|People have never been surprised to find that many irresponsible,
delinquent, drug-addicted, or otherwise troubled children have been raised in very
poor home environments. This relationship between the "sick" home and the
"sick" child has been known for centuries. It is entirely reasonable to
expect, and repeated experience has confirmed, that children raised by parents who are
morally defective, infantile, indolent, irresponsible, incompetent, or criminal should
turn "bad." ("Like father, like son.") We may infer safely that in
such families the parents set a poor example, failed to teach proper ethical standards
and paid insufficient attention to the child's physical and emotional needs. We may
even suspect that such parents did not really want or love their children. Common
sense tells us that "problem children" should arise within such a family
However, what has been extremely puzzling to parents for centuries is the problem
of how to explain those "wild," irresponsible, delinquent children who were
reared by parents believed to be honest, responsible, and hard-working citizens. This
opposition between the parents' morality and that of the child has occurred so
regularly throughout the period of man's recorded history that it has become part of
our folklore. Numerous novels and stage plays center around a prominent person whose
son becomes the town's ne'er-do-well or the clergyman's daughter who becomes the town
Historically, in their attempts to explain this phenomenon, the public has utilized
three major theories. The oldest of the three held that the bad child had been
possessed by the devil or some other evil spirit. Common sense then dictated that the
proper course of action to cure the condition was to "beat the devil" out of
the child. As mankind turned away from this primitive demonology, a new idea more
compatible with modern, scientific thinking developed. This was the theory of the
hereditary transmission of behavioral or personality traits. According to this theory,
if a "bad" child suddenly showed up in the middle of a "good"
family, it was suspected that one of his ancestors had possessed a defective gene.
Presumably then, this gene suddenly manifested itself in the child wino was the
carrier of the "bad seed." Gradually this idea, too, came to be discredited
by twentieth-century geneticists, biologists, and psychologists. There remained, then,
but one widely accepted explanation for this phenomenon which has not been refuted by
more advanced thinking.
This third explanation places the blame for delinquent children on permissive
treatment by the parents. This theory has always coexisted with the other two. But
now, since the other two theories have passed from the scene, this one has emerged as
the overwhelming favorite.
Specifically, according to this explanation, the parents of delinquent children
have been either too ignorant or too irresponsible to have punished their children for
various minor and major transgressions. Accordingly, it is the parents' failure or
refusal to have used firm, fair, consistent, and even harsh punishment that permitted
the child to develop a wild, irresponsible, or antisocial pattern of behavior. Since,
according to this theory, the parents' aversion to using punishment as a restraining
force permitted the child to develop his delinquent pattern, this particular form of
parental failure is known today as permissiveness.
As I said previously, this explanation which holds the parents to blame is no less
ancient than the demonic and hereditary theories that it has survived. The fact that
it is labeled with the rather contemporary-sounding word "permissiveness"
merely disguises its antiquity. Its roots, however, can be clearly seen in admonitions
to parents such as, "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree," and "He
who hates not his child, spares not the rod."
Currently, then, warnings against parental permissiveness represent the major
theoretical guideline available to parents and responsible authorities in their
efforts to understand, prevent, and treat behavioral disorders, including prominently
today the excessive use of dangerous drugs.
I hope to convince you that permissiveness should not be accepted as a valid
explanation for what is wrong with large numbers of young people today. This is not to
defend or condone overpermissiveness. To the extent that it is practiced it
would have a detrimental effect on a child's personality. However, my own experience
with a great many families has convinced me that there are very few people in this
country sufficiently remote from the mainstream of information available as to have
remained uninformed concerning the dangers of genuine overpermissiveness. Such
information is provided daily in massive amounts through churches and school systems,
through the courts and law-enforcement agencies, through government-sponsored
education programs, and directly and indirectly through all the forms of the mass
media. The dangers of overpermissiveness are described in full-length books, in
magazine articles, in the advice columns of daily newspapers, and in pamphlets
produced by public-spirited citizens. The majority, popularly held viewpoint is
presented almost universally as the most valid model for parents to follow.
At one time during the course of my work as a psychologist I was employed by an
institution that provided custodial care and treatment for mentally ill patients.
These people had been declared insane, and legally confined within a locked
institution. In my talks with these patients, many of whom were parents, I found that
they were acutely aware of the dangers of permissiveness in the raising of their own
children. Years later I worked extensively with adults diagnosed as either borderline
or mentally defective (IQs of 65 and below). Most were eligible to receive financial
aid from the state because of the severity of their intellectual deficit. These
people, too, in their own inarticulate way, described to me repeatedly how careful
they had to be in raising their children in order to avoid spoiling them.
