For your own good: The roots of violence in child-rearing

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Miller, Alice. Excerpted from For your own good: The roots of violence in child-rearing (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983).
pages 58-59 I have selected the foregoing passages in order to characterize an attitude that reveals itself more or less openly, not only in Fascism but in other ideologies as well. The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore. Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us — i.e., the weak, helpless, dependent creature — in order to become an independent, competent adult deserving of respect. When we reencounter this creature in our children, we persecute it with the same measures once used on ourselves. And this is what we are accustomed to call ‟child-rearing.”
In the following pages I shall apply the term “poisonous pedagogy” to this very complex endeavor. It will be clear from the context in question which of its many facets I am emphasizing at the moment. The specific facets can be derived directly from the preceding quotations from child-rearing manuals. These passages teach us that:
1. Adults are the masters (not the servants!) of the dependent child.

2. They determine in godlike fashion what is right and what is wrong.

3. The child is held responsible for their anger.

4. The parents must always be shielded.

5. The child’s life-affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic adult.

6. The child’s will must be “broken” as soon as possible.

7. All this must happen at a very early age, so the child “won’t notice” and will therefore not be able to expose the adults.
The methods that can be used to suppress vital spontaneity in the child are: laying traps, lying, duplicity, subterfuge, manipulation, “scare” tactics, withdrawal of love, isolation, distrust, humiliating and disgracing the child, scorn, ridicule, and coercion even to the point of torture.
It is also a part of “poisonous pedagogy” to impart to the child from the beginning false information and beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation and dutifully accepted by the young even though they are not only unproven but are demonstrably false. Examples of such beliefs are:
1. A feeling of duty produces love.

2. Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it.

3. Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.

4. Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.

5. Obedience makes a child strong.

6. A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.

7. A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.

8. Tenderness (doting) is harmful.

9. Responding to a child’s needs is wrong.

10. Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.

11. A pretense of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.

12. The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.

13. Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.

14. The body is something dirty and disgusting.

15. Strong feelings are harmful.

16. Parents are creatures free of drives and guilt.

17. Parents are always right.

97-100 I am convinced of the harmful effects of training for the following reason: all advice that pertains to raising children betrays more or less clearly the numerous, variously clothed needs of the adult. Fulfillment of these needs not only discourages the child’s development but actually prevents it. This also holds true when the adult is honestly convinced of acting in the child’s best interests.
Among the adult’s true motives we find:
1. The unconscious need to pass on to others the humiliation one has undergone oneself

2. The need to find an outlet for repressed affect

3. The need to possess and have at one’s disposal a vital object to manipulate

4. Self-defense: i.e., the need to idealize one’s childhood and one’s parents by dogmatically applying the parents’ pedagogical principles to one’s own children

5. Fear of freedom

6. Fear of the reappearance of what one has repressed, which one reencounters in one’s child and must try to stamp out, having killed it in oneself earlier

