do his shopping and calm his son down at the same time. “We'll take this one, take a look” and waves a small packaged piece of Baumkuchen in front of his son's nose. Vain. The screaming intensifies. The embarrassment increases. The father tries to get his shopping over with as quickly as possible in order to be able to leave the scene, which he succeeds four minutes later. He spent 3.50 euros on a piece of Baumkuchen, in addition to the weekly shopping in the bakery, which he neither needed nor wanted. The son continues to cry, cannot be reassured, the father has the feeling that he has failed.

What went wrong?

In this scene, two fundamental misunderstandings of our parenting culture become clear:

In the course of the democratization of all areas of life, parents and educators assume that the parent-child relationship must now also be democratic, i.e. equal. This is wrong. The Danish family therapist Jesper Juul sums it up: Parents and children are not equal, but as people they have the same dignity. Adults must behave at all times in such a way that they do not violate the child's dignity. But this does not mean that the child has equal rights.

Equality is an abstract, political-legal term that describes the legal equality of all citizens. In the French Revolution, citizens fought for equal rights. Even today women fight for equality with men all over the world.

Equal rights also mean assuming duties and responsibilities in equal measure. And here it becomes immediately clear why a child cannot have equal rights. A three-year-old - just like a five-, ten-, or fifteen-year-old - is overwhelmed to take on the same responsibility as an adult.

In this specific case, the father expected the three-year-old to make a decision about the family budget. Instead of buying a large piece of tree cake, the three-year-old should realize that a small piece for EUR 3.50 is enough. A decision that cannot be a three year old's responsibility at all. Buying Baumkuchen was not his subject either. The child is three years old. It discovers and tests its will. We don't know what else was there. Whether it was hungry or just tired and overwhelmed by the shopping situation. It reached for the first thing in its reach, screamed its frustration. The child is sure that the father reacts somehow. The father is also dissatisfied in the end. He senses exactly that something is wrong here. The child was burdened with something, a decision to buy something, which cannot yet be his responsibility at all.

“Equal dignity means the recognition and appreciation of each individual in their concrete being”, says Jesper Juul, “within a network of relationships, e.g. in the family. Equal dignity means recognizing every person in their diversity. With the same dignity, I always refer to the specific case. It's always about establishing a satisfactory relationship in the specific situation. It is not about enforcing an abstract principle ”.

The second misunderstanding lies in parents 'and educators' beliefs in verbal strategies. Modern parents are no longer physical, but rather talk to the children. The father tried to convince his three-year-old that it was unreasonable to buy a large piece of tree cake today - for whatever reason: because it burdens the budget too much, because it is not needed, etc. Even if the son is not currently had a violent tantrum and he would be able to listen to the father, he would have no way of understanding the arguments, processing them and responding appropriately. This overuse of arguments ignores the fact that children learn behavior predominantly through imitation. You have to be able to observe and experiment. In this way, they learn which behavior is appropriate and “right” in which situation and through imitation they fit into the culture. “A constant stream of admonitions and explanations makes the child feel stupid or wrong,” says Jesper Juul. “Even if the tone is friendly and understanding, the message still comes across:“ You are not good enough ”. This causes great damage to the self-image and self-esteem of the child and a child cannot defend itself against it. We still talk to children the way our parents talked to us. We've modernized the tone, but the “you're wrong” message hasn't changed. "

The adult is responsible for the quality of the relationship

Recognizing the same dignity between children and adults means recognizing the needs of the child in the specific situation and establishing a satisfactory relationship. The adult, not the child, is always responsible for the quality of the relationship. “This is simply an empirical observation: if the adults don't take responsibility, it falls to the child. However, that is completely overwhelming. Many parents are now giving up responsibility, so the relationship with the children develops in a destructive way, ”says Jesper Juul.

The three year old couldn't say, “I'm tired, I don't want to go shopping now. I want to cuddle you, dad, and hear a story. "

It is up to the parents to recognize this and speak out. “Yes, you are tired and we are going home now. But first we have to buy some bread ”. A three-year-old has to discover and test his will. This is an important step in development. There are many situations in which the child now wants something different from what his parents want. A clear, as friendly and relaxed as possible "No, that is not possible now!" - without explanation. By repeating the situation in everyday life, the child can learn that they cannot get everything when they go shopping that they point their finger at. It is not burdened with taking responsibility for the family budget and dental health now. For a three-year-old to howl and yell and whine when he doesn't get his way is a normal and healthy response.

There is no general recipe

There is no general recipe for how the father can clarify the situation described above. But parents who do not burden their child with the wrong responsibility will find out the right and appropriate solution for them and their child by “feeling ahead” and trying out.

  • Perhaps the child reacts to touch, even seeks physical contact and can be calmed down when the father interrupts shopping, turns completely to the son and takes him in his arms.
  • Perhaps the father knows from experience that his son now reacts unwillingly to physical contact and only increases his defiance further. He could ask the other adults to understand that his son is angry now because he cannot get his way and is also tired.
  • Perhaps some adults will remember their own variants of this everyday situation, react understandingly and let the young father go first so that he can do his shopping.

Equality and dignity are two fundamentally different qualities. There can be equal dignity between people who are not the same in terms of their living situation. Trying to create the same dignity in the concrete situation always helps to improve the quality of the relationship. The situation described is so commonplace that it is worth thinking about how to cope with it without harming the child's dignity. “The practice of equal dignity between adults and children does not mean that they have to decide everything. It has nothing to do with democracy. This cannot exist within the family, because children are completely dependent on their parents. We can prepare our children for democracy, but the relationship between parents and children cannot be democratic. " (Jesper Juul)


  • Jesper Juul (2009): Your competent child, Reinbek: Reinbek.

More articles by the author here in our family handbook


Elisabeth C. Gründler
Freelance journalist
Prinzregentenstrasse 69a
10715 Berlin


Created on April 9, 2002, last changed on October 28, 2013