Parenting Without Punishing

Chapter 9


From Dr. Alice Miller, psychiatrist, author of FOR YOUR OWN - Hidden Cruelty in Childrearing and the Roots of Violence

c/o Suhrkamp Verlag, Lindenstr. 29-35, D--60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany, November 2000

(paragraph numbers are keyed to Norm Lee's comments below)

Dear Friends,

[1] I want to pass on to you information that some of you might already have but most of you--I guess more than ninety percent--have never been allowed to become familiar with. It is the information that all kinds of corporal punishment (spanking, hitting, beating) of children by their parents and teachers are profoundly immoral and dangerous for their future. They have the right to protest against this humiliation since most governments (except the USA and Senegal) signed the United Nations Convention that obliged them to protect children's rights.

[2] Out of almost two hundred countries that signed this convention, only eleven actually did what they had promised by clearly forbidding by law to beat children (among them Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Holland and Germany).

Even Allowed to Hit Children in Schools
[3] The other countries, however, don't change anything in their old habits. In most of them it is even allowed to hit children in schools, not only in Africa and Asia but also in twenty three states of the USA, among them Texas, where George Bush, the current Presidential candidate for the USA, has been governor for many years.

... all kinds of corporal punishment (spanking, hitting, beating) of children by their parents and teachers are profoundly immoral and dangerous...

For Your Own Good

Spanking Teaches Violence
[4] I know that children are dependent on their parents, and will fear even more cruelty if they speak out or try to defend themselves. Not without reasons. However, I want to let you know, all of you, that spanking children is absolutely wrong and that today you are no longer alone if you dare to protest. The opinion that inflicting suffering one who is weaker can be [a good thing] has been passed on for millennia to the succeeding generations. Today, it is already scientifically proven that spanking children teaches them violence and creates fear. It is also severely humiliating. It can't help anybody. Ever.

[5] The only reason why your parents continue to believe in this misleading message and to beat you is the fact that they too were beaten and silenced when they were small children. They learned this wrong lesson very early, and it is difficult for them to get rid of it. They believe that children don't suffer because this was what they were told. Thus their sensibility for the suffering they inflict on you is frozen.

Your Protest Can Help Them to Wake Up
[6] Maybe, some of you can find access to their frozen feelings and open their heart because you love your parents and your parents want to love you. As you are better informed than they are your protest can help them to wake up, to melt the ice, to open their eyes and to stop humiliating you. Then, they will appreciate the unique human being you are and learn to respect your body, your feelings, and your need for honest communication. I hope that as soon as you confront them with the information you are getting here, the bewitched castle of their mind will start to crumble, the heritage they received from their parents will no longer resist your knowledge. They will become able to give up the misleading opinions.

Children tend to blame themselves for their parents' cruelty

For Your Own Good

Why I Decided to Encourage You
[7] Why did I decide to give you this encouragement? Because I believe in your curiosity and in the power of your awareness. I spent twenty years of my life helping adults to overcome the main consequences of the severe abuse they had endured in their childhood: the denial, the blindness and the tendency to abuse their own children.
[8] Then, over the following twenty years, I did research on childhood and I wrote ten books to let people know that children are born innocent and that they need love, care and protection, but never violence, to become compassionate adults. When children are lacking this, or when they are treated violently instead, they will glorify cruelty and will become cruel to others or to themselves or both. My books reached many readers but these readers still belong to a small minority of people. The majority still urgently needs the information.
Scared children learn only to lie and to pretend

For Your Own Good

Spanking Prevents Learning
[9] For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that even very intelligent people could say children need to be spanked so that they could better learn at school. I wondered why it was not obvious to them that you can't learn anything of value in a state of fear. Scared children learn only to deal with fear, to lie and to pretend. And above all, they strongly wish revenge. Most of them will take revenge as soon as they get power. Tyrants such as Stalin, Hitler and Mao gave us a lesson about what happens then. They were mercilessly beaten as children, denied their pain and later inflicted their denied suffering and helplessness on entire nations.

Earliest, Buried Memories Are Strongest
[10] I eventually came to understand that the memory of the first years of life stored up in the body is stronger than everything we learn later at schools and universities. This memory of the first experiences, although it stays unconscious, can drive parents crazy and let them believe that they act in the interest of their child. Thanks to the new research on the child's brain, we can realize that the brain of a parent who was beaten as a child is already programmed to believe in the effectiveness of punishment and spanking.