It is unlikely that any subject in this country could produce such widespread
agreement as that of the dangers to the child of parental permissiveness.
Yet, what I hope to convince the reader is that the "enemy" of the child
is not permissiveness, but rather the fear of being permissive. It is this fear which
drives good, middle-class American parents to behave toward their children in those
callous, unsympathetic, insensitive ways which ultimately result in youthful
delinquency. It is this fear of permissiveness which frightens parents away from
demonstrating those humane, constructive, conciliatory forms of behavior which would
enhance rather than destroy their relationship with their children. It is the parents'
fear of permissiveness that forces them to abandon as the major child-rearing resource
their own legitimate Judeo-Christian heritage which stresses gentleness, kindness,
trust, faith, and forgiveness in one's relationship with others. Having been forced
by an antiquated theory to abandon those forms of behavior which could produce loving
feelings in their children, the parents must inevitably produce angry feelings with
The new insight I am trying to present to the reader is that, contrary to what you
may now believe, vast numbers of children who become delinquent and turn to the use of
dangerous drugs have not been raised permissively. Nor do they come from homes in
which the parents have been irresponsible, incompetent, or otherwise derelict in
meeting their responsibilities to their children. Rather, these drug-using children
have been reared by parents who are the most well-organized, highly informed, sincere,
intelligent, dedicated, and responsible members of the community. It is the average,
middle-class parent, being guided primarily by the fear of being permissive, who,
during the normal process of responsible child-rearing, produces unknowingly a degree
of hostile feelings in the child which in turn produces various forms of antisocial
For centuries, people have been raising their children following the age-old theory
that a sufficient degree of punishment judiciously applied would create good character
and good behavior. Yet, as I have already indicated, the failures of this technique
are so numerous that they have become enshrined in our literature. How does one
account for the incredible longevity of this ancient theory in the face of massive,
non-supportive evidence? I should like to discuss several reasons with you in detail
so that you will be better able to assess the usefulness of this fear-of-spoiling
theory for your own children.
The primary reason for the persistence of public confidence in the effectiveness of
punishment is that punishment does affect behavior and the results are almost
immediate. Particularly when the child is young, punishment produces the immediately
observable changes in behavior the parent desires. As any parent knows, if a young
child's hand is slapped often enough and hard enough, the child will stop doing with
that hand what the parent does not want him to do with it. This immediately observable
cause-and-effect sequence gives the use of punishment the appearance of
indisputable validity. The common sense of the parent inclines him to accept the
evidence of his own senses. Thus, logic and "common sense" backed up by
widespread social approval dictate that parents continue to depend on the theory that
demands punishment for misbehavior, rather than gamble on some more abstract theory
that promises good behavior later, but provides less immediately observable results in
controlling the child's behavior here and now.
Let us look at a case history and see how the parents become increasingly confident
that their technique of child-rearing is the correct one.
The parents were able to eliminate their child's tendency at age two and one half,
to open certain cabinet doors by slapping his hands. (Punishment "worked")
When he was three and one half, they were able to put a stop to his temper tantrums by
spanking him. Occasionally, they used a long stick if the bare hand alone was
insufficient. (Punishment "worked".) When he was five years old, they put a
stop to his using "dirty" words by washing his mouth with soap. (Punishment
"worked".) He presented no problem at the dinner table because he was
punished if he showed poor manners. If he "ate like a pig" or refused to try
new foods, or if he didn't finish all the food on his plate, he was sent to his room.
(Again punishment "worked".) At age nine, the parents stopped his tendency
to come home late for dinner by "grounding" him for one week each time he
was late. Thus, all the child's behavior problems were "solved" by the
consistent use of mild to moderate degrees of punishment.
Now "suddenly" at age thirteen, the child becomes apathetic and hostile.
He does not work in class and is in constant conflict with school authorities. He uses
foul language right to his mother's face. To culminate a sequence of minor delinquent
actions, the child is caught "popping" pills in the lavatory at school.
What would any sensible parent believe was called for next? Obviously the same
thing that had been successful in "solving" all the child's behavior
problems during the preceding year. Only now, because of the seriousness of the
child's misbehavior, a more severe punishment than had ever been used before would
appear appropriate. In such a situation, the avenge, sincere but now terribly alarmed
parent might administer the most severe beating the child had ever received.
