Assagioli offers wise insights on how to help children flourish in the family through a loving and wise approach, the psychological method of suggestion is of particular importance.
By Roberto Assagioli, (A Conversation held at the Lyceum Club of Rome), from the Assagioli Archive in Florence, doc.s #23771 and 23776. Original Title: Problemi dell’ Educazione Famigliare I[i]Translated and edited with notes by Jan Kuniholm.
- Abstract by Jan Kuniholm: Part I — Disastrous effect are produced by educational errors, especially by parents. Blind love is not enough to educate a child well. In recent times psychology has discovered the causes of many afflictions and developed methods for solving difficult educational problems. The discoveries of the unconscious and of psychological types have been of major importance. Knowledge of the unconscious has led to the realization of the true importance of suggestion. The discovery of individual types shows that each type presents special educational problems and requires the use of special methods. Part II — Some guidelines in the use of suggestion in education: Avoid direct negative suggestions; Avoid indirect negative suggestions. Positive suggestion can be implemented in three ways: Positive suggestion in the waking state; Indirect suggestions, by means of action and example; and Suggestions during sleep. There is a means of avoiding all danger of excessive influence on the part of educators: it is to teach children as early as possible the method of self-suggestion, so that they can direct and shape their own unconscious by themselves.
I gladly accepted the kind invitation to engage in conversations over some problems concerning education, because I feel deeply the importance and gravity of these problems and the urgency that they be better studied and solved.
In my capacity as a physician for nervous diseases, I have continual occasions to see the truly disastrous effects produced by educational errors, especially on the part of parents. And, it should be noted, not only by uncultured and heartless parents, but also — I have to say — by good, educated, loving parents. It is really painful to see parents who are anxious for the good of their children, who sacrifice themselves for them, and who instead harm them, who sometimes ruin them for life. And among parents the most serious mistakes are often made by mothers. I will allow myself to speak with complete sincerity and frankness, even at the cost of appearing a little rude and of hurting some feelings; but I consider it my duty to do so, and the good result will serve as my apology.
It is good to face this truth: maternal love is a most noble sentiment, but that alone is not enough to educate well; on the contrary, passionate, blind, possessive love can produce no less serious damage than lack of love. In this case the Latin saying well applies: corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst.” If sentiment degenerates into sentimentality, it has negative effects. For love to bear its beneficial fruits, it needs to be enlightened and wise, broad and understanding, firm and courageous. The illusion that it is enough to “love” means that we often educate blindly, without preparation, without method. If someone wanted to enter a scientific laboratory and put one’s hands on a delicate and complicated apparatus without knowing its design and function, what would we say? Yet this is continually done with that far more delicate and sensitive, complex and precious instrument, which is the soul of a child.
In recent decades, psychological science has made great progress; the previously ignored causes of many afflictions have been found, many laws of psychic life have been discovered, and effective methods have been created to act in an educational and healing way on the soul and body. Knowledge of those facts and laws and the use of those methods make it possible to solve some of the most arduous educational problems, such as that of obtaining proper obedience and discipline without hindering the development of personality. This makes it possible to prevent many nervous and psychic disorders of children and young people.
Every educator, every conscious educator should give the necessary time and energy for the study of those principles and methods. This is truly a task of love, a fruitful sacrifice.
The fundamental discovery made by modern psychology is that of the existence of the unconscious; that is, of that vast sphere of psychic life which lies outside our ordinary consciousness, of which we are therefore unaware, but which is in constant activity and often dominates us and directs us without our knowledge. If this unconscious part of the human soul is not taken into account, we cannot rightly understand ourselves or others and we cannot take any beneficial action. And it should be noted that in children, the unconscious is particularly extensive and active; therefore, the study of children’s unconscious is one of the first tasks of a modern education.
The discovery of the unconscious has made it possible to recognize the true nature and immense scope of suggestion. We live, it may be said, in an atmosphere of suggestion: we are constantly self-suggesting and we subject to suggestion by others; those who do not believe that we suggest to one another, and deny it, are often the ones who are most subject to it. Children are suggestible to the highest degree, and serious defects of character, and even real nervous diseases not infrequently have their origin in unconscious suggestion on the part of those who think they are educating them. One can never be cautious enough in the way one acts and speaks in front of children.
