How can you inspire one to learn?

Mr. Hüther, how do children learn inspiration?

Parents today are under greater pressure to succeed than their mothers and fathers. The reason for this lies in the steadily increasing demands of our performance society. But why it does more harm than good to want to constantly accompany and encourage your children, and what they need instead for all of themdevelop intellectual potential German brain researcher Gerald Hüther explains.

Interview: Evelin Hartmann
Photos: Marvin Zilm / 13 Photo

A Tuesday lunchtime in Stuttgart. Taxis, buses, the rain drives hurrying passers-by. The Althoff Hotel am Schlossgarten is only a few steps away from the train station. The lobby is held in warm brown tones, comfortable armchairs, and subdued lighting - pleasantly warm and dry. A tall man steps through the revolving door, drops of water pearl off the trench coat and sink into the burgundy red carpet. He smiles and holds out his hand: "Gerald Hüther, where do we want to sit?"

Mr. Hüther, you made the statement that “the days of lone fighters in the world of work are over”. Which skills and abilities do parents need to impart to their children so that they can later survive successfully and happily in their professional lives?
A lot is changing at companies. There are still those who rely on whips and incentives to achieve short-term goals, but I also see many who take a culture of relationships very seriously. Companies in which the employees have a say in their own wages, in which managers give part of the bonuses to their team, who rely on their employees' personal responsibility, independence and creativity. This new world of work is growing rapidly, it is the future. Unfortunately, I find that parents do not raise their children according to these new standards.

Then what then?
According to the values ​​and educational methods that they themselves experienced in their own childhood and youth. Parents today are under a lot more pressure than their own parents back then.

What do you mean?

On the one hand, children have become much more important and have therefore come very much into the focus of parental efforts. On the other hand, parents know about the high competitive pressure that prevails in our performance society and about the need to guide children through our educational system so that they can find their place later. When I was a child, my parents had other things to do than keep looking after my future. Thus, not only has the importance of the children increased, but also the parents' fear that it will not work out. This is a very precarious mixture that tempts - perhaps against better resolutions - to fall back on the tried and tested, on educational principles that one experienced in one's childhood.

"Children have become much more important today and have therefore come very much into the focus of parental efforts."

Brain researcher Gerald Hüther

What are the consequences of this upbringing from a neural point of view?
What interests me as a neuroscientist, and what should also be of interest to all parents, is what framework conditions and parenting styles a child needs in order to be able to fully exploit its entire neural potential. We now know that genetic predispositions do not determine how the billions of nerve cells in the brain network with one another after birth. Rather, it is the experiences that a child has over time that decide which of these nerve cell networks are stabilized, which are preserved and which are atrophied. By projecting their own longings, desires, and expectations onto their children, parents can ruin their brains as they develop.

Instead, what would positively affect the development of the brain?
A loving, open and motivating environment that inspires children to boldly conquer the world. Because every new discovery, every new knowledge and ability triggers a storm of enthusiasm in the child's brain that we adults can hardly understand. This enthusiasm for yourself and for everything that is still to be discovered is the most important fuel for further brain development. But if you deny your child the opportunity to experience his or her self-efficacy, instead repeatedly dictating what to do, making it the object of your own ideas, you will nip this capacity for enthusiasm in the bud.

The child as an object, what does that mean?
In the first few weeks and months of life, a baby only needs to smile at its mother to get authentic feedback. The mother is beaming. This happens immediately, without evaluation. The mother meets the child as a subject. It doesn't have to be an effort. It just happens by itself, which arouses an irrepressible desire in the child to try out, step by step, what else they can discover and shape.

But at some point each of his actions no longer triggers delight in the mother, some annoying or angry ...
... and should be prevented due to their own values. At the moment when we no longer have an encounter with the child, in which we try to find out together with the child what is good for the child, but simply tell him what to do, we do it Object of our own assessments and evaluations. This is dressage.

At what age does this happen?

It cannot be said exactly. But one thing is certain: if it happened immediately after birth, the child would die. Experiments with monkeys have proven this. If the infant lacks the authentic reaction of the other person, it lacks any livelihood. The decisive moment is when a child feels for the first time that it is being made an object, that it should not be the way it is, but - in order to be loved - must behave as the parents do imagine and wish. It's a very painful experience.

"Children need a loving and open environment that inspires them to boldly conquer the world."

