Raising Competent Children: A New Way of Developing Relationships With Children

Raising Competent Children: A New Way of Developing Relationships With Children

by Jesper Juul

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A family therapist offers a new way of parenting through nurturing respect and dignity between parent and child Jesper Juul argues that today's families are at an exciting crossroad. The authoritarian parenting style based on obedience, conformity, and physical and emotional violence that governed traditional hierarchical families is being transformed. Here he talks about embracing a new set of values, based on the assumption that families must be built not on authoritarian force or democratic tyranny but on dignity and reciprocity between parent and child. He argues that children are competent to express their feelings from birth, and are eager to cooperate as well as assume responsibility for their personal and social behavior; and that parents must work on listening to and learning from children. With plenty of examples from everyday life, the book offers day-to-day skills on how to change negative behavior, redefining the way to look at a child's behavior and the relationship within families.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781921878985
Publisher: Rockpool Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 220
File size: 901 KB

About the Author

Jesper Juul is a family therapist and the author of Your Competent Child.

Read an Excerpt

Raising Competent Children

A New Way of Developing Relationships with Children

By Jesper Juul

Rockpool Publishing

Copyright © 2012 Jesper Juul
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921878-99-2



We are at a unique historical crossroads. Across many different societies, the basic values that secured the foundation of family life for more than two centuries are undergoing a period of disintegration and transformation. In Scandinavia, women have been in the vanguard of these changes, abetted by advanced social legislation and the comforts of the welfare state. In other countries, civil war or economic hardship has sparked this development.

The pace at which change is occurring varies, but the cause is the same: the hierarchical, authoritarian family, headed by either a matriarch or a patriarch, is becoming extinct. The map of the world is teeming with many different types of families. Some make a desperate attempt to maintain the standards of "the good old days," while others experiment with new and more fruitful ways of living together.

From a mental health vantage point, there is every reason to welcome this change. The traditional family structure and many of its values were destructive for both children and adults, as these scenarios will illustrate.

A Café in Spain

A father, mother, and two sons, ages three and five, have just finished eating their ice cream and cake. The mother takes a napkin, spits on it, grasps the younger son's chin firmly, and begins to wipe his mouth. The boy protests and turns his face away. She grabs hold of a handful of his hair and tells him in an angry whisper how naughty he is.

His big brother looks on, grimacing — but only for a moment. Then his face settles into a neutral mask. The father also has a pained look, but then he turns with irritation toward his wife — Why can't she make the boy behave himself! Why does he always cause such a fuss?

By the time they leave the café, the boy has recovered. Window-shopping, he notices a new toy in a store window and points to it enthusiastically. He wants his mother to look. But she is ahead of him, and when she walks back to him, she grabs his arm and whisks him away without even glancing at the toy in the window. He begins to cry, begging her to look at it, but she is unrelenting in her determination to win. "Pontela cara bien!" ("Make your face beautiful!") she repeats, over and over again.

A Café in Australia

Two young married couples, one with a son about five, sit down outdoors to have a cup of coffee after shopping. When the waitress appears, the boy's mother says to her son, "We're having coffee, what do you want?"

The boy hesitates a little and says, "I don't know."

Irritated, the mother says to the waitress, "Give him some apple juice."

The coffee and juice arrive, and after a while the boy says, politely and cautiously, "Mummy, I would rather have Coke with lemon, if that's possible."

"Why didn't you say that to start with!" the mother replies.

"Drink your juice!" But in the same breath, she says to the waitress, "The boy's changed his mind. Give him a Coke with lemon, so we can have some peace!"

For about ten minutes, the boy sits quietly while the adults chat. Suddenly the mother looks at her watch and says angrily to the boy, "Drink your soda!"

"Are we going?" the boy asks, visibly excited. "Yes, we've got to hurry home. Now drink up!"

The boy swallows his Coke in large gulps. "I'm finished now, Mummy," he says happily. "Wasn't I quick?"

The mother ignores him and begins talking to the other adults. Once again, the boy sits quietly. After half an hour has passed, he asks cautiously, "Mummy, are we going home soon?"

"Shut your mouth, you little brat!" she explodes. "Another word from you, and you'll go straight to bed when we get home. Do you understand!?"

The boy withers and resigns himself. The other adults look at the mother with approval, and the boy's father lays an affirming hand on his wife's arm.

A Bus Stop in New Zealand

A grandmother and two grandchildren — a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl — are waiting for a bus. The boy tugs at his grandmother's coat and says, "Granny, I have to go to the toilet."

"You can't go now," she replies. "We've got to get home!" "But I need to go, badly!" the boy says.

"Look at your big sister, how big and sensible she is," the grandmother says.

"Yes, but I need to ... really bad!"

