Parenting Without Punishing

Chapter 12

Two Views of the Nature of Children

[This chapter on the then-new US Attorney General was first printed eight years ago in the Phoenix, AZ, paper, The Current. Reno confirmed and encouraged millions of child bashers with her archaic poisonous advice, undoing much of the patient and painstaking efforts of parenting educators like Briggs, Gordon, Brazelton, Miller, and even Hillary Clinton, the last to whom I telegraphed a fiery protest against AG.

Reno's views--and the new AG's policies promise to be even more child-repressive--are representative of the majority of the US public, recent studies show. By contrast, Ellen Key, writing nearly a century ago, pleaded for enlightened, evolved, humane treatment of children, a still, small voice largely ignored. Must human evolution be so slow? --NL]

Reno's War Against Children
In October, 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno, in PBS's hour-long Bill Moyers interview, explained her methods of dealing with violent criminals: the "carrot and stick" approach. Punish violent criminals, put them in jail. Fine. Then she advocated similar reward and punishment methods for controlling children as well, treatment unfit for training circus animals.

Like most behaviorists, she would have parents control children by conditioning, as in Pavlov's salivating dogs. But children are not dogs, and if they are treated as Reno suggests, we will raise yet another generation of alienated, conflict-ridden, violence-prone kids.

The attorney general's thinking is a high-profile example of the kind of child-rearing approach endemic in America: hitting children to "make them behave." We are all shocked by stories of child abuse, but it often seems that most parents agree with Fred Clark's grim view in Auntie Mame: "I'm going to turn this kid into a decent, God-fearing Christian if I have to break every bone in his body!"

Just Normal, Everyday Abuse
Here we're not talking about the extreme, headline-making, life-threatening abuse. This is about the everyday, casual violence that the vast majority of otherwise decent parents consider proper "discipline" of the spank on the bottom, the slap across the face, the box on the ears, the grab-and-shake, ear-twisting, hair-pulling physical assaults that are routinely used in millions of US. homes to keep misbehaving children "in line." Parents, as a general rule, raise children as they themselves were raised. Victims of violence perpetuate it by inflicting violence on their children, who, in turn, punish their children. Thus the seeds of violence are planted in each succeeding generation.

This traditional domestic abuse is perhaps the principal cause of the widespread violence we see today. Yet great conferences and "summit" meetings are held during which civic leaders scratch their heads and puzzle over the cause of it. Anyone suggesting the elimination of the violence euphemistically called "discipline" is ignored or shouted down. We sow the seeds of the violence we reap. Big surprise.

"Spanked the daylights out of us!"
In Moyer's interview, Reno reveals the reason she is so vehemently in favor of punitive methods. "[My mother] used to spank the daylights out of us!" she blurted with obvious pride. Later on, when Moyers postulated the hypothetical instance of her mother being victimized by violent criminals, Reno's instant reaction was rage: "I would tear them limb from limb!' This, in the midst of her sermon against violence.

In a recent article she told how her mother would never allow her children to watch television. If Reno's violent proclivities did not come from watching TV, or rap music, or E-porn, what is its cause? Could it be the pain, both physical and emotional, that was inflicted upon her by a domineering mother who smacked her kids around? The dramatization of violence on TV cannot compare to the traumatic impact on children of being brutalized by those they love and depend upon for comfort and security. We look for causes of violence elsewhere, but as Pogo wisely pointed out, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Punishing Infants in Their Cribs
On the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour Reno explained how her carrot-and-stick method should be applied to criminals. Then again she segued into childrearing methods: "Begin with the zero-to-three-year olds! Set limits, and when they go over the line, punish them!" Infants. Her caveat to tell them, after the spanking, that they are "loved" serves to legitimize hitting and humiliating kids, while allaying the conscience of the perpetrator. As for the child, he or she can be driven further into confusion and alienation--not to mention perversity. (This is made clear in Alice Miller's For Your Own Good).

Then Reno made a chilling proposal: "We [the federal government] want to be a partner with you parents"--in enforcing on children her Draconian carrot-and-stick method. That is, the very practices known to undermine self-esteem and inevitably end in exponential increases in crime, mental illness, dysfunctional families, and street violence.

