Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washngton

Children's Life Tests

by Alfred Adler

Edited by Edward Hoffman, Ph.D.

Introduction: Among Adler's contributions to modern counseling was his emphasis on understanding children within the social context of their particular families. In this brief, unpublished article written in the early 1930s, Adler sets forth this important concept.

We can never tell whether a child has been rightly prepared for life until he or she is faced with a difficulty. This is true even regarding a small baby. As long as individuals, young or old, are not challenged--put through a test, we might say--we know practically nothing about their prior emotional-social training and present capability. Therefore, life-tests are always necessary if we are to understand children.

All families have rules of their own. Most of these rules are relatively flexible, of course, and vary tremendously from family to family. In some respects, though, these rules or principles are all the same. For example, it is a truism that one child in a family can never occupy the same social space as another member, even an identical twin. Thus, no two children are ever raised in precisely the same environment.

Among the many social circumstances that confront children, and to which they must adapt, are the traditions and beliefs of their parents. We see quite a different home portrait if their child-rearing outlook is dominated by either severity or kindliness, authoritarianism or camaraderie. The corresponding parental demands are altogether different, and their children's social beliefs and attitudes will likewise necessarily become different.

An important principle: the stricter the parents' rules and principles, the more occasions exist for the children's transgressions. It is the same as in national or public life. Harsh and unnecessary laws increase the number of law-breakers. In their growth and development, children are by no means chiefly concerned with following parental rules and accepting parental demands. Rather, most youngsters are typically more concerned with their own growing minds and bodies. Their development is mainly directed towards enhancing the ability to cope with new situations. All children seek to perfect themselves so that they will never feel wholly defeated by their environment.

This emotional tendency has many names. The well-known philosopher John Dewey calls it the striving for security. Others call it the striving for self-preservation. We can refer to it as the striving for wholeness or superiority. This striving always involves an effort to improve one's position in life, but it has a million variations. This striving differs with every child, and especially in what or she actually means by feeling superior, better, safer, and more whole. All children differ in the spheres they choose for this striving, in their fields of activity, and in the means by which they feel they can accomplish their goals. Children especially differ in their degree of interest in other people.

We also find that every child's intelligence, social sensitivity, and courage is different. Every child places a different value on various concrete things, situations, and actions. Physically, biologically, and neurologically too, every child differs in degrees of efficiency and strength.

Through standardized intelligence testing and other measures, we can determine differences in children's cognitive and language abilities. Such tests reveal differing kinds of early training, experience, and innate influences, and are quite indispensable. If we are to discover children's differing cognitive, emotional, and social capabilities, we cannot avoid tests of one sort or another. Through scientific inquiry, we can gain a picture of each child's present developmental state.

However, we must also be aware that we can never predict from this picture the limits of a particular child's future growth. The striving for perfection is life-long, and it can always be utilized to correct an individual's emotional-social mistakes and direct one's daily activity in a more useful way.

The conscientious observer will therefore do well to look for the specific hindrances that may be lurking in a child's family, as well as the youngster's own mistaken attitudes that are blocking his or her greater achievement. Whether standardized or offered by the events of life itself, tests show whether a child has been confronted by difficulties. But to know such information is not sufficient for educators. We must then help the child to overcome these problems.


Permission to publish granted by Kurt Adler, M.D., Ph.D., Copyright 2005, Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington.

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