On the other hand, suggestion should not be confused with illusion, with error. If there are false and dangerous suggestions, there are also right and beneficial suggestions — by means of suggestion we can improve and even heal ourselves and others. Here then is an important educational problem and task: How to effectively use this powerful and delicate tool.
The discovery the investigation of the unconscious, then, gave rise to a vast harvest of studies concerning the affective life, imagination, dreams, etc., which goes by the name of psychoanalysis. Much caution is needed in this field because not everything has been well established and some have indulged in dangerous theoretical and practical exaggerations. But there is already a fund of secure knowledge and appropriate applications, especially concerning the education of feelings and that very delicate but demanding problem that is sex education.
Another valuable contribution made by modern psychology to the art of education is the recognition and study of individual types. The great differences that exist in the ways of behaving, feeling and reacting between one individual and another — differences that are referred to by the generic terms of diversity of temperament and character — are well known. It is precisely such differences that constitute one of the most arduous educational problems. Mothers who have had several children have been able to see how even in the same family these differences are such that the methods that served well with one of the children failed with the other, and that each one constitutes a new case and a new problem. Well, such individual differences, however varied and complex, can be sorted into various well-defined groups. Modern psychology has updated the old, somewhat coarse and superficial classifications of temperaments and characters, and with the help of new knowledge has been able to determine various well-defined psychological types.
These classifications of human beings are based on top of two sets of differences:
- On the varied prevalence of the four fundamental functions existing in man: physical sensitivity, emotionality (affectivity), thought, and intuition or spiritual element.
- On the two opposite directions of vital interest in different individuals. That is, there are those in whom interest is turned preferentially toward the external world and who are therefore called extroverts, and those whose attention and activity is instead directed mainly to the internal world and who are called introverts.
Each of these types has special aptitudes and shortcomings, is suited for different studies, professions and activities, and is predisposed to certain imbalances and disorders. Thus each type presents special educational problems and requires the use of special methods.
Many more things could be said, but I hope that even the little that has been mentioned is enough to show how education is an arduous and complex thing that requires special and serious preparation. This, however, should not discourage us; there is no shortage of help, and modern psychology offers valuable tools for those who know and want to make use of them.
Original Title: Problemi dell’ Educazione Famigliare – II
Doc.s #23778 and 23779 – Assagioli Archive – Florence
The Unconscious and Suggestion
In our first conversation on educational problems we mentioned the great discovery made by modern psychology: that of a large sphere of psychic life within us that exists without our direct awareness of it, and which has therefore been called the subconscious or unconscious. This discovery has tremendous practical importance and is bringing about a real revolution both in the field of psychology and in the fields of medicine and education. Knowledge of the unconscious and its laws, how to use and direct it is therefore necessary for every conscious educator.
Let us therefore see what are its essential characteristics and educational applications. The easiest way to realize what it is, is to briefly recall the path that science has followed in discovering and studying it. It was the astonishing phenomena of hypnotism that revealed the existence of this hidden region of the human soul. It was found that by means of certain procedures a suitable subject could be placed in a special state which resembles sleep in certain ways, and which was therefore called hypnosis. In this state the subject is as if asleep, due to the fact that his ordinary consciousness and will are abrogated; on the other hand he can move, speak, and perform intelligent actions under the guidance of the will and mind of the hypnotist. The latter can make the hypnotized person believe and execute whatever he wants, and the hypnotized person accepts and executes everything without criticism, without resistance — but, I repeat, intelligently and often with confidence, with greater abilities than he would know how to use while awake. This psychic part that reveals itself in hypnosis is not something artificial or temporary, created by hypnotic practices, as some have believed at first, but has revealed itself as a natural element of man’s psychological constitution; it exists and operates continuously in each of us. An example will easily clarify what it consists of.
During hypnosis the practitioner says to the subject, “Tomorrow morning at eight o’clock you will get up and go pay a visit to Mr. X.” After a few minutes he wakes the subject, who remembers nothing of what was said and done during the hypnosis. But the next morning, before eight o’clock, the subject wakes up and feels impelled to get up and go to his friend X . . . . His reason tells him that there is no reason to make this visit, that it is still early, that the friend is still asleep but, in spite of these considerations, the impulse persists and arouses more or less plausible pretexts in the mind and the subject has no rest until he has obeyed what he believes to be his own spontaneous urge, but which instead is the effect of the suggestion received the previous day. This shows that there is a psychic force in the subject which persists and operates even after the period of hypnosis, during ordinary wakefulness and sleep.