"Didn't you hear me? You can go to the toilet when you get home. If you don't behave yourself, I'll have to tell your mummy. And then you won't come into town with me again!"

The adults in these scenarios are not bad people. They love their children and grandchildren, are delighted when the children behave themselves, and appreciate their funny and cute comments. But these adults behave in unloving ways because they have learned to regard unloving acts as loving, and loving acts as irresponsible.

For several hundred years, what we really taught children was to respect power, authority, and violence — but not other human beings.


For centuries the family has existed as a power structure in which men have absolute power over women, and adults have power over children in terms of all the social, political, and psychological aspects of life. The hierarchy was unquestioned: the man was on the first rung, the woman below him — if there were no adolescent sons — followed by sons and then daughters. A successful marriage depended on the woman's ability and willingness to submit herself to her husband; the clear purpose of child rearing was to make children adapt to and obey those in power.

As in all other totalitarian power structures, the ideal was a situation in which no open conflicts occurred. Those who didn't cooperate met with physical violence or found their already restricted individual freedom further limited.

For those who understood how to adapt themselves, the family provided a secure foundation, but for those whose individuality was more robust, the family and its pattern of interaction could be alarmingly destructive. Those who suffered and developed symptoms were treated — by educators and psychiatrists — so that they would quickly readapt to living within the power structure.

When those in power (spouses and parents) tried to "resocialise" women or children who acted out, they were encouraged to show understanding, love, and firmness — but never to surrender their power. As a result, many women and children were admitted and often readmitted to institutions and forced to take medication.

Of course, this description is both incomplete and unfair. Admittedly, there were aspects of traditional family life that were pleasurable and happy. People loved each other. On another level, those who submitted successfully enjoyed a special form of security similar to that experienced by well-adjusted citizens in totalitarian societies.

Some of us may even feel nostalgic for "the good old traditional family," but only rarely did it exert a positive influence on the well-being and development of the individual. In other words, from a social point of view, traditional families often looked successful, but the pathology they caused lurked just below the surface.

Only toward the end of the last century did we begin to take an interest in children as individual beings. That's when we realised that meeting children's intellectual and psychological needs was important for their well-being and development. Recognition of women's rights came even later — in the 1920s — when women began to demand to be taken seriously as human, social, and political beings. Thus in the first half of this century, the family gradually became less totalitarian, although the actual power structure, which was the foundation of family life, remained unaltered.

One of the legacies of the traditional family exists in our language, which originated during a time in which successful families were defined as conflict-free, and when our ideas about what constituted a healthy family were vastly different from what they are today. I'd now like to update the definitions of many of the terms and concepts that we use when we speak about families and children.



In Scandinavia we discussed methods of child rearing with great confidence right up to the middle of the 1970s. We believed that children were asocial and potentially animal-like; therefore adults had to associate with them and use "methods" that would ensure children's individual and social development. The methods varied along ideological lines, but the notion that it was necessary to use a "method" went unchallenged until very recently.

Now that we know that children are real people from birth, it is absurd to speak of "methods." Think for a moment about how we would sound if we applied this concept to adult relationships. Imagine, for example, a man saying to a friend, or to his therapist, "I'm in love with a tall, black-haired woman from Portugal, but I have many problems with her. Can you give me a method so that she will be less difficult to live with?" Clearly, no adult would think of approaching another adult with this idea in mind. But this is how we have approached our relationships with children since the beginning of the eighteenth century.

When children are born, they are fully human — that is, they are social, responsive, and empathic. These qualities are not taught, but are inborn. Yet for these qualities to develop, children need to be with adults who behave in ways that respect and model social, human behaviour. To use a method — any method — is not just superfluous but also destructive because it reduces children to objects in relation to those who are nearest and dearest to them. It's time, according to both clinicians and researchers, to change how we relate to children — to move from a subject — object relationship to a subject — subject relationship.


Around the age of two, children gradually begin to free themselves from their total dependence on their parents. Suddenly they discover their autonomy — a discovery that they literally celebrate by saying "no" to everything you say or ask. With a delighted smile on their faces they say "no" and the message is, "Look, I'm not you anymore! I'm ME — isn't that wonderful?" They don't say no to oppose their parents. They want to be able to think, feel, and act on their own. There's never any doubt as to when this independent age begins. One morning, as you dress your two-year-old daughter, she tugs at your arm and says, "Me can!" or "Me do it!"

And how do most parents respond? They say, "Stop it! You can't do it. I have to. We haven't got time to play games!" In other words, when children become independent, many parents become defiant!

Yet this brief anecdote also illustrates how clever children are at cooperating! If a parent meets his two-year-old's burgeoning independence with reluctance and defiance, the child will, in the space of a few weeks, become either defiant herself — meeting defiance with defiance — or lose her initiative entirely and become even more dependent.