As you can see, the fact that punishment appeared to work successfully every
time it was used makes it impossible for the parent to conceive of using any other
technique. Thus, the immediately demonstrable effect of punishment has seduced
generations of sensible adults into embracing it as the technique of choice in raising
The second factor that accounts for the longevity of this old approach is the
overwhelming public belief in its effectiveness. This massive public belief in the
usefulness of punishment is itself created by factor number one described above.
However, once the nearly universal public acceptance is achieved, the public pressure
itself becomes a factor that perpetuates the belief. The individual parent is
hopelessly intimidated by the existence of a theory that historically and to the
present has achieved the status of an unassailable virtue.
For the individual parent to deviate from this accepted dogma would have the same
meaning and social consequences for him as if he had deviated from one of the Ten
Commandments. First, of course, he would feel guilty because he would believe that he
was contributing to the destruction of his own child. Secondly, for the individual
parent to deviate from the accepted pattern would expose him to public rebuke,
ridicule, and condemnation. The parent's belief in the correctness of what he is doing
with the child reinforced by the massive societal approval for his actions makes it
almost impossible for him to deal with the child in any other manner than is
prescribed by the "Don't spoil them" approach.
Thus, the responsible parent is trapped by his conscience into alienating the
child. But the theory itself maintains its aura of rightness. The blame, if things go
wrong, ultimately comes to reside in the child, whose nervous system presumably was so
defective that it would not respond correctly to the obviously correct system of
A third reason for continued public acceptance of this archaic theory is the ready
availability of numerous rationalizations that explain away all failures of the theory
to produce the desired results. It has proven extraordinarily difficult to discredit
this theory because of these rationalizations. The proponents of this theory do not
reassess its validity when it produces unwanted consequences. Rather, they seek to
blame one of the participants involved in the situation, either the parents, for
failure to use it sufficiently, or the child, for failure to respond to it properly.
These attempts to redistribute blame become so distorted at times that obvious
failures of the theory are redefined as success. If these obvious failures are viewed
as successes, it is all but impossible to assess this theory with any degree of
The foremost of these rationalizations takes the form of blaming the parent for
various deficiencies. The first deficiency attributed to the parent is that he was not
sufficiently intelligent or informed to be aware of the dangers of permissiveness. The
assumption is made, automatically, that whenever a child becomes delinquent the parent
has raised him permissively. This is only an assumption, since there is usually no
evidence whatsoever that the child was raised permissively. What is taken for
"evidence" is the fact that the child is "in trouble." This type
of reasoning is circular and logically indefensible.
This assessment of the situation is most likely to occur in those cases in which
the parent of the delinquent child is a publicly known figure who is politically
liberal and/or wealthy. The consensus of public opinion, then, is that the liberal
parent raised his child permissively, consistent with his liberal political
philosophy. The wealthy parent is presumed to have spoiled his child
"rotten" by giving him "everything he ever wanted." Even in the
absence of independent confirmatory evidence, liberals and wealthy people may find it
very difficult to prove that they did not, in fact, spoil their children.
But with increasing frequency now, it has come to the attention of the public that
many irresponsible, delinquent, drug-using, suicidal children come from homes in which
the parents (even if wealthy) are known, unmistakably, to be responsible,
civic-minded, and politically conservative. Such parents might include clergymen,
physicians, law-enforcement officers, police chiefs, judges, career military officers,
conservative businessmen, politicians, and workingmen.
What do proponents of this theory do with the evidence that delinquent children
come from homes in which the parents were obviously well-informed as to the dangers of
permissiveness and spoiling? One would hope that this would weaken the public's belief
in the value of the theory. However, this does not occur. Rather, new rationalizations
are introduced that vindicate the theory, but find fault with the parent. Now, since
these parents have publicly embraced the virtuous theory so that it must be assumed
that their children were not raised permissively, the excuse is offered that the
parents themselves were defective people. The new position taken, then, is that the
theory they used was correct but they were such non-virtuous people that the theory
could not produce its good results.
Thus, the public begins the intriguing but uncharitable search for flaws or defects
in the parents' character. There are many variations of what the conservative parent
may be accused of. Hypocrisy is currently the "in" word. The reasoning goes
approximately like this: "Oh, yes, I know that Senator (an ex-FBI man) would
never have raised his child permissively, but you know politicians are all hypocrites.
How else would you expect the son of a hypocrite to turn out?" (The parent might
also be accused of having been covertly alcoholic, a swindler, and/or an adulterer.)
