We must have a deep understanding of our children’s psychological types and unique characteristics to help them unfold their authentic being
By Roberto Assagioli, Part I: Parents and Children, From the Assagioli Archive in Florence, Docs. #23425 and 23427. Original Title: Genitori E Figli. Translated and edited with notes by Jan Kuniholm[i]
- Abstract by Jan Kuniholm: The problem of right relations between parents and children involves knowledge of psychological types, developmental stages, knowledge of the child’s “soul age,” individual conditions, and an awareness of the challenges of the times. The stage between ages 14 to 20 is treated in particular: this is a period of profound crisis. At this age the young person is particularly open to outside influences, yet demands independence. Parents should learn to become a child’s friend and abandon authoritarian attitudes. The more parents admit their own mistakes, the more a child responds to the parents strengths. The best way to influence a child of this age is by example and by doing things together. Fifteen questions are posed for parents to consider and evaluate their own attitudes and behavior concerning their children.
One of the most important and most arduous problems in inter-individual psychosynthesis concerns the right psycho-spiritual relationships between parents and children.
The problem is complex and difficult for several reasons. In fact it involves:
- Knowledge of the psychological types,[i] the spiritual and personal Rays,[ii] and the astrological signs of each of the parents and the child (to simplify we take here the case of only one child). Then there is the problem of how to harmonize them.
- Knowledge of the developmental stages through which each person passes from early childhood to adulthood; the particular characteristics and problems of each stage, and of the crises of transition between one stage and another. On the basis of this knowledge it is necessary to derive the standards for right parental behavior in each of these stages of the child. These stages can be delimited as follows:
- From birth to 2 years.
- From age 2 to 8 years.
- From age 8 to 13 years.
- From age 14 to 20 years.
- Knowledge of the “soul age” of the child or young person. Depending on that “age,” he or she should be treated differently.
- Particular conditions of health and environment.
- The exceptional period that humanity as a whole is now going through; a period of transition between two Ages, in which the old forms, attitudes and methods that may have been good in the past no longer “work,” while the new ones are not yet well known and formed. Children are especially difficult to deal with during this period.
From Age 14 to Age 20
In this period the most profound crisis takes place in the young person’s[iii] life, and consequently in her relations with her parents. Whereas in the previous state — as we have seen — the child was all bent on getting acquainted with the outside world and possessed no real self-awareness, in the adolescent this begins to awaken. New energies, new sensations and feelings are aroused and stirred in her, and a whole complex process begins. The personality begins to form and assert itself. Contacts with the world and other beings no longer have only the lower physical and mental character of the previous stage, but become more varied and differentiated, acquire new emotional tones, and sometimes spiritual notes. In a sense it can be compared to the stage of the chrysalis that is actively transforming into a butterfly.
In this stage a curious contrast can be seen in the young person: on the one hand he is open to all influences, sensitive and receptive to every current; on the other hand he is distrustful and rebellious of any active interference from others, and especially from those who most naturally tend to exercise it, namely parents. He feels a keen need for independence and freedom. This need has a profound justification: for the young person must form his personality according to his own internal logic, through experiences and experiments of all kinds, following a line of individual development. Well then, any interference, any guidance, any advice from outside that tries to mold him according to what others think is good for him is felt by him as a disturbance, a hindrance and a threat to his free and spontaneous self-assertion, and he reacts against those interventions in a way that is often harsh, and in a certain respect unjust and excessive.
This is not easy to understand — and especially to accept — on the part of parents, but it is necessary, in order to avoid painful confrontations and moral estrangements, and it is precisely so that they can continue their educational work. Parents who are not consciously prepared for it beforehand arrive at [this understanding] only through a crisis [of their own], which is parallel, but inversely proportional, to that of the child. Her growing “declaration of independence” must be matched by a corresponding “renunciation of authority” on their part. Their attitude toward the child must change gradually but radically.
Keyserling[iv] — with his deliberately exaggerated way of expressing himself in order to be most effective and penetrating — says that he treats his young children as “special guests,” and that he gets along well with them that way! By this bizarre expression Keyserling wants to bring out the caution, tact and “regard” with which young people are to be treated. But this indicates only the negative side (in a good sense) of the relationship.[v]
On the positive side it can be said that parents must turn into friends of their children, in the fullest and best sense of the word. A friend is fond of his friend, and is willing to do anything for him, but at the same time leaves him free. That is, he is ready when the friend seeks him, but does not impose himself on him, does not oppress him, does not try to dominate him.