Young children necessarily become increasingly independent and self-reliant — it's part of their development. Only a totalitarian system would view the natural and progressive development of a child's unique personality as a problem. Describing children as "defiant" is a typical ploy of those in power; it's intended to keep the children subordinate.

In this age your child is taking his or her first steps toward their individuality and if you as a parent enter into a power struggle with your child a lot of valuable energy is wasted and you might be installing a experience in your child, that will become evident when he reaches puberty.


Puberty is a neutral clinical concept that has, over the course of this century, acquired an extremely negative connotation. Conflict, argument, and trouble — these are the qualities associated with adolescence. After World War II, the equally negative concept of prepuberty emerged — alerting parents of younger children to the fact that trouble is just around the corner.

Viewed objectively, puberty is an intrapsychic (that is, it takes place within the individual), psychosexual period of development that causes many twelve- to fifteen-year-olds to experience internal uncertainty and turbulence. The idea that this development should, in itself, cause interpersonal conflicts with adults is rubbish. The number of conflicts and their intensity depend, among other things, on the ability of adults to acknowledge their changing parental roles, and on the way in which they approached the development of their child's integrity during the first two to four years of the child's life.

If for instance parents were engaging in numerous power struggles when the child was around two it's more than likely, that this child will enter puberty heavily armed. Back then he learned that if you want to develop your individuality in this family you have to fight for it!!


Similarly, the teenage years are described in militaristic, political terms: rebellion, independence, revolution, and lack of discipline. This is not surprising. In a power structure in which adults represent stability and are invested with maintaining a conflict-free environment, every progressive development must necessarily be defined as an attack on the establishment.

The same dynamic exists with women in midlife. When they begin menopause, their every action and mood is attributed to "hormones." This excuses those in power (men) from shouldering any responsibility for disruptions that arise. In the same way, teenagers are blamed for being teenagers. What adults need to do instead is face up to their overriding responsibility in terms of structuring the interaction within the family.

Now, let's consider a number of concepts we traditionally use in connection with child rearing that reflect how those in power view reality. Embedded within these concepts is the belief that maintaining the power structure is best for all concerned.


Within a power structure it is necessary to have law and order; therefore, in the past, limits were set to govern children's physical, mental, and emotional pursuits. These limits — what children could and couldn't and should and shouldn't do — were enforced as if the family was a policing unit.

This system led adults to assert that certain limits were healthy and good for children — a proposition many people accepted, although there is no evidence to support it. Let me elaborate: It is true that children develop in harmonious and healthy ways when the adults of the family set some limits. But, as I will explain later, it is important that both children and adults set their own limits. The question of setting limits for others is first and foremost an expression of power.

The question of limits inevitably arises whenever parents discuss children's upbringing. We tend to think that only our generation has difficulty setting limits, that our parents accomplished this task with more ease. In fact, setting limits has always been difficult. Parents have always asked experts for advice about how to get children to "respond" or "obey," as they used to call it. For as long as families sought to uphold the power structure, parents were advised to think about setting limits in terms of four elements: unity, firmness, consequences, and fairness. Let's explore each of these in turn.


"Unity is strength," as the saying goes, and that was precisely the reasoning behind one of the family's most important credos: "It is important that parents agree about how to bring up children." I have met countless couples who sacrificed their marriages in order to live up to this ideal, and who suffered from overwhelming guilt because they did not succeed. They believed, as many parents do, that children feel the most secure when their parents agree, and that they were harming their children when they failed to agree. A certain amount of disunity was tolerated — but only if it was expressed after the children had gone to bed. When children were present, nothing less than unconditional unity was demanded. Yet this article of faith is true only if we insist on thinking of the family as a political unit. When those in power have to enforce law and order, it is to their advantage to agree, so that they can face their children as a united front.

Parents also perceived that disunity would allow children to play one parent off against the other — to drive a wedge into the family's leadership. Yet in practice parents seldom agree. For example, in many families dads dole out discipline only to have mums intervene for more leniency. In this situation, mum is viewed not as a disloyal soldier but rather as the family's first-aid dispenser whose job it is to tend to the wounded. Yet even as they performed this role, many women never questioned the necessity of setting limits, or thought to examine the confines under which they themselves lived.

To me, it is not important whether parents agree about upbringing or not. In principle, they need only agree about one thing, namely, that it is acceptable to disagree. Only when their parents experience each other's differences as wrong and undesirable do children become insecure.


Excerpted from Raising Competent Children by Jesper Juul. Copyright © 2012 Jesper Juul. Excerpted by permission of Rockpool Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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