Defining Limits For Parents
The attorney general and others with her punitive mentality are fond of speaking of defining limits for children. Limits? The first limits need to be applied to the adults whose responsibility it is to protect and nurture children: parents, teachers, babysitters, and child care professionals.


Only a bullying coward would strike a child. Adults can defend themselves with fists and laws; their emotional growth isn't dependent on protection and approval as a child's is. Let the attorney general get laws passed protecting children from the violence committed by parents and teachers. Use of a paddle or other weapon should be made a felony; use of the open hand should be a misdemeanor. In Sweden [and a dozen other countries] it is a federal offense to spank a child, and has been for a quarter century.


What may be appropriate for rats in a psych lab is dehumanizing to children. That is why the approach Reno was selling to American parents was actually causing the violence she so stridently preached against. It robs children of their self-respect. When that goes, so goes respect for authority, respect for the law and respect for human life.

The reward-and-punishment method of dealing with kids never works. This kind of treatment, borrowed uncritically from German "experts" more than a century ago, is the chief cause of the violence we see today. The "stick" approach makes the child either dangerously withdrawn (and apt to explode later) or openly rebellious.

Punishment simply does not work--it fails to produce the desired results.
In either case, it influences him or her to seek security in totalitarian figures who promise approval, status, and identity.

The opposite all-carrot method (over-permissiveness), is, in reality, neglect--another form of abuse. Here, parents cop out on their responsibilities by abandoning the child emotionally, leaving him/her to choose surly rebellion as the only perceived way to gain recognition, if not approval. It's called "spoiled" by judges, and angry demands for "strict, rod-swinging, wood-shed discipline" follow.

A Better Way of Parenting
Fortunately there is a third approach: democratic discipline. Only by sharing the decision-making, rule-making power in the family can the child maintain his or her self respect and learn self-discipline. Nearly all American homes function in the autocratic style, where the parent has sole and unlimited power. This is where the harm is done. "Benevolent" dictatorships are still totalitarian. When the home is democratically run, where individual rights are respected and defended, where the child's viewpoint has real weight in the rule-making process, that child is more likely to obey the rules and to develop a sense of personal responsibility.

The processes of democratic discipline are not difficult to learn. First-hand experience has shown that this way of viewing and treating children is infinitely easier and happier for both parents and children, far more effective than the authoritarian, abuse-prone carrot-and-stick approach. It can transform squabbling, whining, disobedient children into happy, confident, self-respecting (and therefore respectful) family members.

Punishment of children undermines self-esteem. The harmful effects of punitive methods have been known for more than a quarter century, with the publication of Dorothy Corkille Briggs' Your Child's Self-Esteem: Step-by-Step Guidelines for Raising Responsible Productive Children (Doubleday), and a decade before that with A.S. Neil's landmark book, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (Simon & Schuster). Even preceding that, in 1957, Sears, Maccoby, and Levin, in Patterns of Child Rearing (Harper & Row), showed that punishment methods simply do not work in producing the desired behavior.

Punishment = Negative Results
Since "punishment never works" is the overwhelming lesson to be learned from bringing up children, it is a curious fact that few parents ever learn it. Over 200 years ago pioneer criminologist Cesare Beccaria observed, "The fault no child ever loses is the one he was most punished for." Perhaps our society has progressed too far down the road to madness to make its way back. One of the measures of insanity is persistence in a course of action that consistently fails to yield positive results.

Published 1909 by G.P. Putnam's Sons [More Ellen Key at]

The art of natural education consists in ignoring the faults of children nine times out of ten, in avoiding immediate interference, which is usually a mistake, and devoting one's whole vigilance to the control of the environment in which the child is growing up, to watching the education which is allowed to go on by itself. But educators who... are consciously transforming... themselves are still a rare product. Most people's... education... has deprived them of the desire for educating themselves.

Only by keeping oneself in constant process of growth, under the constant influence of the best things in one's own age, does one become a companion halfway good enough for one's children...

To bring up a child means carrying one's soul in one's hand, setting one's feet on a narrow path, it means never placing ourselves in danger of meeting the cold look on the part of the child that tells us without words that he finds us insufficient and unreliable. It means the humble realization of the truth that the ways of injuring the child are infinite, while the ways of being useful to him are few.