In other words, [when the child is at this age] parents have to give up the attitude (which they generally assume explicitly or implicitly) of being “paternal,” of “I know more than you” (even — indeed especially — when this is true). But in reality, parents are far from perfect and infallible; they too have their shortcomings and inconsistencies between theory and practice, between words and deeds. Children notice this, and they judge parents all the more severely the more they put themselves on a “pedestal” and demand greater appreciation and respect than they deserve.
One of the many paradoxes of the “law of polarization” is that the more parents sincerely acknowledge their own faults and mistakes, the more their children [of this age] appreciate and esteem them for their good sides. The best, and even most dignified, way to make these “confessions” is through “participation” after a meeting of silence and fellowship with Christ, as the adherents of the Oxford Group [vi] use (from the book Inspired Children[vii]).
And so too when parents give up exercising their “authority,” if they do not interfere, demand, rebuke and criticize, then the children drop their defensive armor. They approach, at first somewhat hesitantly, then more and more freely, and begin themselves to confide, to exchange ideas, judgments and impressions, until they come to seek advice and even follow it! In short, they arrive, within just limits, at precisely what the parents desired — which they were less able to achieve when they used the authoritarian method !
But to get there, it is necessary that parents not show their pleasure in being consulted, not “let it go to their heads;” instead, it is necessary that they let themselves be asked before giving opinions or advice. And it is good that they leave the decision, and the consequent responsibility, to their children, making that clear to them.
This does not mean that the educational work of parents on the adolescent and young person should be limited to this. They can have a very effective, indeed sometimes decisive, benevolent influence. But this can be exerted only on the basis of the above-mentioned relationships and in a completely different way from the ordinary one, in an entirely indirect way, with “. . . the art that does everything, gives away [or discloses]nothing.”
The attitude to be taken and the method to be used can be summarized in the following formula: Act “suggestively” (in the best and broadest sense of the word) and not “imperatively.”
Such a suggestive influence can and should be used in many and varied ways. The most effective — but unfortunately also the most difficult — is by example: by living and silent example. “Be and do we what we would like our children to be and do.” This can be said to be the “magic wand” of education. But, again, how difficult it is to use it! We cannot demand of ourselves that we succeed at it perfectly, but we should seriously propose it to ourselves and keep it before our inner eye as an ideal.
As a minimum program, we should at least be careful not to do ourselves what we forbid our children or condemn in them — and conversely — never demand of them what we are not capable of doing ourselves. Such demands are one of the things that most irritate them, (since they rightly regard it as an injustice) and that lowers us most in their esteem and in our standing with them.
Thus we come to the somewhat unexpected and paradoxical, but incontrovertible, conclusion that the most effective way to educate our children, is to take care of our own behavior and not theirs: to supervise and discipline ourselves, so that they will improve!
Other effective “suggestive” means are the influences of other people with whom we bring our children into contact; the books we place in their hands; and words spoken to others in their presence. It is always necessary, however, that this be done in the most spontaneous and “natural” way, without ever letting our intention be apparent or noticed!
Another excellent method of educating is to “do things [together];” to ask for our children’s collaboration in all possible fields; this gives numerous opportunities to teach, to coach and to mold, “without opinion.” When we ourselves cannot cooperate with them, we can promote and foster their collaboration with other suitably chosen people.
When there are serious problems to be solved, differences of opinion on important matters or challenging decisions to be made, it is appropriate — indeed a duty — to teach our children the method we use, or would use ourselves in such cases, and to help them use it. This is the method of setting out the problem clearly, impartially and objectively, and pointing out the various alternatives and the probable consequences of each of them. Then, putting the thing “in prayer” — individually, or better, in a group — and finally waiting, without intervening emotional or mental reactions, for the “answer.”
Part II: Fifteen Questions for Parents
Dr. Roberto Assagioli, (Doc.s #15461 and 16943 – Assagioli Archives – Florence). Original Title: Quindici Domande per i Geritori. From Psychology Magazine, February 1929, p. 40. Translated by Jan Kuniholm
- Am I convinced that I have done the most beautiful and most wonderful thing by bringing my child into the world? Have I ever given any thought to the fact that creation and re-creation, production and reproduction are but a simple, common and universal law of life found everywhere in nature and that I have done nothing but obey this law as nature intended me to do?
- Have I ever reflected on the fact that my child does not really belong to me, but to all mankind? Am I conscious of not focusing on myself in my task? Am I capable of seeing things impersonally, and understanding that I am but the instrument, the means and the agent into whose hands a soul is entrusted to be guided and cultivated according to its needs?
- Have I ever recognized this truth, that the mere fact that I have a child is in itself neither an indication nor a guarantee that I also have the ability to educate him or her? Do I know everything that needs to be known about my child and his or her needs? What have I done to better understand my child? How many books or articles on child education do I have in my library?