The Poison in the Pedagogy
[11] Today, many best-selling books about childrearing pretend to be updated and to have integrated the new psychological knowledge, but usually they look to provide parents with the same means they themselves were brought up. They give advice on how to control, reign, manipulate and humiliate children in the most effective and undetectable way. Unfortunately the readers often overlook the poison in this pedagogy, because as children they were never allowed to see and to name it.

For some years now there has been proof that the devastating effects of [corporal punishment] take their toll on society--a fact that we are still forbidden to recognize

For Your Own Good

[12] If we [parents] are not looking for power, our children [will] want to cooperate with us. They are interested in cooperation as a way of communication. But for doing that, they need to trust us. We are by no means trustworthy if we try to govern them just to escape our helplessness.

[13] Today, it is no longer allowable to beat one's wife, to have slaves, or to beat criminals in jail. The only thing still allowed is to beat a helpless child, even a baby, and to call it discipline. It is time to stop this practice, to reject this cruel, immoral, dangerous and absurd tradition, and to inform children as widely as possible about their rights. [Your] power lies precisely in this information. It is up to this generation to replace the tradition without knowledge--by the knowledge without tradition.

Alice Miller

Zurich, Switzerland

My best regards and thanks for your newsletters. They are really absolutely free of poisonous pedagogy and my friends and I appreciate them very much. --Alice Miller, Zurich, Switzerland

Dr. Alice Miller, for twenty years, provided psychoanalytic therapy for adult patients before deciding that it would be better to work at preventing the awful damage done to people in their childhood, and so reduce the sum total of human pain and suffering.

So she closed her office practice and devoted the succeeding twenty years to writing more than ten books. Probably the best known and most influential of these (translated into several languages from the original German) is For Your Own Good--Hidden Cruelty in Childrearing and the Roots of Violence.

The subtitle is significant, for it shows that most of the harm done to children is not obvious, but continues unseen or ignored by us all. And that it is on precisely this "dirty little secret" that light must shine, for it is this hidden cruelty that is at the bottom of almost all the violence, crime, and suffering that we see every day--in our own lives and in society.

[The numbers in brackets refer to Dr. Miller's paragraphs above.] [1] Scientists have shown, in research over the past 50 years, that physical punishment is without question a root cause of children growing up with violent tendencies, with significantly more mental illness, more likelihood of committing serious crimes against people and property, and with more chance of failing in marriage and employment.

For all the talk about "learning right from wrong" that we hear from the "strict discipline" and "tough love" crowd, the spanking, slapping and shaking of children is clearly a moral wrong, as well as an offense against society. Any and all physical attack on a child is abuse, plain and simple, the abundance of euphemisms notwithstanding. To our shame, our United States government refused to sign the UN resolution to protect children from assault. It is clear that we have much work to do.

[2] At this writing the list of countries in Europe alone that ban all corporal punishment of children--even by parents in their homes--include: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Norway, Italy, Cyprus, Croatia, and Latvia. In addition, dozens of countries around the world, including Thailand, U.K., Kenya, Japan, Israel, India, Belgium, Australia, and many others, have passed laws against corporal punishment in schools.

[3] In Texas schools, 81,373 children were beaten with paddles during the 1997-98 school year. That is an average of 814 children every month, tortured, some very seriously injured, and all traumatized. These figures, from The Office for Civil Rights, were given voluntarily by school officials. Says PTAVE (Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education), "The schools of Texas are untouchable behind their bulwark of skillful obfuscation, habitual buck passing, silence, and denial."

[4] To recognize physical punishment as a moral wrong, one needs only to read the words of Jesus of Nazareth. I knew that to be so very early in my life, even as I was beaten without provocation. I also became aware of the rage within me at having been so hideously treated. Then for fifty years I looked for sufficient scientific proof of what I already knew to be true: That the violence I saw on the street was a direct result of the violent treatment of children. Now a quarter century of research has at last documented and proven the extent of the appalling harm done to children when they are assaulted. It is now beyond question, beyond a matter of opinion or theory. There can no longer be excuse or defense. There is no place for spankers, paddlers, and child-bashers to hide. Better that their demands for a change of behavior be made on themselves.

Child abuse is still sanctioned - indeed, held in high regard - in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing.

For Your Own Good

[5] The fact that parents, themselves, were victims of violence is no justification for passing it on to the next generation. Help is in the form of therapy and parenting classes is readily available free in every community in America, and on Internet. No child need ever be struck again.