How seldom does the educator remember that the child, even at four or five years of age, is making experiments with adults, seeing through them, with marvelous shrewdness making his own valuations and reacting sensitively to each impression. The slightest mistrust, the smallest unkindness, the least act of injustice or contemptuous ridicule, leave wounds that last for life in the finely strung soul of the child. While on the other side unexpected friendliness, kind advances, just indignation, make quite as deep an impression on those senses which people term as soft as wax but treat as if they were made of cowhide...

Why does everything remain essentially the same from generation to generation? Why do highly civilized Christian people continue to plunder one another and call it exchange, to murder one another en masse and call it nationalism, to oppress one another and call it statesmanship?

Because in every new generation the impulses supposed to have been rooted out by discipline in the child, break forth again, when the struggle for existence--of the individual in society... begins. These passions are not transformed by the prevalent education of the day, but only repressed...

"The slightest mistrust, the smallest unkindness, the least act of injustice or contemptuous ridicule, leaves wounds that last for life"
Thoughtful people... talk a good deal about [individuality]. But they are... filled with doubts when their children are not just like all other children; when they cannot show in their offspring all the ready-made virtues required by society. And so they drill their children, repressing in childhood the natural instincts which will have freedom when they are grown.

People hardly realize how new human beings are formed; therefore the old types constantly repeat themselves in the same circle--the fine young men, the sweet girls, the respectable officials, and so on. And new types with higher ideals--travelers on unknown paths, thinkers of yet unthought thoughts, people capable of the crime of inaugurating new ways--such types rarely come into existence among those who are well brought upů.

It is original natures, particularly talented beings, who are badly treated at home and in school ... Mothers and teachers show in this their pitiable incapacity for the most elementary part in the art of education, that is, to be able to see with their own eyes, not with pedagogical doctrines in their head...

I naturally expect in the supporters of society, with their conventional morality, no appreciation of the significance of the child's putting into exercise his own powers. Just as little is this to be expected of those Christian believers who think that human nature must be brought to repentance and humility, and that the sinful body, the unclean beast, must be tamed with the rod--a theory which the Bible is brought to support.

I am only addressing people who can think new thoughts and consequently should cease using old methods of education...

Those who have [tried and failed] contend that the child must be taught to obey, that truth lies in the old rule, "As the twig is bent the tree is inclined."

Bent is the appropriate word--bent according to the old ideal that extinguishes personality, teaches humility and obedience. But the new ideal is that man, to stand straight and upright, must not be bent at all ...

Fathers and mothers must bow their heads in the dust before the exalted nature of the child. Until they see that the word "child" is only another expression for the conception of majesty; until they feel that it is the future which in the form of a child sleeps in their arms, and history which plays at their feet, they will not understand that they have as little power or right to prescribe laws for this new being as they possess the power or might to lay down paths for the stars...


A-Frog-Hunting We Did Go
Certain paragraphs of John Steinbeck's were favorites with Henry and Russell, he provided such vivid images of the creatures of nature. The entire third chapter of Grapes of Wrath describes the experience of a land turtle as he crosses a highway. In The Pearl, a scorpion hangs poised above Kino's baby son. Kino stalks the beast, and, in wild fury, smashes it to paste in his bare hands. And then, of course, The Red Pony.

But most in demand was "The Frog Hunt," from Cannery Row. They loved the irresponsible characters, lazy bums utterly devoid of status or respect, but without an ounce of meanness in their hearts. Their hilarious attempts at capturing frogs for Doc's lab sent the boys helplessly sliding to the floor in giggles.

Having won a Honda 90 in a store opening drawing, we delighted in exploring the dirt roads behind the farm. Henry sat in the rear, locking Russell in with his arms, fists grasping my waist. The frog pond we found was no more than a large puddle, but there were frogs--big ones, mired in slime, waiting for us with big eyes. We crept up cautiously, whispering, lest we spook them. Once a large bullfrog just sat there mocking, daring us to try to grab him, then leaped a split second quicker.

We hunters caught no frogs. Ever. But we rode home happily every time, and talked endlessly about our adventures.

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