Jesper Juul has transformed the dynamics within family relationships and tapped into governments, professionals, and lay people to spawn a broad popular movement for people to become changemakers.
The New Idea
Jesper is driving a historical shift to redesign the family. Over a thirty-year career, he has designed tools for family members to transform their internal dynamics to improve quality of life, reduce stress, foster empathy, and build a culture where young people can be leaders in their own lives. His work has been devoted to helping families look to each other—rather than a technique or methodology—to build the most functional relationship, and position young people in a place of respect and competence. Jesper’s technique brings together all members of a family to help forge better interactions with each other, predicated on the notion that the child is competent and able to contribute as an equal partner within a dialogue. His organization, Family-Lab, offers a space where families can discover, invent, and experiment on the best way to interact, moving away from traditional notions of obedience and hierarchy toward equal dignity, personal integrity, and competence. It operates on the premise that children behave according to how families are functioning, and that in order for young people to have power, there must be a release of power. Jesper’s work has changed the paradigm of family care and given families the tools to craft their own healthy relationships.
Jesper’s work brings a set of tools to help parents engage with the changing world in which their children live, and children voice their needs. It moves away from traditional notions of a child as helpless toward a more even footing and mutual developmental progress, “from obedience to responsibility,” giving parents tools to trust their children and meet them with equal dignity. Active in over thirteen countries, Jesper offers workshops for families, dialogue strategies, active learning seminars for parents, group counseling for families, contracts to companies who purchase services for their staff, and larger partnerships to build these tools of collaboration. Jesper is taking this field out of the realm of academia, making cutting edge research and family theory accessible to the masses for use in their own lives, making happier families, and better balanced children.
Traditional child rearing places the child as passive and without autonomy. However, children have wisdom and competence, but not experience or clear boundaries. Much child-rearing practice is built on the idea that children will not feel safe if adults do not show power. This creates an uneven dynamic that does not address family issues at their root—dynamics between parent and powerless child that influence behavior. In dealing with issues of young people and families, parents and children are separated and siloed. Adults are taught “parenting techniques” and young people are trained to behave. However, the key influencer, the relationship between these two actors is ignored. Traditional efforts to adjust child behavior treat the child as an object to be trained and the adults as the main actors, rather than placing both parents and child as dual participants in shifting that internal structure.
There is little open, honest dialogue between parents and children. Children are viewed as incompetent, impulsive, and irrational. However, traditional child development is designed from an adult perspective. It compares children at each stage of their development to an ideal adult person, where they inevitably fall short in all measures but basic motor development.
Young people are growing up in a world entirely different from their parents, from gender roles to non-traditional family dynamics to social pressures, but their perspective is not fully included in their family dynamic. Success for a child involves positive mental health, and social and emotional well-being, but statistics show that more and more youth are developing psychological problems, particularly depression—an increase of 260 percent in the past twenty years.
Changing family dynamics and giving young people power, even in small ways, has long-term impact on their emotional well-being. A longitudinal study over a twenty-five year period showed that those young people with more freedom and autonomy to design their lives around their own needs—including how much and what they wanted to eat—thrived markedly better and developed fewer psychosomatic symptoms in later life. Still, young people are not recognized as equal partners within their own families.
The youth movement has articulated a new framework regarding youth empowerment and autonomy, but only half of it has been surfaced. Youth are being given the freedom and opportunity to create things for themselves and grasp their own potential for making change, but the power structures and systems they live in have not shifted. There are multitudes of youth organizations that focus only on young people rather than the context in which they live.
Jesper has built a broad popular movement for equal dignity within the family and power-balanced relationships between young people and the authority figures in their lives. He is overturning traditional models and looking at child development from the perspective of a child and the relationships they know best—to their mother and father. He has built a network of Family-Lab branches across fifteen countries that offer seminars, workshops, symposiums, and active training techniques to allow families and other actors to redesign their internal dynamics to create healthy relationships, placing the child as an equal contributor within the family as a basis for redistribution of power. His Family-Lab works with families to facilitate meaningful conversations between parents and children, and help parents navigate new, non-hierarchical structures. He has moved his principles beyond parents to a broad range of authorities that work with young people—teachers, employers, and professionals.
Rather than, “How to deal with your misbehaving child,” Jesper’s Family-Lab offers a space where parents and children can engage on how to work together better, emphasizing Jesper’s key principles of personal integrity, responsibility for person and actions, equal dignity, and authenticity. Equal dignity is a central tenet of Jesper’s work: “This means that the adult respects the child to the same degree as he or she would respect another adult regarding their actions, thoughts, and ideas.” Jesper emphasizes authenticity as a core belief in his work: “it is impossible to have a relationship without it.” Jesper works with parents to be true to themselves and allow their children to have their own autonomy without interpreting it as a personal challenge. For example, he works with parents to reframe how they speak to their children, moving to a mutual dialogue at the child level rather than a Q&A where parents ask and children answer. Jesper’s belief is that from parents we learn the art of loving other people, so he helps families design dialogue strategies that honor love and integrity to build empathy and positive lessons for children.
Family-Lab has a wide-ranging strategy that targets families across the span of income levels, indigenous communities, families at risk, public institutions, private enterprises, and the broader public. In a branch strategy, they train trainers to guide families through a redesign process with their children, offering inspirational advice on how to interact, hands-on programs to explore breakdowns in family interaction, and group counseling to build dialogue techniques between parent and child. Family-Lab offers seminars, lectures and training to influence how men and women think about and construct families. Family-Lab international staff consists of experienced professionals from the fields of pedagogy, psychology, health care, family therapy, and family counseling. Northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, had almost no culture of intensive family-focused intervention before Jesper’s work was established.