- Do I expect my child to conform to my will, my whims, or my convenience? Do I measure my child’s actions and conduct only from the adult point of view? Have I ever thought that my job was to adapt myself to his or her physical, moral, mental, social and vocational needs, in addition to the common needs of feeding and clothing him or her, etc.?
- Do I try to relive my life, my desires, my failed hopes and ambitions through my child, regardless of my child’s own individuality?
- Do I try to find my best qualities reflected in my child’s conduct? And do I attribute my child’s shortcomings to the inheritance of aunts, grandparents, or unsympathetic relatives? What are the other ways in which I try to escape my responsibility, and what my conscience tells me?
- Regarding the question of children’s “duties” to their parents, do I consider my child to be in debt to me for bringing him or her into the world? Have I ever considered instead that the debt is entirely mine toward the child?
- Have I ever considered that my child has rights as important as mine? And have I ever considered that he or she is owed as much “respect” as I routinely demand? Do I annoy, scold or bully my child [over this], not because I necessarily deserve this respect, but only because I am the parent, the master and the boss? Do I treat my child as my inferior?
- Do I use my child as an object on which to pour my affection, as an outlet for my repressed or misplaced emotional life? What do I give, what do I do for my child to compensate him or her for serving me as a constant object for [my need]?
- Do I try to compensate for my inferiorities and satisfy myself by assuming an attitude of dominance over my child?
- Do I glory in sympathy for myself and my misguided sacrifice? Do I ever realize that whenever I am over-indulgent with my child I am really over-indulging myself, simply to satisfy my sentimentally erroneous parental impulses by spoiling something that I have with exaggerated affection and caresses, to satisfy my vanity? Do I realize how much harm I do when I try to overprotect and defend my child? Are the psychologists right in telling me that I can create an addictive family complex in my child? And am I aware that the reason for my efforts to keep my child dependent on me is an unconscious desire to preserve my child’s love by forcing him or her to need me, rather than inspiring my child to gain independence?
- Are many of my efforts at promoting my child’s success and reputation in school and social life, etc., ultimately determined by the hidden motive of exalting my importance through my child’s successes? Does my child serve me as a tool to make me particularly well-known in my environment, among my relations, neighbors, associates and friends? Is my child a kind of agent for my personal public reputation? When I regret my child’s failures in the competitions of his or her small world, is it because I feel hurt in my vanity as a parent? When I blame my child, is it because he personally undermines me and my name? Are my excuses for his shortcomings actually indirect and subtle excuses for myself? In other words, am I following the promptings of my feelings or those dictated by my reason?
- In reading these questions, have I adopted an attitude of defensiveness and defiance? What does this tell me?
- [Even] if any or all of these things do not apply to me, can I still look at myself and use these questions to discover some way in which I do express a possessive attitude toward my child?
- So, does the relentless person who writes this leave any way for a temporary escape? Answer: This person says that he is sorry to give you a bad half-hour, but that he cannot fail in his commitment to his friends — the children — and also replies that this thirty-minute analysis can bring you good for a lifetime.
[i] Assagioli developed a theory of seven types, presented in Psychosynthesis Typology, London, Institute of Psychosynthesis, 2004. The original of this work in Italian is I tipi umani, Florence, Istituto di psicosintesi, 1983. —Ed.
[ii] “The Rays” refers to a theory of emanation of cosmic energy from original Source, as developed in a compilation of Alice Bailey’s writing in The Seven Rays of Life, New York, Lucis Publishing Co. 2005. The original theory was contained in several of Bailey’s books, especially A Treatise on the Seven Rays and Esoteric Psychology Vols. I and II. —Ed.
[iii] Assagioli frequently used only the masculine pronoun in his lectures and writings; changing instance each to “him and her” or “he and she” is often awkward, so this translation will alternate pronouns in the text. —Tr.
[iv] Hermann Keyserling (1880-1946) was a Baltic German philosopher whose many works were quoted often be Assagioli. The exact source of this quote is unknown. —Ed.
[v] By “negative side” Assagioli is referring to “what is not done;” he treats the “positive side” (what is done) in the next paragraph. —Ed.
[vi] The Oxford Group, until 1928 called First Century Christian Fellowship and after 2001 renamed Initiatives for Change, was a Christian organization founded by American minister Frank Buchanan in 1921. The tenets and practices of The Oxford group greatly influenced the steps later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. The group proclaimed a “moral re-armament” to combat the fear and selfishness that it believes are the root of all problems. —Ed.
[vii] Jones, Olive M., Inspired Children, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1933. A new edition was published in 2009. This book documents the influence of the Oxford Group movement on the lives of children.—Ed.
[i] Editor’s interpolations are shown in [brackets]. —Ed.