Chapter 4: Adler – Individual Psychology

Part 3: Child Development, Education and the Psychology of Women

Child Development and Education

Adler agreed with Freud that personality is basically set in the early childhood years.  Thus, Adler was particularly interested in child development, and also in the training of those responsible for raising children (typically, the parents, the rest of the family, and school teachers).  The emphasis in much of his work was on ensuring that children are brought up in the best way possible from the very beginning of life. We have already examined the importance of the mother’s role and that she needs to be supportive while making sure not to spoil the child.  A child who is unable to resolve life’s problems without the assistance of others will grow up to become a neurotic person demonstrating a dysfunctional style of life (Adler, 1913a/1963). Since this is something that happens within the family, the parents obviously cannot serve as part of the solution for this problem.  Thus, Adler turned his attention to school teachers.

Adler believed that a person is educated when it becomes clear that they have become more relevant to more people (Adler, 1958).  In other words, they become a more active and involved member of their community, society, and perhaps even the whole world. School represents a new situation for a child.  If they have been raised well, they pass this test rather easily. If not, the defects in their style of life become evident. School work requires cooperation with both the teacher and the other students, and the ability to cooperate is probably more important than the child’s innate intellectual abilities.  Adler did not dismiss the importance of I.Q. (though he did suggest that the child and the parents should never be told what it is), but he pointed out that a child’s ability to concentrate on school subjects is primarily dependent on the child’s interest in the teacher (Adler, 1930b). So once again, we see the three life tasks coming into play.  School work is the child’s work, and it must take place within a communal setting (the classroom). But what about love? Whether you want to call it support, encouragement, caring, motivation, or love, Adler was clear in terms of what he thought about the “peculiar position” held by teachers:

The teacher, professional or amateur, must teach the simple thing:  love, and call it by its simple name: love. Almost since the beginnings of recorded history, however, the teacher has been in a peculiar position:  he is facing pupils, children or adults, who do not expect that the thing they ought to learn is so simple. (pg. 115; Adler, 1958)

According to Adler, it is the role of teachers to recognize the difficulties that children cannot overcome, and to “correct the mistakes of the parents.”  An essential aspect of this “correction,” however, is that it must never be punitive. Adler believed that if teachers scold or criticize students who cannot connect with their teacher or their classmates, then the child will realize they were right to dislike school.  Rather, teachers must help children to connect with themselves, and then reach out to connect with others (Adler, 1931a).  But what about children who cannot redirect their style of life or face up to the challenges they encounter?

This is a color photograph of two toddlers sitting on the floor with an adult as they play with letter blocks.
Image Source: “Two toddler playing letter cubes photo”. By Marisa Howenstine. Retrieved from Licensed Under: Free for commercial and non commercial use. No attribution required.

Adler wrote a great deal about guiding children and helping them to avoid and recover from delinquency (Adler, 1918/1963, 1930a, 1931a, 1935/1964, 1963), and his daughter, Alexandra, joined him in this endeavor (Alexandra Adler, 1930a,b).  Often the discussion addresses the primary problem in Adler’s view: a lack of social interest due to having been pampered. In addition, both Adler and his daughter bring into consideration an interesting family dynamic that appears to play some role: the child’s birth order.  An only child is in an unfavorable situation.  Although they certainly receive attention and support from their parents, since they receive all of it they tend to be pampered and they lack practice in being sociable.  As they leave the pampered surroundings of the home, such as when they go to school, the child grows up fighting against their environment and trying to dominate it. Their solutions can be passive, such as being timid, anxious, or routinely getting “sick,” or their solutions can be active, such as being excessively talkative, defiant, or combative (Alexandra Adler, 1930a; Adler, 1929/1964).  They face the potential of becoming like parasites, people who do nothing but enjoy life while expecting others to take care of them (Adler, 1928). The situation can be much worse, however, for the oldest child.  The oldest child was, for a time, an only child, and received all of the privilege and pampering associated with that position.  With the arrival of the next child, however, they lose their privileged position, and the mother must be particularly attentive to the new infant.  The oldest child is dethroned, and this can feel quite tragic, leading to consuming jealousy and a bitter struggle to regain the parent’s attention (Adler, 1929/1964, 1931a, 1963).  Dethroning is an experience that always leaves a great impression, and it can lead to a critical attitude toward the mother and a turning away toward the father (Adler, 1929/1964).  According to Adler, one often finds the experience of being dethroned in the past of problem children, neurotics, criminals, drunkards, and perverts (Adler, 1931a). Nonetheless, being the oldest child also has distinct advantages.  Amongst the siblings, the first born is typically the biggest and more experienced child. They have a certain power over the other children, in that they are often given greater responsibility, including, perhaps, the responsibility of caring for their younger brothers and sisters.  They tend to be guardians of law and order, and they have an especially high valuation of power (Adler, 1928). Adler was careful to point out, however, that too much is often made of his theories on birth order. It is not the birth order, per se, which determines the nature of development.  For example, if the oldest child is not competitive, the second child may develop as if they were the first child. Similarly, if two children are born much later than their older siblings, the elder of those two may develop the characteristics of a first born.

