Your Competent Child

Your Competent Child

by Jesper Juul


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Your Competent Child by Jesper Juul

Readers comments:

A Fabulous, Important Book,
Jesper Juul provides parents with such an amazing, simple, and absolutely vital approach to raising children that it rings true on every page. Some of what he suggests we as parents do is difficult - as it is against our "knee-jerk" reactions we may have learned from our parents, but all of it is right on about how we can raise confident, healthy, whole humans, right from the start. I was thrilled to have discovered a book that allowed me to see different possibilities with child raising. Anyone with a child will gain immensely from reading this book, seeing themselves (as I did, over and over again) in his numerous examples, and learning how to move on from there. Without reservation, I am grateful for this book and highly recommend it.

No Parent Should Be Without It,

There are not enough superlatives to describe how helpful this book has been to our family. With tremendous wisdom and a warm, pragmatic eye, Mr. Juul helps us redefine the ways we look at a child's behavior and our relationship to our children and ultimately, each other. This is a book that doesn't offer easy answers or 'tricks' to help in the raising of your child. This is a book that helps you see with a child's eye, hear with a child's ear, and feel with a child's heart in ways that feel so natural and obvious, you will wonder why you haven't thought of them before. But trust me, you haven't. It is a book that offers day-to-day skills along with the thinking that helps generate them, leaving the reader feeling smart and well-satisfied. This groundbreaking book should be on the shelf of all parents everywhere. If you read only one book on raising your child, this is the one.
I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If you have children - read this book!,

This is an amazing book that will surely turn upside down any thoughts you ever had about raising children. Even though you may not agree with all the views in this book, there is so much food for thought and new ideas that you will return to this book again and again for interesting and mind blowing advice.

Essential reading for parents and childcare staff,

This book takes a giant step forward in our knowledge of what children really need. It is based on a wealth of practical experience, but provides a profound theoretical basis for our interactions with children. And is easy to read….The book is well-written, and reveals Jesper Juuls deep wisdom, love and understanding for both children and parents, as well as a good sense of humour and perspective.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452538907
Publisher: Balboa Press
Publication date: 09/28/2011
Pages: 236
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jesper Juul, born in Denmark in 1948, is a family therapist. He is the director of the Kempler Institute of Scandinavia, a center for family therapy, and the Family Institute International in Croatia. He divides his time between Copenhagen and Zagreb.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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 lookson,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 Vienna

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, "Mommy, 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, Mommy," 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, "Mommy, 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 Copenhagen

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 mommy. 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 "resocialize" 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 realized 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 behavior. 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. 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 months, 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, inner-determined personality as a problem. Describing children as "defiant" is a typical ploy of those in power; it's intended to keep the children subordinate.


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 three to four years of the child's life.


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 moms intervene for more leniency. In this situation, mom 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.


Firmness, which is related to unity, is also believed to be necessary to keep the power structure intact. When members of a family voice different opinions, the discord is experienced as hostile opposition, and creates conflict. What does it mean for adults to be firm? They have to be able to say, in unison, "NO!" when children disobey.

    The healthy alternative to this power play is open, personal dialogue that takes into account the desires, dreams, and needs of children as well as those of the adults. To act in this Way is to display true leadership.


Suppose children still did not obey, even after both parents spoke with a united and firm voice. What next? Regardless of the particular conflict, parents usually select one of two consequences: either they resort to physical violence, or they limit children's personal freedom.

    Neither of these consequences is easy to carry out. Most of us cannot physically hurt our children or restrict their personal or social freedom with a clear conscience. That's why we resort to these familiar justifications:

· "It's for your own good!"
· "You'll understand when you grow up!"
· "You must learn to adapt yourself!"
· "It hurts me more than it hurts you!"
· "If you won't listen, we'll have to knock it into you!"

And what do children learn as a result?

· When a parent says, "I make the decisions here!" children learn that they have no personal freedom.
· When a parent says, "Children should be seen and not heard!" children learn that they have no freedom of speech, and that they need to censor themselves.

    Interestingly, after punishing their children, many parents begin to worry that they have harmed their relationship with them. Typically, parents then express this fear as a demand—"Give your dad a hug now, and let's forget all about it"—or, more indirectly, as a question—"Are we friends again?" Ironically, this is what adults often say to each other when breaking off a loving relationship: "Can't we still be friends?"

    These feelings of awkwardness and doubt are justified. By dealing in consequences and punishment, parents gradually destroy their relationship with their children. They decline all responsibility for the conflict that has arisen and turn the child into the guilty party. This pattern of treatment erodes not only the child's confidence in his parents, but also his own self-esteem.


For many parents, a large part of child rearing was concerned with criticizing and correcting children when they acted incorrectly. Children, then, needed to admit to having done something wrong, or demonstrate genuine remorse. According to this model, adults are responsible for making children recognize that they were truly and seriously in the wrong. Only after they admit that they were wrong can children begin to improve themselves. This way of thinking gave rise to such well-known expressions as

· "Shame on you!"
· "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
· "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

    Under this system of child rearing, in which any conflict between parents and children can be explained by the lack or failure of a child's upbringing, the concept of fairness was introduced as a guideline for those in power. Practically, it allowed adults to ascertain that the child was truly guilty before the punishment was carried out. Thus parents didn't focus as much on the violence they would mete out, but on the unfairness that would ensue if they punished a child who was in fact innocent.

    Paradoxically, because their parents operated on this concept of fairness, children often only remembered (and protested against) those episodes for which they had been punished for something they had not actually done. The more general—and deeply unjust—experience of being "wrong" was repressed, because it was normal—that is, it was the normal state of mind for children raised under a system in which criticism was considered the cornerstone of their education and upbringing.

    The concept of fairness also surfaced in those families in which parents made a great effort not to treat their children "differently." According to this way of thinking, children—regardless of how different they were—should receive the same gifts at holiday time, the same rewards, the same punishment, and the same upbringing. As a result, some children received what they really needed and some didn't—it was a toss-up. But parents could rest assured in the knowledge that they had been "fair."

The set of values I have described, emanating from an antiquated understanding of the nature of children, is still widely practiced in many parts of the world. Regardless of what one may think of this system of upbringing, we have to admit that the methods are highly correlated with success, or at least they used to be. Yet the goal—to raise children who behave—is insidious. It's summed up in a warning my friends and I heard innumerable times when we were growing up: "Now remember to behave yourself so that other people can see that you've been brought up properly!"

    Our parents' priorities were based on this external value—that children learned how to "get on," "behave nicely," "fit in," "speak properly"; and that they say "Thank you," "How do you do?" and "Thank you for having me." Children were not supposed to be themselves. They were expected to "act," precisely as one acts in a play. And just like actors, they were expected to learn their lines.

    Years later, knowing so much more about children than our parents did, it is easy for us to be wise. We need to remind ourselves that those parents who still cling to the notion of the family as a power structure do so because they honestly believe that it is best for their children. They do not experience this system of upbringing primarily as an expression of power.

Table of Contents


Preface to 2. Edition....................xi
1. Family Values....................1
2. Children Cooperate!....................23
3. Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence....................63
4. Responsibility, Being Responsible, And Power....................97
5. Children's Social Responsibility....................129
6. Limits....................163
7. Families with Teenagers....................181
8. Family....................201

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