Once the existence of the unconscious was admitted, its action could be discovered in a great many facts of psychic life, such as in the genesis of dreams, artistic aspiration, memory, tastes, association of ideas and feelings, choices and urges to act. In the pathological field, it has been shown that many morbid repercussions which mental life has on physical life derive from the action of the unconscious, as well as the formation of phobias, obsessions, depressions, emotional agitations, abnormal tendencies, ideas and impulses. Further studies then have shown that not all aspects of the unconscious are the same, but that there are elements of a very different nature and value in it.
I cannot go into their description on this occasion, I will only mention with the help of a diagram, the main divisions of the unconscious :
- Lower unconscious
- Middle unconscious
- Higher or Superconscious unconscious
- Field of consciousness
- Conscious “I”
- Higher, spiritual “I”
- Collective unconscious
As it appears from this diagram, the sphere of the unconscious is wider than that of ordinary consciousness. But in reality the difference is much greater than it appears from the diagram itself. According to some authors, the unconscious comprises 90 to 95 percent of our psychic life! It is therefore obvious how important it is to know and direct it. Fortunately, our consciousness, as small as it is in the face of the unconscious, possesses a powerful weapon to master it. This weapon is SUGGESTION.
In fact, the unconscious, as the phenomena of hypnosis demonstrate, is eminently suggestible, plastic and receptive. It has no power of criticism, it neither examines nor discusses the impressions and impulses that come to it: its function is to receive and act upon them.
It is easy to understand how this combination of receptivity and obedience present an admirable possibility for utilization. If the unconscious is left to itself unsupervised and unguided, it is apt to accept and follow the most conflicting and inappropriate impressions, to the point of producing serious physical and psychic disturbances, of committing errors and even inducing guilt. If, on the other hand, it is guided and directed, if it is influenced by suitable methods, it can become our docile and indefatigable servant, and can put incalculable amounts of physical and mental energies at our disposal.
Let us see what are the applications of this discovery to educational practice. In children, as we have mentioned, the unconscious is even more extensive and sensitive than in adults. In them the conscious personality is in an almost embryonic state; it can be said that practically the entirety of the child psyche is subconscious in nature. Moreover, the impressions that the infantile unconscious receives, unlike those in the adult, are not restrained and limited in their action by previous impressions and by tendencies, habits and complexes that are already formed; so that in a child each of those influences imprints itself deeply, as if on soft wax, and leaves traces that can last a lifetime and determine the future destiny of the person.
Therefore the responsibility of educators is great. They must abandon the dangerous illusion that the child does not notice and does not understand, that it is not necessary to have much regard for him or her. Instead, they must realize, and remember in practice at every moment, that there is in the child a part, a psychic being, which perceives everything and understands or intuits much of what is said and what is done, and is influenced by the manner and the spirit with which everything is said and done.
Educators therefore have two great tasks, two great duties toward the little ones entrusted by God or men to their care. The first is to safeguard them from negative, harmful suggestions; the second is the deliberate, methodical, wise use of constructive suggestion to obtain desirable educational results.
Let us begin with the first, which is more arduous and delicate than it may at first seem. Several different tasks can be distinguished in this:
- Avoid direct negative suggestions.
These consist of the phrases that so often and so inappropriately are said to children: “How naughty you are!” “You are disobedient!” “You are stupid!” “You are insufferable!” and so on. Most parents say these phrases in an outburst, without thinking about them, without giving them importance. Some delude themselves that they are an inducement for the child to become good and obedient. But this is a big psychological mistake. Those phrases, those assertions provoke just the opposite!
To clearly show how the unconscious reacts to suggestions, I will quote a little story which gives a valuable lesson in psychology in a joking form:
A farmer who was going to the market on the back of a mule, saw on one side of the road a beautiful mulberry tree laden with ripe blackberries. Eager to pick them, he stopped under the plant to better reach its branches and stood up on the saddle. As he stood in that position, thinking that if he fell off the mule, he would fall among the thorns that lined the road, he said, “Woe is me if now someone says ‘go on!’” The mule, hearing the words “go on,” immediately set off, and the farmer fell into the bush below, just as he had feared.
