Wednesday, January 5, 2011


The truth about childhood is stored up in our bodies and lives in the depths of our souls.  Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings can be numbed and manipulated, our perceptions shamed and confused, our bodies tricked with medication, but our soul never forgets.  And because we are one, one whole soul in one body, someday our body will present its bill.  The wounded and lost child is only in hiding; the soul is still whole in spirit.  Ultimately, our deepest self will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting or contaminating us until we stop evading the truth.
-- Alice Miller

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 needs 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 early
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 gives, 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 principal as prostheses.  Thus, under certain circumstances they may be reluctant to show tenderness for fear of spoiling the child, or, in others cases, they will hide their hurt feelings behind the Fourth Commandment.
2.  Parents who never learned as children to be aware of their 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, regardless 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 this 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 the 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 that cannot possible 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 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 became 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 feeling
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 be 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.
But liberation from centuries of constraint can scarcely be expected to take place in a single generation.  The idea that we parents can learn more about the laws of life from a newborn child than we can from our parents will strike many older people as absurd and ridiculous.  Younger people may also be suspicious of this idea, because many of them have been made insecure by a mixture of psychological literature and internalized “poisonous pedagogy.”  A very intelligent and sensitive father, for example, asked me if I didn’t think it was taking advantage of children to try to learn from them.  This question, coming from someone born in 1942 who had been able to rise above the taboos of his generation to an extraordinary degree, showed me that we must be mindful of the misunderstanding and new insecurity that can result from reading books on psychology.
Can an honest attempt to learn be considered an abuse?  If we are not open to what the other person is telling us, genuine rapport is hardly possible.  We need to hear what the child has to say in order to give our understanding, support, and love.  The child, on the other hand, needs free space if he or she is to find adequate self-expression.  There is no discrepancy here between means and ends, but rather a dialectical process involving dialogue.  Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person.  In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.  It is a different matter for parents or educators who would like the child to a certain way or think they must expect him to be that way.  To reach their sacred ends, they try to mold the child in their image, suppressing self-expression in the child and at the same time missing out an opportunity to learn something.  Certainly, abuse of this sort is often unintentional; it is not only directed against children but---if we look more closely---pervades most human relationships, because the partners frequently were abused children and are now showing unconsciously what happened to them in childhood.
Antipedagogical writing (by Braunmuhl and others) can be of great help to young parents as long as they do not interpret them as instructions on “how to be a parent” but use them to expand their knowledge; they can then find encouragement to abandon their prejudices and look at things in a new way.
The reader will have noticed long before now that all pedagogy is pervaded by the precepts of “poisonous pedagogy,” no matter how well they may be concealed today.  Since the books of Ekkehard von Braunmuhl unmistakably expose the absurdity and cruelty of the pedagogical approach in today’s world, I need only call attention to them here (see Bibliography).  Perhaps the reason it is difficult for me share his optimism is that I regard the idealization of one’s own childhood as a major, unconscious obstacle to learning for parents.
My antipedagogic position is not directed against a specific type of pedagogical but against all pedagogical ideology per se, even if it is of an anti-authoritarian nature.  This attitude is based on insights that I have describe.  For now, I should simply like to point out that my position has nothing in common with a Rousseauistic optimism about human “nature.”
First of all, I do not see a child as growing up in some abstract “state of nature” but in the concrete surrounding of care givers whose unconscious exerts a substantial influence on the child’s development.
Second, Rousseau’s pedagogy is profoundly manipulative.  This does not always seem to be recognized by educators, but it has been convincingly demonstrated and documented by Braunmuhl.  One of his numerous examples is the following passage from Emile (book II):
Take an opposite route with your pupil; always let him think he is the master, but always be it yourself.  There is no more perfect form of subjection than the one that preserves the appearance of freedom; thus does the will itself become captive.  The poor child, who knows nothing, can do nothing, and has no experience---is he not at your mercy?  Are you not in control of everything in his environment that relates to him?  Can you not control his impressions as you please?  His tasks, his games, his pleasures, his troubles--- is all this not in your hands without his knowing it?  Doubtlessly, he may do as he wishes, but he may wish only what you want him to; he may not take a single step that you have not anticipated, he may not open his mouth without your knowing what he is going to say.
When terrorists take innocent women and children hostage in the service of a grand and idealistic cause, are they really doing anything different from what was once done to them?  When they were little children full of vitality, their parents had offered them up as sacrifices to a grand pedagogic purpose, to lofty religious values, with the feeling of performing a great and good deed.  Since these young people never were allowed to trust their own feelings, they continue to suppress them for ideological reasons.  These intelligent and often very sensitive people, who had once been sacrificed to a “higher” morality, sacrifice themselves as adults to another---often opposite---ideology, in whose service they allow their inmost selves to be completely dominated, as had been the case in their childhood.
This is an example of the unrelenting, tragic nature of the unconscious compulsion to repeat.  Its positive function must not be overlooked, however.  Would it not be much worse if the parents’ pedagogical aims were fully realized and it were possible successfully and irreversible to murder the child’s soul without ever coming to public attention?  When a terrorist commits violent against helpless people in the name of his ideals, thus putting himself at the mercy of the leaders who are manipulating him as well as of the police forces of the system he is fighting, he is unconsciously telling the story, in the form of his repetition compulsion, of what once happened to him in the name of the high ideals of his upbringing.  The story he tells can be understood by the public as a warning signal or it can be completely misunderstood; if taken as a warning, it calls attention to a life that can still be saved.
But what happens when not a trace of vital spontaneity remains because the child’s upbringing was a total and perfect success, as was the case with people such a Adolf Eichmann and Rudolf Hoss?  They were trained to be obedient so successfully and at such an early age that the training never lost its effectiveness; the structure never displayed any fissures, water never penetrated it at any point, nor did feelings of any kind ever jar it.  To the end of their lives, these people carried out the orders they were given without ever questioning the content.  They carried them out as “Poisonous pedagogy” recommends (cf. page 39)---not out of any sense of their inherent rightness, but simply because they were orders.
This explains why Eichmann was able to listen to the most moving testimony of the witnesses at his trial without the slightest display of emotion, yet when he forgot to stand up at the reading of the verdict, he blushed with embarrassment when this was called to his attention.
The strong emphasis on obedience in Rudolf Hoss’s early upbringing left its indelible mark on him, too.  Certainly his father did not intend to raise him to be a commandant at Auschwitz: on the contrary, as a strict Catholic, he had a missionary career in mind for his son.  But he had instilled in him at an early age the principle that the authorities must always be obeyed, no matter what their demands.
The pedagogical conviction that one must bring a child into line from the outset has its origin in the need to split off the disquieting parts of the inner self and project them onto an available object.  The child’s great plasticity flexibility, defenselessness, and availability made it the ideal object for this projection. The enemy within can at last be hunted down on the outside.
Peace advocates are becoming increasingly aware of the role played by these mechanisms, but until it is clearly recognized that they can be traced back to methods of child raising, little can be done to oppose them.  For children who have grown up being assailed for qualities the parents hate in themselves can hardly wait to assign these qualities to someone else so they can once again regard themselves as good, “moral,” noble, and altruistic.  Such projections can easily become part of any Weltanschauung.
From the book: “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence
By Alice Miller