7. Revenge for the pain one has suffered
Since at least one of the points enumerated here is present in everyone’s upbringing, the child-rearing process is at best suitable for making “good” pedagogues out of its objects. However, it will never be able to help its charges to remain vital. When children are trained, they learn how to train others in turn. Children who are lectured to, learn how to lecture; if they are admonished, they learn how to admonish; if scolded, they learn how to scold; if ridiculed, they learn how to ridicule; if humiliated, they learn how to humiliate; if their psyche is killed, they will learn how to kill — the only question is who will be killed: oneself, others, or both.
All this does not mean that children should be raised without any restraints. Crucial for healthy development is the respect of their care givers, tolerance for their feelings, awareness of their needs and grievances, and authenticity on the part of their parents, whose own freedom — and not pedagogical considerations — sets natural limits for children.
It is this last point that causes great difficulty for parents and pedagogues, for the following reasons:
1. If parents have had to learn very early in life to ignore their feelings, not to take them seriously, to scorn or ridicule them, then they will lack the sensitivity required to deal successfully with their children. As a result, they will try to substitute pedagogical principles as prostheses. Thus, under certain circumstances they may be reluctant to show tenderness for fear of spoiling the child, or, in other cases, they will hide their hurt feelings behind the Fourth Commandment.
2. Parents who never learned as children to be aware of their own needs or to defend their own interests because this right was never granted them will be uncertain in this regard for the rest of their life and consequently will become dependent on firm pedagogical rules. This uncertainty, regard less of whether it appears in sadistic or masochistic guise leads to great insecurity in the child in spite of these rules. An example of this: a father who was trained to be obedient at a very early age may on occasion take cruel and violent measures to force his child to be obedient in order to satisfy his own need to be respected for the first time in his life. But this behavior does not exclude intervening periods of masochistic behavior when the same father will put up with anything the child does, because he never learned to define the limits of his tolerance. Thus, his guilt feelings over the preceding unjust punishment will suddenly lead him to be unusually permissive, thereby awakening anxiety in the child, who cannot tolerate uncertainty about the father’s true face. The child’s increasingly aggressive behavior will finally provoke the father into losing his temper. In the end, the child then takes on the role of the sadistic opponent in place of the grandparents, but with the difference that the father can now gain the upper hand. Such situations, in which the child “goes too far,” prove to the pedagogue that disciplining and punishment are necessary.
3. Since a child is often used as a substitute for one’s own parents, he or she can become the object of an endless number of contradictory wishes and expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled. In extreme cases, psychosis, drug addiction, or suicide may be the only solution. But often the child’s feeling of helplessness leads to increasingly aggressive behavior, which in turn convinces parents and educators of the need for strict countermeasures.
4. A similar situation arises when it is drilled into children, as it was in the anti-authoritarian upbringing of the sixties, to adopt certain ways of behavior that their parents wished had once been allowed them and that they therefore consider to be universally desirable. In the process, the child’s real needs can be totally overlooked. In one case I know, for example, a child who was feeling sad was encouraged to shatter a glass when what she most wanted to do was to climb up onto her mother’s lap. If children go on feeling misunderstood and manipulated like this, they will become genuinely confused and justifiably aggressive.
In contrast to generally accepted beliefs and to the horror of pedagogues, I cannot attribute any positive significance to the word pedagogy. I see it as self-defense on the part of adults, as manipulation deriving from their own lack of freedom and their insecurity, which I can certainly understand, although I cannot overlook the inherent dangers. I can also understand why criminals are sent to prison, but I cannot see that deprivation of freedom and prison life, which is geared wholly to conformity, subordination, and submissiveness, can really contribute to the betterment, i.e., the development, of the prisoner. There is in the word pedagogy the suggestion of certain goals that the charge is meant to achieve — and this limits his or her possibilities for development from the start. But an honest rejection of all forms of manipulation and of the idea of setting goals does not mean that one simply leaves children to their own devices. For children need a large measure of emotional and physical support from the adult. This support must include the following elements if they are to develop their full potential:

1. Respect for the child

2. Respect for his rights

3. Tolerance for his feelings

4. Willingness to learn from his behavior:

a. About the nature of the individual child

b. About the child in the parents themselves

c. About the nature of emotional life, which can he observed much more clearly in the child than in the adult because the child can experience his feelings much more intensely and, optimally, more undisguisedly than an adult
There is evidence among the younger generation that this kind of willingness is possible even for people who were themselves victims of child-rearing.
106 Cruelty can take a thousand forms, and it goes undetected even today, because the damage it does to the child and the ensuing consequences are still so little known. This section of the book is devoted to these consequences.
The individual psychological stages in the lives of most people are:

1. To be hurt as a small child without anyone recognizing the situation as such

2. To fail to react to the resulting suffering with anger

3. To show gratitude for what are supposed to be good intentions

4. To forget everything

5. To discharge the stored-up anger onto others in adulthood or to direct it against oneself

The greatest cruelty that can be inflicted on children is to refuse to let them express their anger and suffering except at the risk of losing their parents’ love and affection. The anger stemming from early childhood is stored up in the unconscious, and since it basically represents a healthy, vital source of energy, an equal amount of energy must be expended in order to repress it. An upbringing that succeeds in sparing the parents at the expense of the child’s vitality sometimes leads to suicide or extreme drug addiction, which is a form of suicide. If drugs succeed in covering up the emptiness caused by repressed feelings and self-alienation, then the process of withdrawal brings this void back into view. When withdrawal is not accompanied by restoration of vitality, then the cure is sure to be temporary.
262-263 As soon as it became possible for them to experience their early childhood hatred in analysis, their symptoms disappeared, and with them the fear that their feeling of hatred might cause someone harm. It is not experienced hatred that leads to acts of violence and destructiveness but hatred that must be warded off and bottled up with the aid of ideology.…Every experienced feeling gives in time to another, and even the most extreme conscious hatred of one’s father will not lead a person to kill — to say nothing of destroying a whole people.
1. For parents to be aware of what they are doing to their children, they would also have to be aware of what was done to them in their own childhood. But this is exactly what was forbidden them as children. If access to this knowledge is cut off, parents can strike and humiliate their children or torment and mistreat them in other ways, without realizing how they are hurting them; they simply are compelled to behave this way.
2. If the tragedy of a well-meaning person’s childhood remains hidden behind idealizations, the unconscious knowledge of the actual state of affairs will have to assert itself by an indirect route. This occurs with the aid of the repetition compulsion. Over and over again, for reasons they do not understand, people will create situations and establish relationships in which they torment or are tormented by their partner, or both.
3. Since tormenting one’s children is a legitimate part of child-rearing, this provides the most obvious outlet for bottled-up aggression.
4. Because an aggressive response to emotional and physical abuse is forbidden by parents in almost all religions, this outlet is the only one available.

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