Poisonous Pedagogy: Punishment followed on a grand scale

Alice Miller, from For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence

For ten days, an unconscionable length of time, my father blessed the palms of his child’s outstretched, four-year-old hands with a sharp switch. Seven strokes a day on each hand: that makes one hundred forty strokes and then some. This put an end to his child’s innocence. Whatever it was that happened in Paradise involving Adam, Eve, Lilith, the serpent, and the apple, the well-deserved Biblical thunderbolt of prehistoric times, the roar of the Almighty and His pointed finger signifying expulsion–I know nothing about all that. It was my father who drove me out of Paradise. —Christoph Meckel

Whoever inquires about our childhood wants to know something about our soul. If the question is not just a rhetorical one and the questioner has the patience to listen, he will come to realize that we love with horror and hate with an inexplicable love whatever caused us our greatest pain and difficulty. —Erika Burkart


Anyone who has ever been a mother or father and is at all honest knows from experience how difficult it can be for parents to accept certain aspects of their children. It is especially painful to have to admit this if we really love our child and want to respect his or her individuality yet are unable to do so. Intellectual knowledge is no guarantee of understanding and tolerance. If it was never possible for us to relive on a conscious level the rejection we experienced in our own child-hood and to work it through, then we in turn will pass this rejection on to our children. A merely intellectual knowledge of the laws of child development does not protect us from irritation or anger if our child’s behavior does not correspond to our expectations or needs or if—-even worse—it should pose a threat to our defense mechanisms.

It is very different for children: they have no previous history standing in their way, and their tolerance for their parents knows no bounds. The love a child has for his or her parents ensures that their conscious or unconscious acts of mental cruelty will go undetected. Descriptions of what can be done to children without fear of reprisal are readily available in recent works dealing with the history of childhood.

The former practice of physically maiming, exploiting. and abusing children seems to have been gradually replaced in modern times by a form of mental cruelty that is masked by the honorific term child-rearing. Since training in many cultures begins in infancy during the initial symbiotic relationship between mother and child, this early conditioning makes it virtually impossible for the child to discover what is actually happening to him. The child’s dependence on his or her parents’ love also makes it impossible in later years to recognize these traumatizations. which often remain hidden behind the early idealization of the parents for the rest of the child’s life.

In the mid-nineteenth century a man named Schreber, the father of a paranoid patient described by Freud, wrote a series of books on child-rearing. They were so popular in Germany that some of them went through forty printings and were translated into several languages. In these works it is stressed again and again that children should start being trained as soon as possible, even as early as their fifth month of life, “if the soil is to be kept free of harmful weeds.” I have encountered similar views in parents’ letters and diaries, which provide the outsider with a clear indication of the underlying causes of the serious illnesses that developed in their children, who were later to become my patients. But initially, these patients of mine were unable to derive much benefit from these diaries and had to undergo long and deep analysis before they could begin to see the truth in them. First they had to become detached from their parents and develop their own individuality.

The conviction that parents are always right and that every act of cruelty, whether conscious or unconscious, is an expression of their love is so deeply rooted in human beings because it is based on the process of internalization that takes place during the first months of life—in other words, during the period preceding separation from the primary care giver.

Two passages from Dr. Schreber’s advice to parents. writ-ten in 1858 will illustrate the method of raising children prevalent at the time:

“The little ones’ displays of temper as indicated by screaming or crying without cause should be regarded as the first test of your spiritual and pedagogical principles . . . Once you have estab-lished that nothing is really wrong, that the child is not ill, distressed, or in pain, then you can rest assured that the screaming is nothing more than an outburst of temper, a whim, the first appearance of willfulness. Now you should no longer simply wait for it to pass as you did in the beginning but should proceed in a somewhat more positive way: by quickly diverting its attention, by stern words, threatening gestures, rapping on the bed or if none of this helps. by appropriately mild corporal admonitions repeated persistently at brief intervals until the child quiets down or falls asleep.”

“This procedure will be necessary only once or at most, twice, and then you will be master of the child forever. From now on, a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture will be sufficient to control the child. Remember that this will be of the greatest benefit to your child since it will spare him many hours of agitation inimical to his successful growth, freeing him from all those inner torments that can, moreover, very easily lead to a proliferation of pernicious character traits that will become increasingly difficult to conquer. [Quoted in Morton Schatznian, Soul Murder]

Dr. Schreber doesn’t realize that what he is in fact attempting to curb in children are his own impulses, and there is no doubt in his mind that he is recommending the exercise of power purely for the child’s own good: If parents are consistent in this, they will soon be rewarded by the emergence of that desirable situation in which the child will be controlled almost entirely by a parental glance alone. Children raised in this way frequently do not notice, even at an advanced age, when someone is taking advantage of them as long as the person uses a “friendly” tone of voice.

I have often been asked why I refer mostly to mothers and so seldom to fathers in Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child. I designate the most important care giver in the child’s first year of life as the “mother.” This does not necessarily have to be the biological mother or even a woman. In Prisoners of Childhood I took pains to point out that looks expressing disapproval and rejection that are directed at the infant can contribute to the development of severe disturbances, including perversions and compulsion neuroses, in the adult. In the Schrcber family it was not the mother who “controlled” her two infant sons with “glances,” it was the father. (Both sons later suffered from mental illness accompanied by delusions of persecution.)

In the last decades, however, there has been an increasing number of fathers who have assumed positive maternal functions and have been able to give their child tenderness and warmth and to empathize with his or her needs. In contrast to the era of the patriarchal family, we now find ourselves in a phase of healthy experimentation with sex roles, and this being the case, I have difficulty speaking about the “social roles” of the father or mother without resorting to outdated normative categories. I can only state that every small child needs an empathic and not a “controlling” human being (whether it be father or mother) as care giver.

An enormous amount can be done to a child in the first two years: he or she can be molded, dominated, taught good habits, scolded, and punished-without any repercussions for the person raising the child and without the child taking revenge. The child will overcome the serious consequences of the injustice he has suffered only if he succeeds in defending himself, i.e., if he is allowed to express his pain and anger. If he is prevented from reacting in his own way because the parents cannot tolerate his reactions (crying, sadness, rage) and forbid them by means of looks or other pedagogical methods, then the child will learn to be silent.

This silence is a sign of the effectiveness of the pedagogical principles applied, but at the same time it is a danger signal pointing to future pathological development. If there is absolutely no possibility of reacting appropriately to hurt, humiliation, and coercion, then these experiences cannot be integrated into the personality; the feelings they evoke are repressed, and the need to articulate them remains unsatisfied, without any hope of being fulfilled. It is this lack of hope of ever being able to express repressed traumata by means of relevant feelings that most often causes severe psychological problems. We already know that neuroses are a result of repression, not of events themselves. I shall try to demonstrate that neuroses are not the only tragic consequences of repression.

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