Parenting Styles Controversy: How Strict Should Parents Be?

In talk shows and panel discussions, the child and adolescent psychiatrist Michael Winterhoff was a welcome guest for a long time: He sat with Anne Will, chatted with Markus Lanz and gave Sandra Maischberger advice on how parents should raise their children. His thesis went something like this: Nowadays, parents are no longer able to set limits for their children – as a result, they grow into manipulative narcissists. “Why our children are becoming tyrants” or “Germany is dumbing down” were the titles of his popular non-fiction books, which sold more than 1.4 million copies.

Criminal charges are now being filed against the psychiatrist from Bonn. Serious allegations were made in the summer of 2021: He is accused of having prescribed sedative medication to minors for years, sometimes without the consent of their legal guardians. He often diagnosed children with a so-called “developmental retardation with fixation in early childhood narcissism and in the oedipal phase” or a “parent-child symbiosis”. Both diagnoses do not appear in the ICD, the international classification system that doctors use to encode and bill illnesses.

In the professional world, Winterhoff’s views on supposedly narcissistic children have been criticized for years. “To be honest, I never understood why Winterhoff and his books were so popular,” says psychiatrist and renowned attachment researcher Karl Heinz Brisch. The fact that Winterhoff describes children as “tyrants” should actually be a warning to parents, says the educator Susanne Mierau, who has been working with families in Berlin for 13 years. “How did he get away with such claims?” asks the pediatrician Herbert Renz-Polster, who has written several educational books and researches child development.

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Winterhoff was not alone in his views. In 2006, for example, Bernhard Bueb’s bestseller “Praise of Discipline” was published, the educator once headed the boarding school Schloss Salem. He compared parental actions “as a consequence” with the “training of a dog”. Occasional beatings were not taboo for him. And in the documentary “Elternschule” about a children’s and young people’s clinic in Gelsenkirchen, infants were described as the “biggest egoists in the world” and revealed that babies just a few months old manipulated their parents. Upbringing here becomes a power struggle in which parents have to assert themselves against their offspring right from the start. An attitude that appealed to many people: The documentary was even shown in the cinema and was nominated for the German Film Prize in 2018.

Educational science describes such a style as authoritarian or directive. “The problem with this educational method is that it is based solely on the behavior of the children,” explains Renz-Polster. The fact that Winterhoff prescribed sedative medication instead of trying to figure out where a child’s problem or outburst of anger came from fits in with this attitude. “A child may become obedient as a result, but such a shortcut does not advance their development,” says Renz-Polster. To do this, a child must learn to control his emotions and develop his personality within the framework of functioning relationships. If these are missing, it is difficult for him to develop a stable sense of self-esteem, to stand up for himself and to differentiate himself from others.

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