Jesper also offers extensive services to private companies, institutions and communities, predicated on the notion that a stressful family life inhibits worker productivity. Family-Lab seminars are held either to open groups that offer full free participation, or to self-established groups consisting of friends, community members, and colleagues. Family-Lab’s company programs include internal and external seminars that help employees create a healthier lifestyle and provide them with insights and tools that prevent a high-conflict family life. He also offers seminars on family development, specifically targeted at companies where employees have heavy travel schedules, spend long periods away from home, or work in high-risk-zones. Company efforts also include individual family crisis intervention, family-oriented counseling in relation to work-related accidents, lay-offs, retirement, and sickness; human resource training in dealing with family-related issues, and consulting for company-owned kindergartens and nurseries to emphasize competent children.
Jesper has also crafted a far-reaching strategy to shift the thinking of broader society, particularly among those who engage with young people to create optimal environments for mutual social and emotional learning. He has targeted outreach through a number of channels, including websites, DVDs, short films, and magazine articles. Jesper launched a campaign to publish a series of books that have become seminal in the field, including Your Competent Child, published in dozens of languages and selling widely. His book was voted “the most important work in the field of preschool pedagogy in the 20th century” by Norwegian preschool teachers, among other accolades. Jesper has created the European Academy for Complementary Pedagogy to support youth workers and teachers in their relationships with children. Most teachers are competent in their own subjects, but need guidance on how to relate to kids, parents, and in teams. Jesper says teachers are “full-time leaders,” but have no leadership training, or in-depth focus on how to relate to young people from a position of power without violating their integrity.
Coupled with his outreach strategy, Jesper has built channels for cutting-edge research findings on children and families to find their way to the broader public. Studies on family dynamics, genome research, neurology, and other fields have brought new insights on child brain development that shift long-held beliefs on behavior and ability, and add insight to parents and their relationships with their children. However, much of this insight is confined to academic institutions or technical language-laden studies. Jesper is bringing this insight out to families through his established communication channels as well as a series of easily accessible magazines sold alongside bestsellers in delis and corner stores in Scandinavia.
Family-Lab is made up of fifteen national branches in European countries and Latin America owned by local partners who pay royalties and license fees to the global headquarters. Jesper’s trainers are facilitating conversations with families on a broad scale—he has roughly a thousand trainers operating in Europe alone. Jesper is facing high demand from around the world to expand. Funding varies depending on local context: Scandinavian branches receive government funding, offices in less cash-flush countries such as Slovenia operate as citizen organizations, more thriving offices survive on client fees, and the organization is also supported by EU community funding. Jesper’s model has been independently replicated in a number of countries.
Currently Jesper is designing a global effort to hone his methodology to gather best practices from around the world, initiate research, and spread professional leadership to ensure quality control and continuing innovation. He is turning his work into a viral model that has informed youth work all around the globe and affected continental policy. Jesper’s work has expanded far out of Northern Europe—to Croatia, Ecuador, and other South American nations, indigenous populations including the Samish and Maori, and has been applied in numerous refugee camps and immigrant populations. Jesper is focused on making his work “transcultural” for true global impact. He has worked with Angela Merkel on designing umbrella programs for how children behave in Germany and the European Union. The European Union has established a working group on the quality of childhood that is directly inspired and guided by Jesper and his work, “The Quality of Child-Adult Relationships in Families and Schools.”
Jesper was raised in a working class family that suffered from poor internal dynamics. At the age of 3 he remembers hearing his parents arguing about getting divorced and which of them would have to take care of him. Jesper cites that moment as his first realization that he “had to fend for himself”— an early jolt of independence. In retrospect, he attributes his childhood behavior problems to the dysfunction within his own home. Jesper’s personal experience raising children left him with the realization that “it was possible to be a wonderful person and a terrible parent,” a key insight for his future work.
Jesper has been drawn to working people in difficulty since he was a young man. As a school teacher and then as a night watchman at a juvenile delinquent center, Jesper saw young people suffering in a cycle of dysfunction. He realized that transformation tended to happen primarily when young people’s families were involved in their treatment, and old patterns shifted. Jesper became compelled by the possibility of transforming how families interacted: “Are youth beyond reach or are our arms too short?” As an employee at the juvenile delinquent center, he established an experimental house for youth residents, designed around principles of autonomy, enterprise, and self-directed decision-making, a substitute family of sorts that placed confidence in their own abilities.
Headhunted by various organizations, Jesper began working with families through a variety of organizations, focusing on families at-risk, such as single mothers. He designed a pilot program for the city of Arhaus during the first big wave of unemployment in Denmark that had an 87 percent success rate in ending unemployment among young mothers—a model that spread across Denmark.
Trained in working with families, Jesper began publishing a magazine for parents. Later, he co-founded the Kempler Institute with Walter Kempler for work with parents and children, which focused on more traditional family therapy techniques, bringing approaches for parenting into public consciousness in Scandinavia. Jesper directed the Institute, a shareholding company, for a number of years—an apprenticeship for his later work. He left to found his own organization after realizing that the relationship between parent and child was more integral to transformation than the more traditional techniques of behavior modification, and traditional theory around child development was not reflected in real lives. Jesper became obsessed by the notion that “children are competent and need dignity to thrive,” and left to begin crafting the methodology that would become Family-Lab.
Jesper has inspired other changemakers all over the world. A number of Ashoka Fellows across Europe—including Marit Sanner in Norway and Robert Voss and Volker Baisch in Germany—cite him and his concept of the competent child as a driving inspiration, central tenet, and practical underpinning for their work.