I have just finished ‘Your Competent Child’ by Jesper Juul.
This book is very different from most of the parenting books that I read.
I was bemused at the opening salvos, with lines like, “When I say that children are competent, I mean that they are in a position to teach us what we need to learn.” I have never really bought into the idea of children as teachers. As the book went on, however, the ideas started to seem more enticing. In Chapter Two, Juul expanded upon this idea of competence, writing that, “though children can’t express what they need, they know perfectly well when their needs are not being met,” and explaining that children make this clear through their behaviour.
My edition has been rather poorly proof-read, with missing spaces, strange use of capitalisation, and various other minor mistakes throughout. This didn’t concern me particularly, but it was so noticeable, I think I ought to mention it.
I completely agree that, “When children are born, they are fully human – that is, they are social, responsive, and empathetic.” I don’t agree with ideas of ‘training’ or ‘taming’ children. Though children clearly lack a great deal of capabilities and experience, I am warming to the concept of them as fundamentally competent people doing their best to function in a world that is largely outside of their control. Often, my own children’s more surprising behaviour has turned out to be a reaction to something they could not bear. If we begin by assuming competence, then we will be more open to spotting the difficult circumstances our children’s seemingly difficult behaviour is flagging up.
Rather than starting from a scientific base, this book starts from an ethical one. Juul writes of parenting as an integral part of society. How we parent our children is a large part of what makes our world what it is. Parenting is not, to Juul, about creating adults out of children, it is about relating to children as they are. Put like that, it’s hard to ignore the ethical aspect.
Though this book is not written mainly for a readership of adoptive parents, there were some interesting ideas in Chapter Five about children being cared for by substitute parents. In particular, I was taken with Juul’s wording, “the task facing the child – to find his lost self beneath his strategy for survival – is a difficult one.”
In the end, I found the principles had some similarities with NVR. Parents are human, and it is honest to let our children know that we have boundaries and needs of our own. It is surprising how few parenting books acknowledge the importance of adult’s boundaries.
Sometimes I read parenting books that seem to suggest I need to be fulfilling the children’s needs all the time. The reality is that no amount of self-care will make up for a life of subsuming my own needs for the sake of my children. My boundaries matter and I have to protect them if I want to live comfortably with my children.
Juul spends more of the book advising parents on how to discover what they want and need than he does on giving parenting tips. Though this makes it a little hard for me to reproduce his advice, I found it a very comfortable focus. Many parenting techniques feel false and fake. I can’t repeat scripts or assume an emotion that I don’t feel. I find those experiences excruciating, and my children tend to react badly. Expressing my own thoughts and feelings honestly makes a great deal more sense to me. I think that my children appreciate the respect shown by being treated with honesty.
Overall, this is a fascinating book, and I have found it very thought-provoking. I appreciate the gentleness of Juul’s approach. He doesn’t expect parents to be perfect, though he is generally optimistic about human nature. Rather than the traditional everyone makes mistakes, Juul writes, “The majority of us develop so slowly as human beings that we do not cease to become angry or irritated until long after our children have become adults.” His emphasis, then, is on living alongside our children, establishing and maintaining our own boundaries and supporting them to do the same. This is the first parenting book I’ve read that seems to plot a course leading into being a parent to adult children. On the role of parents to adults, Juul notes, “All of us need to have loving and caring witnesses to our lives.”
I am very glad that I have read this book and can imagine the ideas will continue to reverberate in my mind for a long time.