Insight into childhood and how early trauma affects adulthood is an important facet of psychology for me—one of the most important. I had not previously considered all of the implications of what violent and coercive parenting can do to children from a psychodynamic or unconscious perspective. After reading, “For Your Own Good,” by Alice Miller, I acquired a clear understanding of the psychological damage that results from antiquated forms of parenting.
Miller’s exploration into totalitarian parenting brought me to tears. She was able to instill in me a further conviction that all forms of “child-rearing” and “pedagogy” are terribly destructive for the child’s psyche. Miller said that the truth behind the poisonous pedagogy is that its teachings benefit the parent and not the child. It makes the parents feel less insecure about their past. In other words, parents take vengeance against their parents on their children in the form of abreaction. They use their kids as outlets and scapegoats for their suffering. This is what perpetuates the vicious cycle of child abuse. Furthermore, Miller said, “The reason why parents mistreat their children has less to do with character and temperament than with the fact they were mistreated themselves and were not permitted to defend themselves” (Miller, 1983, p. 105).
Miller takes a stance against the idea that people are naturally or inherently violent. I agree. I am of the mindset that violence is a result of nurture and parent-child relationships. Although, considering modern evidence, it is clear that some genetic basis in personality titrate or control levels of violence, but the psychological impact of the poisonous pedagogy is clear. Even the literature on spanking is replete with evidence that hitting children causes harm to the child’s brain and can lead to criminality and self-destruction through drugs. There is almost no wiggle room left for counterargument. All that remains is getting people on board with truth, but I am not opposed to considering and weighing other evidence. It is just that current evidence against mistreating children is legion, almost indisputable.
I especially like that Miller supplemented her arguments by examining specific case studies and pedagogical texts of the 18th and 19th centuries. I was surprised to learn that throughout history it has been customary to see children as less than human, as evil little wretches in dire need of constant subjugation and punishment. The goal of these child-rearing texts was to stamp out willfulness in children, to crush spontaneity, and to make them absolutely obedient. At first, I was upset that Miller quoted these pedagogical works at such length, because it seemed like she was not going to elaborate from her own perspective. However, by the end up the book, I understood why she went about it this way: to show that children have rarely had any rights or have been treated with dignity.
Miller delved a bit into the controversial subject of psychohistory, and the work of Lloyd DeMause. Until reading her book, I never knew much about it. Psychohistory is a controversial topic as it is not a course at any major university. Psychohistorical analysis asks: what psychological reasons cause people go to war? What caused things like human sacrifice and witch burnings? The answer from psychohistorians has been unbearable for most people, so their responses have been pushed into the recesses of academia. The answer is that throughout time most of humankind has treated children poorly and the further back one explores the worse they were treated. Many early civilizations practiced culturally sanctioned infanticide. I came away from this particular realm of psychology both fascinated and horrified, even though most professional scholars consider it pseudo-scientific or gobbledygook. I think more research will bear fruit, though. I intend on doing some of my own work in psychohistory. I might even do some scholarly interpretations. I believe their material deserves more attention.
Another aspect of pedagogy that I never considered is that when parents administer violent teachings on their kids, they destroy their ability to express themselves emotionally. When I was younger, I was often told to follow the rules. My mother told me that whatever policy she uttered was automatically “right,” merely because “she said so.” There was never any reason or logic behind her parenting style. It was all enshrined and festooned with thoughtless authoritarianism. However, I am not disgruntled or angry. As Miller pointed out, even though parents act cruelly towards their children, they do not realize they are doing it. It is not purposeful. They have no clue that it is destructive because they were taught themselves that what was done to them was for their own good. Thus, they unthinkingly repeat the sins of the past by making the next generation suffer in kind. And maybe that is why I am unable to become emotional about it, or examine my feelings regarding that period in life. Maybe I use reasoning and intellect to prevent myself from exploring pent-up rage.
