«At some point, children simply don't want to be around grown-ups.»


Monica Müller




Children may suffer long-lasting damage from the coronavirus measures, worries brain researcher Gerald Hüther. However, he also sees opportunities for our society arising from the pandemic.

The coronavirus has dominated our lives for a year. Do children cope better with such crises than adults?

Very young children, who spend most of their time at home and don't have to wear a mask don't notice what's happening. Children in kindergarten or at primary school have been great about complying with social distancing and hygiene rules. As adults, we are pleased that they are so conscientious. But we don't know what price children will pay.

What price are they paying?

Every child has needs, like cuddling with Grandma, playing with other children, discovering the world. Simply doing things. In order to comply with the coronavirus measures, children must suppress many of these needs. That's extremely tough. This is why the human brain organises itself so that inhibiting connections are laid over the networks that produce a specific need. These needs are then suppressed.

What happens next?

The desire to be close to Grandma simply fades away at some point. When the child is able to be near Grandma again, the grandmother notices that the child is uncertain and somewhat distant. If Grandma reacts with uncertainty too and believes that her grandchild doesn't like her anymore, they may not be able re-establish their bond ever again. It is similar with the need to play with others, discover the world, learn things and discover the unknown. There are children who, after nearly a year in lockdown, say, «We no longer feel like playing with our friends anymore.» If parents don't help their children find their way back, they may not be able to do so themselves.

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What if this doesn't happen? What will become of these children?

They will become people who dutifully fulfil their obligations with no will of their own; like robots or automatons. Never before in the history of the world have children been forced to suppress their own needs in order to please us. For example, if a child resists an authoritarian father or official rules, it will remain strong and continue sensing what it needs.

Just like the young people here in Switzerland who have rebelled against the coronavirus measures. In St. Gallen, for example, there were riots before the most recent openings.

Some young people no longer stick to the rules. They have already gathered their own experiences and are resisting the demand that they ignore their fundamental needs. What's more, the sex hormones in their brains are in such turmoil that they simply cannot suppress their needs.

You understand these young people.

I don't think there's any point in complaining about their outbursts or rebuking them. That only makes things worse. Instead, we should empathise with the fact that this is a catastrophic situation for them and work together to consider what we can do. There's more room to manoeuvre than you might think. If party venues are closed, people can meet at a quarry or a lake and stage a pop concert there, provided that social distancing is maintained. We must help young people satisfy their needs while observing the rules. I think it's fine that they're rebelling. After all, we don't want mindless sheep who all think alike. We want people with a mind of their own, especially in Switzerland.

Why do you say «especially in Switzerland»?

The Swiss are a bit idiosyncratic. I assume this has something to do with their history. The Swiss have never had an system with a king at the top, where everyone did what the king said. The cantons each have their own unique regional features and thus take many decisions independently. That's why, viewed from the outside, it is harder to get the Swiss to march in lockstep ...

... than for Germans? 

In Germany, everything is organised and implemented as consistently and bureaucratically as possible from the top down. There is consternation at the moment that not all federal states are sticking to the measures decreed by the national government in Berlin. Things are slightly different in each state. In view of the rising number of infections, there is constant talk of an immediate nationwide lockdown. Some areas have already shut down, while people in others are no longer complying with the rules.

In some German states, there has been no in-person teaching at schools for almost a year. How can we help children who aren't allowed to go to school or mingle with others of their own age?

Parents should provide children with many opportunities to feel alive again. At home, they should sing, dance, make music and paint. Lapurla offers plenty of wonderful inspiration in this respect. As soon as it is possible again, families should meet once more. This is all the more important because teachers and school authorities will try to make up for the lessons that have been missed. Parents should insist that our children's needs are addressed.

You are a staunch critic of our school system. What do you think is so wrong with it?

In Western schools, children are still too often objectified. They are objects of expectations, instruction and evaluation. This violates two of their most important fundamental needs: the need for attachment and the need to structure things themselves. If children can't satisfy these two basic needs, they must either suppress them or find some other way to compensate for them. For example, they may eat or play video games. To put it sarcastically, the schools that we have in Western consumer societies are precisely the ones we deserve because they generate an ample supply of consumers. Fortunately, not everyone is convinced. Outside town and cities in particular, many children and adolescents are still very close to nature and do things that are close to their heart.

What are you calling for?