The unconscious — and not just the infantile unconscious — acts just like that mule! It does not care about the intentions and desires of the speaker, it receives the suggestions and implements them without regard to the consequences. So if one says to oneself, “Let’s hope I don’t get a migraine or vertigo,” the unconscious will take in the words “migraine” or “vertigo” and tend to produce them. So when a child’s unconscious hears, “you are bad,” “you are disobedient,” etc., it cannot help but become and be more and more “bad” or “disobedient” because of the suggestion that was taken in! With that erroneous method you get all the opposite of what you would like!
At this point it may be that the unconscious of some of the kind listeners makes the following deduction, “But then one should never scold and punish.” I hasten to correct this possible impression, which is not right. One can, indeed should, correct, punish when necessary, but it should be done in another way — without giving direct negative suggestions. It should be done impersonally by insisting on the positive side of correction. Here are some elementary examples : “Mother will not give baby fruit, so she will learn to keep her hands still, and obey,” etc.
- Avoid indirect negative suggestions
These can be verbal or tacit. Among the former the most important to avoid are those concerning health. Here is how a master of these studies and applications, Prof. Baudouin,[ii] Director of the Institut International de Psychagogie et de Psychothérapie[iii] in Geneva, speaks wittily about them:
Not merely must we spare children the sight of illnesses which would impress their imaginations; but before children even more than before adults we must scrupulously avoid speaking of illness. We must shun the small change of conversation which, when we have exhausted the subject of the weather, we pass on to speak of health, that is to say of disease. I mean the sort of talk wherein, having reviewed the headaches, the constipations, the nose-bleedings, and the toothaches, of our own interesting personality, we proceed to discuss the rheumatisms, the chronic bronchitis, and the stitches of our uncles and aunts, our males and female cousins, down to the twenty-fifth degree of family relationship. Next comes the list of sudden deaths or rapidly fatal illnesses in our own street and our own quarter of the town. And we finish off with philosophical conclusions in the style of Joseph Prudhomme and Monsieur Perrichon anent our mortal frailty and the numberless enemies ever on the watch for a chance of destroying our precious health. [iv]
But even more harmful than these general statements are the concerns that so many mothers demonstrate about their children’s health, with anxious questions, with the expression of fears addressed to the doctor and family members in the presence of the children. These phrases not infrequently produce aggravations and prolongations of disorders, sowing the seeds of apprehension and fear that can develop into mental illness.
Another kind of indirect suggestion, unfortunately frequent and very harmful, is the setting of examples of “unedifying” words and demeanor — being irritated and depressed, dealing harshly, being caught telling lies. These examples have disastrous effects and can destroy in a few moments the results of much teaching and encouragement, for the suggestive effectiveness of lived life is far greater than that of words.
Certainly it is very difficult to succeed in avoiding every such occasion, and even then, perfection is not of this world. But whoever educates conscientiously and responsibly should make every effort to come close to it, for in this, more than in all sentimental outpourings, lies the test and touchstone of true love, of a wise and enlightened love. Moreover, that discipline, besides being necessary for our children, is most useful for ourselves. So our children, in order to be well educated, oblige us to educate ourselves, and in this way give us back the good we do them.
Now we come to the positive part of our educational activity: the use of beneficial, constructive suggestion. It can be done in three main ways:
- Positive suggestion in the waking state.
These consist in stating repeatedly, in exact words and with appropriate attitudes, the qualities we wish to develop in the child, the things we wish him or her to do. The method itself is simple, but its implementation is delicate. Exact expedients and nuances must be used in order to produce the desired effects, the greatest obstacle to be avoided being that of arousing the opposition of conflicting conscious or unconscious tendencies. Therefore it is advisable (and various educators do this even without having studied psychology) not to address the child’s personality directly, but to speak generically, indirectly, applying to other children the things said, or speaking to the child in the third person. Moreover, it is appropriate to make the suggestion in moments of calm, receptivity, and harmony; that is, not at the time when the tendency to be changed is present and active. It is also necessary that the person giving the suggestion should himself be calm and harmonious and speak in a slow, well-articulated, calm manner. Suggestions can be given by means of images of sounds, suitable readings, etc. as well as verbally.