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. "...have to do our best to pass on the rules that allow us to live together... or else it would be anarchy!"

    Children behave as well as they are treated. So, if all children were treated well, rules as such would not be necessary. Rules serve as a code of behavior which pretends to show respect for our fellow human beings in a society. If the respect is not genuine, we need those rules; if the respect is genuine, correct behavior occurs without the need for rules.

  3. Lizard, thank you for your very enlightened comment, I guess you got to read the comment of the “Professor and Poet” before I deleted it. I just could not tolerate his ignorance. How ironic that he is Portuguese! Growing up with that type ignorance in Portugal almost killed me.

  4. Ignorance exists in all countries. (I read that comment, too, before you deleted it.) But, I learned that according to your biography on your website, that Portugal is a very corrupt country. (I wouldn't know since I never left the U.S., but I'll take your word for it.) At least one good thing about Portugal is that they banned corporal punishment four years ago, something the U.S. is too stubborn to do because the majority are more bent on protecting adults' rights to hurt children under the guise of discipline rather than protect kids from being hurt. How utterly sad.

  5. Ssrr88, thank you for your comment, you are absolutely right, ignorance exists in all counties and it sad’s me the ignorance I witness in the United States, especially that we still don’t have laws banding corporal punishment in every state. Portugal passed the law, but no one knows about it, the media did not give any attention to it. I know about it because I am outside Portugal. I was happy when Portugal did and I called my niece in law, the only one that paid attention to me, I called her to talk about the great news, but she had no idea that such law had been passed and still the general public doesn’t know about it. At least some people here are aware that spanking children is a crime not just against the child, but against the whole community. There is a very old Portuguese saying that goes “é só para inglês ver” which literally means “it’s only for English eyes to see”. This means the same as saying in English that it’s only veneer, so the law makers passed this law only to look good in the eyes of thee international community, but they really don’t care about children and educating the public about the dangerous of spanking children. My nephew in law is a police officer and he spanks his children, how is he going to enforce this law if he himself believes in spanking? At least in this country if one keeps digging and looking we will find the truth, but if I had stayed in Portugal I know in my heart I would never had found anyone truly enlightened like Alice Miller. Even today is near to impossible to find any of the Alice Miller’s books there, I have to get them in Spanish and the few that have been translated into Portuguese I have to order them from Brazil. How sad is that?