Who among us has not seen the final confrontation scene of the television drama in
which the teenage son, locked up in jail for drug use, snarls at his outwardly
respectable father: "It's your fault. You've been playing around with your
secretary for years? In another variation of this, the teenager blames both parents
for his predicament-his mother uses prescription drugs for her headaches and his
father spends too much time at the office. (The father's "sin" here is
Such ideas, of course, find a receptive audience among young people who enjoy
holding such fantasies of adults whom they both fear and envy. However, it is highly
irresponsible for mature adults to present such distorted fantasies as if they
represented sensible explanations for children's misbehavior.
The purpose of these rationalizations, encouraged and supported by public opinion
and the mass media, is to demonstrate to the audience that the traditional theory is
valid, but only when applied by virtuous parents. Even respected experts are sometimes
guilty of this form of rationalization.
On April 5,1971, Time magazine quoted Mr. Barr, the headmaster at Manhattan's
private Dalton School, as follows: "The trouble with many children is that their
fathers are mothers and their mothers are sisters." Apparently desperate to find
any rationalization that would appear to support the old theory of parental
incompetence, Mr. Barr would have us believe that paternal homosexuality is the
significant factor in childhood delinquency.
The following statement appeared in Time magazine, August 17, 1970: "It is
among many middle- and upper-class Americans that the estrangement of the young is
strongest ... Parents who lose control of their children are usually confused about
their own values and identities. Lacking authority, such parents cannot provide the
key ingredient of growing up: a loving force to rebel against." The article
continues, "Psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch believes that many parents themselves
are still emotional adolescents and it is evident not only in their adoption of
youthful dress and fads but in a lack of inner maturity as well."
And the noted authority on infant care, Dr. Spock, comments, "The delinquent
child is often acting-out his parents' unconscious desires." Thus, if you can't
find an obvious flaw in the parents' personalities, search for one that is
deeper-hidden and unconscious.
The message from these people is always the same: "Our theory is correct. If
it appears that it didn't produce the desired result, it must be someone else's fault
The parent didn't know about the evils of permissiveness." If he did know and the
knowledge didn't help, then the parent must have been secretly defective. If an
obvious defect cannot be discovered, an unconscious one can be postulated. If the
"unconscious" defect is not demonstrable, then the society can be condemned
en masse as hypocritical. With all those rationalizations available, you can see how
well insulated against objective criticism this theory remains.
The following are two case histories that illustrate again how other
rationalizations keep this theory from being discredited:
After the death of a young adult who had committed suicide while under the
influence of drugs, I spoke with his father. This man was a law-enforcement officer.
As part of his service to the community, he had given lectures on the evils of
One might suspect that the death of his son would have forced a reassessment of his
views. However, this was not the case. Rather, the father told me that he had raised
his son properly (i.e., non-permissively), but that he had "let up" on him
too soon. The father recalled that when the son first began wearing his hair too long
and dressing "freakishly," the father had not protested vigorously enough.
The father believed that he had failed his son and "lost" him that one
summer when he had not forced the son to trim his hair and to dress differently.
Here is another example of a similar situation that came to my attention. Note,
again, how the traditional theory escapes with its reputation intact in spite of its
A six-year-old boy who was attending private school had been acting very
mischievously in class. Following a conference between the parents and the principal,
the conclusion was reached that the child had been "spoiled" and that what
he needed was more discipline. The principal asked that he and the teacher be given
permission to use various forms of punishment at their own discretion, with the
promise that their firmness would "straighten the child out(' for the parents.
Note in the principal's offer the implication that the parents themselves were either
weak-willed or incompetent.
Parental permission was given. Subsequently the child was punished in all possible
ways known to the school authorities, from loss of privileges to severe beatings with
a paddle. After one month of this the child had regressed to a completely infantile
level of functioning. His speech regressed, he was incontinent day and night, and
almost wholly unresponsive to adult authority.
It took a year of kindness, patience, and understanding on the part of the parents
to return this severely regressed youngster to his appropriate age level of
It is to be hoped that after an experience of this sort, the authorities who
recommended the "no nonsense" approach would go through a period of
prolonged reappraisal of their pet beliefs. This was certainly a situation in which
some learning should have occurred. Unfortunately, however, no new learning took
place. The school authorities expelled the child. But they did not apologize to the
parents for having been wrong. Instead, they told the parents that the child had been
spoiled so badly that even the school had been unable to straighten him out.