- Indirect suggestions, by means of action and example
If well implemented, these are most effective. It is well known that children are imitators, so one can methodically use this tendency for educational purposes. The applications are varied: we can ourselves do the actions that we wish to be imitated; have others do them, put them in contact with other children or groups of more trained children, etc.
- Suggestions during sleep
Here is how Coué, [v] a proponent of this method, advises one to proceed:
Parents should wait until the child is asleep. One of them cautiously enters the room, approaches the bed and gently slowly lays a hand on the child’s forehead…. then repeats 15-20 times in a low, slow voice the things he wishes to obtain from him, whether with regard to health and sleep, or with regard to study, demeanor, etc., then withdraws as he came, being very careful not to wake the child.
Baudouin adds that to be truly effective this method must be used in the evening. In that case, he says, “the success is so astonishing that many parents to whom I had recommended this method said, after a few weeks, that they were almost frightened by the admirable results obtained.” [vi]
Faced with this power of suggestion, the doubt may arise in some people as to whether its use may be harmful, weakening the personality of children. It may be answered that no harm can come from the use of suggestion if it is done wisely, expediently, and discreetly. We must remember that, whether we like it or not, suggestions operate continually on the souls of children — and on those of adults. So fighting harmful suggestions and using constructive ones can only do good. It is necessary, however, that parents and other educators do not abuse that tool, that they do not try to enslave the child’s soul, or mold it according to their own theories and their own preconceptions. It is necessary to respect natural dispositions, indeed to cultivate them with care and consideration, to remember that the child is an autonomous being, a little person, a soul who has the right to find his or her own way, to carry out his or her own life in the world. But this applies to all educational work and not only to suggestion.
Moreover, there is a means of avoiding all danger of excessive influence on the part of educators: it is to teach children as early as possible the method of self-suggestion, so that they can direct and shape their own unconscious by themselves. This method is easy to understand and apply, and indeed boys and girls in their simplicity and with their absence of criticism not infrequently understand it more readily and apply it with better results than adults. Therefore it should come into general use and I subscribe, along with Baudouin, to Perkin’s statement that “the conscious use of autosuggestion should be taught in the public schools.” [vii]
Before arriving at this result there will be a long way to go, but now everything proceeds rapidly and the most improbable things are sometimes implemented in a surprising way. The important thing is that those who know set a good example. So let’s start with ourselves, for the sake of our children and our students, and gradually the benefit will be able to extend into an ever-widening circle.
 The word “hypnosis” was coined in 1850 from Greek roots meaning “sleep” and “condition”. The nature of this phenomenon has been explored considerably since Assagioli wrote this essay. —Ed.
[ii] Charles Baudouin (1893-1963) was a French psychoanalyst who combined some of the elements of the work of Freud, Jung, and Adler. —Ed.
[iii] Baudouin was the founder of this institute, supported by Adler, Coué, Flournoy, Freud, Janet, Jung, and others, which was later renamed the Charles Baudouin International Institute for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. —Ed.
[iv] from Suggestion et Autosuggestion, by Charles Baudouin p.229. —Author’s Note. This book was first published in French and translated as Suggestion and Auto-Suggestion in 1920. This translation of Baudouin is taken from page 265 of the 1920 published English version, which us available online at HathiTrust.org —Ed.
[v] Emile Coué (1857-1926) was a French psychologist who introduced a method of psychotherapy and self-improvement based upon optimistic autosuggestion. He was also a pharmacist who discovered what was later called the placebo effect. He wrote Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion, which was published in English in the UK and US in 1920-1922. In 1910 he founded a clinic in Nancy, France, where he applied “the Coué Method” to help people “cure themselves.” —Ed.
[vi] Baudouin, op. cit. p.231. —Author’s Note.
[vii] Source Unknown. —Ed.
[i] Doc. #23771, Part I of this essay was originally titled simply Problemi di Educazione, or “Problems of Education,” but it contains a second part which this document was hand-corrected and revised by the author, in which Part I became Part Ia, doc. #23776. and the title was changed to Problemi dell’Educazione Famigliare,or “Problems of Family Education.” Much of the revised version is the same as the original, and we refer to both versions in this translation. —Tr.