Brain researcher Gerald Hüther

What are the consequences?
A child who is repeatedly made an object has basically only two options: The more extroverted children, who up to this point had a lot of creative freedom, step out of the bond and also make the other an object, they say «they stupid mom ». So it doesn't hurt anymore. Some children internalize this strategy so much that they use and move others around for their entire lives. In some cases they are even very successful with it.

And the introverted children?
They make themselves the object of evaluation, saying “I can't do anything”, “I am not worth anything”. An attitude that often leads to self-destructive behavior such as bulimia during puberty.

Monday morning, 7.30 a.m .: the parents have to go to work, the children to school and dawdle. A classic situation in which most parents tend to tell their children what to do.
Why doesn't the mother say at 7 a.m. that everyone has to leave the house in half an hour, but just before the bus leaves? Then the children would have a creative freedom in which they can decide for themselves when to pack their school bag and put on their shoes. When interacting with the mother, the child must have the feeling of being able to create something on its own, of having a leeway.

A clear “no” is out of the question?
This parenting style includes a resounding “no” - parents must remain in the leadership role, but they should give their child all the space they need to feel seen as a subject. In other words: the child has to become a co-creator of a process; this is the only way they can develop and learn true enthusiasm and devotion for something. You won't get any further with dressage strategies.

Do you have a specific example of this?
Learning to play a musical instrument is a classic case in which most families sooner or later become frustrated. At some point your daughter comes home and wants to learn to play the piano. Then, as a mother, you would do well to ask why she would like this. Maybe she just wants this because her best friend recently started taking classes. Then you should invite your child to get to know other instruments with you in concerts in order to experience the full diversity.

What if afterwards it should be the oboe?
Then make your daughter aware of what it means to practice every week that the day will likely come when she would rather go to see her friend. Ask your daughter what to do if this happens. She may agree to do the washing up in that case. Then they draw up a contract together that stipulates exactly that, and then you hang it on the music stand.

So the daughter would have helped shape the situation.
And there would be no quarrel in an emergency. As a mother, you do not have to enforce the practice through reward or bribery or under threat of punishment - your procedure is regulated by contract. And the daughter wrote down what should happen if this happens.

They compare this basic educational attitude with a new management style from business, “Supportive Leadership”.
This approach also sees a manager in a stronger position than the employee, but this manager is not there to boss the employee around and dominate, but to invite or encourage him to try something new, to take responsibility in order to get the best out of himself to be able to. This is a real subject-subject relationship and exactly what parents should do in their upbringing if they want to stand up for the positive development of their children.

Parents as managers, what would that look like in everyday family life?
On the one hand, it's about inviting your children anew every day to do something, to experience something. On the other hand, it is about encouraging your child. But for that you have to be brave yourself. And I'm not talking about the courage it takes to jump from the 10-meter tower, but about the courage to believe that your child will become something without me constantly "accompanying" it, that something is in stuck to him. And last but not least, it's about inspiration. This is the fuel from which new things are created. The things that simply have to be worked through are not inspiring. Of course, washing up has to be done together, but afterwards it's time to discover the world in a playful way. Incidentally, this works best in the great outdoors.

This may work better for a 10-year-old than for a 15-year-old.
Sure, with a teenager who just sits in front of the game console all day, it's a little late to start. But even with him, as a father or mother, I can ask myself: Have I invited my son enough? Did I really encourage him? How can I inspire him to maybe do something different with me? This is more promising than just pulling the plug.

Do you have any other advice?
My biggest tip for parents is to make other adults accessible to their children and thus give them a different space of experience. The grandparents, the football coach, a neighbor: the more people a child gets to know, the greater the chance that there will be someone among them who sees it as it is and loves for its own sake. With these people, it has the opportunity to unfold in all openness and to use its full potential. Just like Pippi Longstocking, she corresponds exactly to this model.

Pippi Longstocking is a great personality, wild and stubborn - but the horror of many parents.
But therefor imaginative, self-reliant, enterprising and enthusiastic. Pippi Longstocking unfolds an incredible amount of potential. I think it would be more fun for parents to have a child like this than one who just adapts to their ideas and specifications until they can no longer stand themselves in the end.

To person

Prof.Dr. Gerald Hüther, 64, is one of the leading German neurobiologists, author and research assistant at the Center for Psychosocial Medicine at the University of Göttingen. Gerald Hüther is the father of three adult children, has one grandchild and lives in Göttingen, Germany.