Pedagogical violence also happens to children at such a young age that they do not even consider defending themselves, primarily because they internalize that their parents love them and maltreatment is normal. However, when children’s wills are discouraged to this extent, they lose the ability to healthily emote and share genuine emotions. It is no wonder that so many people develop psychopathy and sociopathy. If they were raised under the guiding principles of pedagogy, it is likely they never knew what was happening to them and their empathy circuitry was obliterated in the process. I read a book that validated my view called “The Science of Evil: on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty” by Simon Baron-Cohen. In a part of this book he examined how controlling parenting styles alter the empathy circuitry in the brain, leading to empathy erosion, which creates the sociopath or psychopath. When I compare Alice Miller’s psychological work with Cohen’s neurological studies, it makes sense that empathy circuitry and child-rearing go hand-in-hand. Horrible child rearing can actually create evil people. This insight has made me a firm believer of the promise that wholesome, nonviolent parenting can heal the world.
Miller’s exploration of the pedagogical texts also led to an even greater understanding about what the poisonous pedagogy results in: totalitarianism and dictatorship. Child-rearing is the roots of violence. It is what leads to all governments. She mainly talked about how bad parenting leads to the dictatorial State’s, but I believe government in itself is an institution devoted to violence; and in my opinion, it crops up as a result of careless and coercive parenting, everywhere and at all times. I realize that most people expect their government to lead them through life cradle to grave, as if it were a paternalistic figure. The correlation between parenting and government is vague, but it exists. The notion of authority is what ties them together.
I was enthralled when I got to the chapter covering Hitler’s childhood. Prior to reading “For Your Own Good,” I had the general impression that child abuse, in all of its forms, can lead to violence and hatred. But I have never studied violent politicians or dictators child histories. The case of Hitler made me see what childhood violence can accomplish. Hitler’s father was a monster who beat him regularly, and his mother took on the appearance of the loving Madonna figure, yet still allowed the father to do violence to young Hitler. The interesting thing about this character or case study is that the “abuse” that Hitler suffered was not considered abuse at the time. Based on the pedagogical studies, in many parts of mainland Europe, beating and hurting children was the norm. This also confirms the suspicions of the psychohistorians.
I do not believe much has changed either. Poisonous pedagogy is still alive and well. People just refer to it as “raising a child” or “parenting.” The statistics suggest that most parents hit or spank their children often, and much of the time they do it while they are in a state of emotional volatility. Miller would have taken the position that this can even be considered abusive. Any type of violence, even when it is concealed by euphemisms, represents violence against children. For instance, “spanking,” because it harms and humiliates the child would be considered wrong and harmful. Miller referred to what happens to children when they undergo this type of pedagogical “education” as soul murder. The child’s soul is destroyed in the sense that they do not even realize what has happened to them as they mature, and then repeat those on future relationships.
One of the things that I disliked about Miller’s book was that she offered very little guidance for parents who did not want to accidentally hurt their children by administering the poisonous pedagogy. I found one really good answer throughout the whole book, granted it was not a “how to” text. She said, “To prevent absurd, self-destructive behavior from developing in adulthood parents do not need extensive psychological training. They need only to refrain from manipulating their child for their own needs, from abusing him by undermining his vegetative balance, and the child will find the best defense against inappropriate demands in his own body” (Miller 1983). The author could have at least assuaged my fear that there is “no cure” for the poisonous pedagogy since most of it happens unconsciously. I am just glad to know that Miller distanced herself from psychoanalysis later in her life, in part as a realization that psychoanalysis validated child abuse through its methodology. That is what she believed, anyway.
I am glad I read this book. It introduced me to several new topics within the spectrum of child psychology, and it also touched an emotional chord and gave me insight into my own youth. I was absolutely astounded by the details about how psychological abreaction and unconscious drives direct us to hurt our own children, simply because it was done to us. The anatomy of human psychology is sprawling and multi-faceted, and this book opened whole new vistas of discovery, and I am certainly convinced that all forms of purposeful “child-rearing” as just ways for parents to take culturally acceptable revenge against their parents on their children. That was the point that hit home, and it makes a lot of sense. I just want to make sure that I take heed of Alice Miller’s warnings when the time comes for me to have my own children; I never want to do anything to them I believe is for their own good.
Miller, A. (1983). For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.