As a student, Dr Wes Wingett was deeply influenced by the Adlerian style of psychology and decided to pursue it further. He became a counsellor in private practice in 1978, and is currently a faculty member and Program Director for the school counselling program at the Adler Graduate School in the United States. An expert in counselling families the Adlerian way, Dr Wingett has been working with families from different countries. In a conversation with ParentCircle, Dr Wingett talks about Adlerian psychology and how parents can raise socially responsible and happy children.
PC: Can you tell us more about Adlerian psychology?
WW: Alfred Adler (1870–1937) was a psychiatrist. For about nine years, he was a colleague of Sigmund Freud. However, they had a bitter intellectual divorce in 1911, and this led to Adler starting his own school of psychology.
Adlerian psychology is a positive psychology, and one of its central ideas is that people are social beings looking for a way to fit in, to contribute to belong. Other ideas include the thought that everyone is equal, and that we should treat people with respect and dignity. According to Adler, we need to look at the purpose of behaviour and the direction in which the behaviour of a child or an adult is moving. We also need to believe that people should develop courage to face the challenges of living. Adler believed in democracy; and, in democracy, he believed there was freedom with order. We need to have democracy in families, in schools and in the larger community. According to him, children and adults are equal in their right to respect and dignity.
PC: You once said that you wanted to develop an Adlerian-based curriculum for teaching, learning and classroom management. Is this based on the need to teach children about self-care and being socially responsible?
WW: Yes, and we teach the same things to teachers and parents. I believe there is a way in which we can develop freedom with order, which is the definition of democracy.
I start with the idea of a house, and the foundation of the house is built on ‘respect’. If we want to be respectful, we need to be kind and firm at the same time. Adlerians believe that when we are overly kind, we are pampering the children and doing things that they can do themselves.
Next, we build the walls of the house. One of the walls is made up of ‘rules’. We need to have two basic sets of rules. The first rule is, ‘Respect others, self and the environment’ (ROSE). The second rule is that we help schools and families to help each other learn and succeed.
The other wall is made up of ‘routine’. We need routine in life because it gives us predictability, consistency and a way to respond to stress.
The roof of the house is made up of two interlocking ideas. One side is ‘rights’ (developmental rights, rights of children, rights of adolescence, rights of adults and rights of ageing). Children know about these rights; and if you work with children who are more than ten years old, they know what their rights are.
The other side of the roof is ‘responsibilities’. For example, if a child asks for a smartphone, we ask what responsibility the child is willing to take for it. And, if we don’t have responsibility with rights, then we have pampered children.
PC: In India, the culture of sending a child to preschool has developed only recently. What role do parents play, and what should they keep in mind when choosing the right preschool for their child?
WW: When choosing a school, parents need to decide on what they expect from a school and what they can afford for a school. They also need to look at the facilities, the staff, the learning environment and what their child learns at school — about the self and others.
PC: Once a child enters school, he goes through many changes. How can parents help their children cope with these changes?
WW: We don’t know yet whether the child will go through changes. According to Adler, entering school is a test that a child faces. If the child is courageous, he will face that test with no challenge. However, if discouraged and pampered, the child may face difficulty in meeting the challenge of going to school. Therefore, one of the things that we need to do as parents is prepare children to go to school by teaching them to be responsible at home. We need to train children to be cooperative, so they can be the same when at school.
PC: Parents in India sometimes force their children to become an engineer or a doctor because society looks up to these professions. What are your views on this?
WW: One of the things that parents need help with is vocational choice. Adler says that there are three innate abilities that we are all born with, which need to be developed. They are creativity, intelligence and social interest. When you look at intelligence, there is the work of Howard Gardner that comes to mind. He does not ask, “How smart is my child?” but “How is my child smart?” He says that there are eight ways in which people can be smart. In common language, people are word-smart, number-smart, music-smart, picture-smart, self-smart, people-smart, nature-smart and body-smart. These eight intelligences need to be developed, regardless of what our parents tell us.
When parents force their kids to be something, kids resort to one of these reactions — they rebel, they sneak or they please and do what their parents want, without any satisfaction. What we want for our children is to have satisfaction in everything they do.
PC: When is the right time for parents to let go of their children and stop making decisions for them?
WW: Well, one of the things we need to understand is that children begin to make decisions from the age of six months. The way they make decisions is, for instance, if we give them food and they like it, they eat it. If they don’t like it, at six months of age, they start making faces. Therefore, we need to tell ourselves that our children are decision-makers right from six months of age. We then very slowly begin the letting-go process; so when they are 18 or 19 years of age, we have given them the roots of a healthy family and the wings to fly all over the world, knowing that they can return to the nest if and when they need help. Therefore, it is not a time, it is a process.
PC: In the process of giving children wings to fly, what do you suggest parents teach them?
WW: What we want to train children to do is to develop two things:
- Self-efficacy — believe in myself and the things that I want to do
- Social responsibility — that I look at what is happening around me, and I think that I can create a positive change and make a difference by helping others
PC: On the basis of your expertise, what suggestions do you have for parents to help raise responsible children?
WW: Adlerian psychology, like I said, is about freedom with order, and parents need to set the order, based on the rules, respect, responsibility and routine model. Along with this, parents need to be firm, fair, friendly, and follow through and encourage kids. We want to talk to children and adolescents like we want them to talk to themselves about themselves. That’s a whole shift in thinking.
There is a pressing need for democracy in families, in schools and in the larger community so that we can raise socially responsible and happy children. Children and adults are equal in their right to respect and dignity, says Dr Wes Wingett as he applies Adlerian psychology to explain the key to bring about this shift in thinking among parents and teachers.