[6] Readers can gain much self-insight by reading Dr. Miller's discussion, in For Your Own Good, of our hideous history of violent childrearing (now called "traditional"), and how we can overcome this "poisonous pedagogy." For the price of soup and a sandwich you can benefit from the wisdom of Dr. Miller's half-century of experience in psychiatry.

[7] I agree that the time has come to speak directly to the young victims of violence, those spanked and slapped and paddled by parents, "care-givers" and schoolmasters. No one, especially a child, should accept the opinion that they deserve to suffer. We can begin with the same words that the feminists uttered so effectively years ago:


No One.

[8] In Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Society's Betrayal of the Child, Dr Miller explains how this Eleventh Commandment, is obeyed by the mistreated child--"all of us"--because of our belief during childhood that we were to blame for our suffering.

The Drama Of The Gifted Child--The Search for the True Self is a best-selling book about which the New York Times said, "Rare and compelling in its compassion and its unassuming eloquence... her examples are so vivid and so ordinary that they touch the hurt child in us all."

[9] "Fear is the enemy of learning," said John Holt, author of How Children Learn, Teach Your Own, and Instead of Education. I worked with him for several years (before his death from cancer) in showing parents how to remove their children from abusive and incompetent schools, and teach them at home.

You will find a most enlightening essay on Hitler's childhood in For Your Own Good; how the brutal treatment by his father was translated into the murder of millions of European citizens and children.

[10] People often try to minimize their attacks on children, saying "a little spank once in a while doesn't hurt them," when it is obvious that corporal punishment is their sole understanding of "discipline." One mother, after vehemently denying that spanking was harmful, flatly lied to me, claiming she used only "a slight pat," and she lightly patted my arm.

The local superintendent of schools, when I questioned him about his practice of paddling "misbehaving" children, became violent, leaped from his chair with a yell in red-faced rage, in defense of his school district's policy of battering children with those wooden weapons. The paddles were "not used often," was his claim, which told me that this churchman knew it was wrong. But as a politician, he also knew he had the backing of the board of education, the public, and his church.

The only thing still allowed is to beat a helpless child...and call it "discipline."

For Your Own Good

[11] Publishers know that anyone who offers a solution to "discipline," especially if tied to fundamental religious biases, will sell. If I may be permitted to express an opinion: Combine the primitive child-rearing doctrine of James Dobson with the "compassionate" fascism of Texas Gov. Bush, plus the dark-ages mindset of Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones, and you have a recipe for destroying the coming generation of children--and our society with it.

[12] If we have betrayed the natural trust of a child, the remedy cannot wait for a later time: begin work on the road back to building trust again, starting with being honest and trustful, as well as trustworthy.

[13] Extremism in parenting--the "hit 'em and neglect 'em" approach so widely practiced--is, I think, as much due to ignorance as it is to buried aggression. I, myself, after having been beaten routinely and frequently for five of my childhood years, read and researched enough to understand the innocent and loving nature of children, and the damage that any sort of punishment could inflict on a vulnerable and trusting being.

The result was that my two children, while (unwittingly) teaching me about themselves and children in general, also taught me some surprising things about myself. They tapped into my gentle true nature, and showed me, to my astonishment and joy, that my lack of patience was no obstacle to non-punitive parenting. When understanding is there, punishment is anachronistic, if not downright atavistic.


It's Not Work If You Enjoy It
The summer their mother had a lengthy stay in the hospital, the two boys--then ages 7 1/2 and 6--increased their already brisk pace toward self-reliant living. Together we planted seed flats, and later set the seedlings out in the newly dug garden. At harvest time we canned green beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes.

We created shopping lists, and trips to the market became adventures in frugal food shopping. That led to sharing meal preparation. Eggs were Henry's first enthusiasm, and he served up deviled eggs with pride. Russell sole dish, canned spaghetti, was inflicted on us repeatedly until his clientele banged cups in protest.

The menus we made--real works of art--grew larger as new dishes were created. I donned bow tie and cummerbund one day, placed a tea towel over my arm and, playing the haughty but excruciatingly polite waiter, presented the menus with my nose in the air. Then the boys had to do it, too, of course, and kitchen "work" became one of the happiest times of the day. P.S. Their first paying jobs were as cooks. And before going to college Henry became a respected cook in the finest restaurant in town.

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