The most important thing that could happen in school today would be to ensure that no child will ever lose his or her natural joy of learning again. If schools can ensure that all children truly enjoy learning, they will learn everything they need.

What type of school system do you envision?

One in which children are not told what they must learn. They must be asked what they are interested in.

Is fun really enough? Children might, for example, enjoy learning a foreign language, but find it annoying having to remember vocabulary by rote.

That might be a somewhat unfortunate view. Forcing children to learn a foreign language prevents them loving this foreign language. In East Germany, where I grew up, I had to study Russian for at least ten years. Since then, I've forgotten it completely. I didn't learn English in school. I taught myself. I like this language and can speak English perfectly.

You once said you were fortunate that your parents had too little time for you when you were a child. What did you mean by that?

They couldn't sit down with me in the afternoon and argue about how I should be doing my sums. They didn't have the time. Nor could they take me to any events where I could learn something. They were happy if we spent time with other children in the afternoon. We came home from school at lunchtime, threw our satchel in a corner and went out. That's when our life started. We would wander around town, discovering in a playful way what life was all about: how to get along with people, all the great things you can do and how to test your courage.

Neurobiologe Gerald Hüther

Gerhald Hüther criticises our school system for giving children too little freedom.  (Image: www.gerald-huether.de)

Gerald Hüther

Gerald Hüther, 70, is considered one of Germany's most important brain researchers. He shares findings in neurobiology with the broader public in talks and popular science books, many about children, school and learning. He has been the Director of the Akademie für Potenzialentfaltung (Academy for Developing Potential) since 2015. His latest project is the initiative www.liebevoll.jetzt 

Swiss studies have found that the amount of time young children have to do what they want has decreased by up to a third over the last 20 years. Is this a problem?

It has been scientifically proven that children have their most important learning experiences when trying things out for themselves in a playful manner. They must be able to solve extremely wide-ranging problems. We shouldn't clear a path for them, but ideally even put obstacles in their way. By learning to solve problems, they gain confidence. The nervous system works in a similar way to the immune system. The immune system becomes sluggish if it doesn't have to develop antibodies against germs. The ability to solve problems also wanes if this skill isn't trained.

What happens if there's no room for free play?

If there's no room for play, children have no choice but to follow the rules and instructions of adults. And these may be wrong. To give you a dramatic example, under the Nazis, adults were horribly wrong, and yet they forced their children to become little Nazis too. There were already progressive schools at that time. If there had been more progressive schools in which free play and personal responsibility played a major role, Hitler would never have found enough soldiers to fight his war.

Your criticism of schools is also a criticism of our society.

School is always like society. If schools are to change, our society must change first. That's happening right now – in part because of the coronavirus problem.

So does the coronavirus have its positive sides?

The coronavirus showed us that we can't control life. Because there are now so many things we can no longer do, we have been forced to reflect on ourselves. People can no longer go shopping, get a coffee or travel. They must ask themselves how they want to shape their lives and what is truly important to them. More and more people are realising that there are other things in life beside what they used to believe was important; things that may be far more significant.

Can you give us an example?

A mother called me during the lockdown. She has a two-year-old daughter, Maria. Maria spent part of the first year of her life in a creche so that her mother could work. Everyone else did the same thing. Little Maria has now been home for four weeks and her mother is besotted with her girl. She looks forward to every day with her and is really happy. She doesn't yet know how she'll manage, but she won't take Maria to creche every day anymore. What is important in her life has changed for this mother. If many people have this type of experience, the world will change.

You founded the initiative «Liebevoll jetzt!» (Kindness Now). What do you hope to achieve?

Many people are so uncertain about the current crisis that they need moral support; ideas for how they can do something good on a small scale. Or how to be close in spite of the restrictions. Simply being kinder to themselves.

Are you always kind to yourself?

No. Nor have I always been. But I've noticed that it does me good. So I often try to be kind to myself. I go out into the countryside and also really enjoy going to museums. I look at what people used to do.

You have two daughters. What have you done really well? What would you like to share with us?

The problem is that we can all only learn how to do something correctly by making mistakes. My wife and I didn't always manage things the way we would now. But we are proud to have two self-sufficient daughters with a will of their own. It isn't always easy living together. But I am happy that they are travelling down their own path and finding their way in life.

Photo/Stage: Pipilotti Rist with child: Collection on Display, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. ©Karin Kraus, Lapurla Projekt BonBon

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