In those cases where the challenges of adolescence become too much for a child, they begin to creatively protect themselves by doing things such as forging report cards, skipping school, etc.  As they meet others doing the same things, they join with them, form gangs, and may well start out on a road that leads to a life of crime.

In a recent special issue of the American Psychologist, a series of articles were presented focusing on effective, evidence-based prevention programs designed to increase the number of children and youth who will succeed and contribute both in school and in life (Weissberg, Kumpfer, & Seligman, 2003).  In accordance with Adler’s theories, effective parenting seems to be the best way to reduce adolescent problem behaviors, and the family can be strengthened through approaches such as behavioral parent training, family skills training, and family therapy (Kumpfer & Alvarado, 2003).  School-based prevention programs can also be beneficial, but it is important that educational approaches coordinate social and emotional learning with more traditional academic learning (Greenberg, et al., 2003). Since the problems of adolescence are so variable, including such things as alcohol, tobacco, and other drug abuse, violence, delinquency, mental illness, etc., and since they affect so many children, approaches that attempt to intervene with one child at a time may not be adequate.  Accordingly, community interventions become important and may go so far as to require coordinated national efforts, such as Head Start or the combined efforts of the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce lead poisoning (Ripple & Zigler, 2003; Wandersman & Florin, 2003). And last but not least, health care providers can play an important role in ensuring the physical health and psychological well-being of their patients (Johnson & Millstein, 2003).  Indeed, Adler quoted the renowned Rudolf Virchow (one of the founders of cellular pathology; who coined the terms thrombosis, embolism, and leukemia, among many other accomplishments) in saying: “Physicians will eventually become the educators of humanity” (pg. 317; Adler, 1918/1963; see also Knopf & Wexberg, 1930). Perhaps the most important aspect of these studies is the concerted effort to combine scientific research with clinical practice and experience, as well as doing so in socioculturally relevant ways (Biglan, et al., 2003; Nation, et al., 2003).

The Psychology of Women

Adler’s views on the psychology of women could not have been more different than those of Freud.  As someone who questioned cultural discrimination long before most, Adler considered women to be equal to men, and he described the belief that they were inferior as a myth.  A division of labor has always been an important part of the communal life of the human species. When neighboring groups came into conflict, it was the larger, stronger men who did most of the fighting to protect the group.  According to Adler, men extended this conflict and feeling of power to the subjugation of women. Ever since, men have enjoyed privileges that were denied to women, and this has been maintained primarily through force, or the threat of force, but also through indoctrination and education (Adler, 1910/ 1978, 1927/1978, 1928).  Adler himself avoided the use of the term “opposite sex,” a term that implies an adversarial relationship, preferring instead to use the term “other sex” when referring to women (Manaster & Corsini, 1982).

Adler recognized that what women really desire is the privilege that men enjoy, but this is not unique to women.  There are also men, or boys, who are not dominant, and they also strive for superiority and privilege. At birth, of course, both male and female infants are helpless and inferior and they must begin to strive for superiority.  The form that this striving takes is something Adler called the masculine protest.  It was not his intention to suggest that masculine traits of dominance and aggression make men better than women, but this was the nature of the times in which he lived.  It is purely cultural that the male gender role includes strength, knowledge, physical activity, etc., whereas the female gender role includes submissiveness, weakness, the desire for physical and emotional closeness, etc.  All children display some degree of these traits, but society directs boys toward the male role and girls toward the female role (Adler, 1910/1978, 1912a/1963, 1928, 1929/1964). We can now recognize what many consider Freud’s great mistake regarding the psychology of women.  Women who display masculine traits were seen as neurotic by Freud, but Adler viewed them as protesting the cultural denigration of women. Still, it is not easy to challenge the nature of society, so Adler still acknowledged that women were more likely to be neurotic than men.  However, Adler attributes the neurosis of most women to masculine protest, not to the inability to resolve a woman’s penis envy!  In 1910, just as Adler was about to break away from Freud’s Psychoanalytic Society, Adler proposed that the great Oedipus complex is only a small part, just a stage, of the masculine protest, for both men and women (Adler, 1910/1978).

Supplemental Materials

Adler’s Birth Order Theory-Psych Discussions 

In this video [16:47], professor Dr. Mark Hatala speaks with five of his students regarding their birth order as they discuss how their experience relates to Adler’s theory on birth order.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Hatala Testing.  (2019, October 30).  Adler’s birth order theory-Psych discussions.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.