Undoubtedly the school authorities, in good conscience, will use this case as a
"horrible example" to illustrate to other parents how dangerous it is to
spoil a child.
It is time now for us to stop trying to place the blame for delinquency on either
the parents, the child, or society as a whole. These modern attempts to find a source
of evil somewhere inside the child, the parents, or society represent nothing more
than a sophisticated, twentieth-century form of demonology, in which the public and
some professionals are playing the role of high priests in assigning the guilt
Although it will be difficult to do so, we must desist from our self-righteous
intellectual, yet basically superstitious, attempts to find fault with the parents'
intelligence or character or morals when children become delinquent. We must come to
recognize that the average middle-class parent in this country is neither mentally,
morally, or psychologically defective. We should all graciously, generously, and
compassionately accept the idea that the majority of those parents whose children turn
any from parental values or toward the use of dangerous drugs are just as intelligent,
informed, sincere, conscientious, moral, and responsible as we ourselves. If we
could grant them these virtues instead of attempting to assign blame, we could focus
our attention on the real "enemy": the theory and approach to child-rearing
prevalent in this country that forces parents to interact with their children in ways
that inevitably accentuate angry rather than loving feelings - and thereby produces
delinquency. Moreover, we could more readily comprehend the apparent paradox that
has been a source of perplexity for centuries: why it is that the most conscientious
parents would be so highly prone to producing rebellious, delinquent children.
In the introduction to this book1 I stated: There
is no necessity for your child to become remote from you, to turn away from your most
respected values, or to turn to the use of dangerous drugs - if you have the courage
to act toward him in a manner consistent with those compassionate, humanitarian
principles which you have learned from your own Judeo-Christian religious training.
Why is it that I recommend something as commonplace and unsophisticated as the
principles of a religious tradition to the post-Freudian, twentieth-century parent?
Because upon careful analysis, when all the irrelevant elements are removed, the
essence of the problem of drug abuse and other forms of delinquency are the feelings
of love or lack of love that exist between people.
Therefore, whoever has spoken most authoritatively on the subject of love between
people hat also spoken most authoritatively on the subject of delinquency. In my
opinion, no one has ever spoken with greater clarity or authority on this subject than
have certain of the Old Testament prophets, the scholarly rabbis, and Jesus.
In various discussions in this book I have attempted to persuade the reader that
delinquency is a "disease" which is produced by mismanaged feelings. I have
said that the child turns toward drugs and delinquency as the relative strength of
his feelings of anger gradually comes to outweigh the feelings of love he holds toward
If parents understood how positive or negative feelings were created in children,
they would know also how delinquency was created. If parents could learn how to
produce loving feelings and to avoid producing anger, they would have it within their
power to eradicate delinquency. The most excellent guide available for parents in this
endeavor is that body of ethical principles given us centuries ago by the Biblical
authorities described immediately above. These principles comprise the most complete
statement possible on the subject of creating love and reducing anger.
The following is a list of the basic principles which I urge parents to follow at
all times in dealing with their children:
- The Golden Rule - Behave toward others primarily as you would like them to
behave toward you.2
- Maintain unswerving faith in the basic goodness of the individual no matter what
his current deficiencies in behavior might suggest.
- Be ready to forgive without limit no matter how often the individual fails to
live up to a particular standard of conduct.
- Repay anger and irrationality with kindness. "Turn the other cheek",
"walk the extra mile".
- Be generous.
The usefulness of these principles derives from the fact that each of them does
something constructive about the child's feelings toward the parents. While stated
originally as "moral" principles, each of them is in reality a powerful and
practical psychological "tool" that can be utilized by the parent to produce
loving feelings in the child and to prevent the buildup of anger.
You will recall that I explained in Chapter 1 that it
was not sufficient for the parent merely to love the child "inwardly" but
that the love had to be demonstrated overtly through specific actions which revealed
the love. The value of the principles I am describing here is that each one tells the
parent precisely how he is to act toward the child in order to demonstrate his love to
the child. This, in turn, produces those loving feelings in the child which immunizes
him against delinquency. These principles given us by our greatest thinkers make up in
a sense for what nature did not provide us "instinctively" – a clear
awareness of the connection between the inner feelings of love and its outward
These principles have been thoroughly tested by time. The difficulty with them has
never been that they have failed to work, but that people have been too fearful to use
them. An act of faith and courage is necessary before an individual dares to depend
upon these principles: faith that the power of love is greater than the power of fear
for improving the behavior of errant individuals.