Alice Miller pioneered the idea that violence towards children engenders violent adults. Her latest
book reveals that many of this century's worst dictators were beaten as children.
For many years Alice Miller was a lone voice in the dark. Her message, devastatingly simple but with the
kind of implications people refused to face, was considered far too controversial: violence towards children
engenders a violent society.
Gradually, though, she has won wide acceptance around the world for her central theory that abuse runs in
the family. The slapped child of one generation becomes the abuser of the next. Violence towards "a bad
child" may create a bad adult and eventually foster the creation of a bad society.
Her latest book,
Paths Of Life, takes this argument still further, declaring
that tyranny and totalitarianism are born in the nursery. Having studied some of the worst dictators known to
the modern world - Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceaucescu - she says all four were systematically beaten throughout
their childhood, and all denied the pain.
Dr Miller says: "These men learned very early to glorify cruelty and to be able to justify it to
themselves without remorse." Crucially, they were also born into societies in
which violence towards children was commonplace. In Hitler's case, for instance, harsh rearing of children was
fashionable in Germany in the 1900s. So there is a causal connection between that practice and the terror
unleashed 40 years later by so many willing executioners.
If that seems far-fetched, then we must follow Miller's path of self-discovery and enlightenment. Born in
1923 in Poland to what she describes as ordinary middle-class parents - father, a banker and mother, a
housewife - she imagined her childhood to have been "normal."
She says: "My parents wanted the best for me, but like so many others at that time they had not the
slightest idea of a baby's need for attachment, loving contact, respect and orientation. "My mother had been emotionally neglected during her childhood, so that her body had no
recollection of what it meant to be loved and cared for. Her only concern was to make me obedient as soon as
possible. And she succeeded. I became the good girl my parents needed me to be. Today I know that such an
achievement was only possible through systematic corporal punishment.
"My parents' strategy demanded a huge price: the repression of my own feelings and needs.
Consequently, when I became a mother, I couldn't understand my first baby the way it needed to be understood.
Although I never hit either of my two children, I was sometimes careless and neglectful of that first
Miller's first discipline was philosophy and she obtained a doctorate from the University of Basle. She
then switched to psychoanalysis, training in Zurich as a Freudian and working for 20 years as an analyst and
teacher. But her road away from this conformism, and on to her own path of self-discovery, began in 1973 when she took up painting. "Until then, I believed my
childhood had been a good one, but my body and my hands knew more than my mind. They showed me in my painting
that I had survived a horror, and that I had repressed this knowledge because no-one was there to
The result of her inner turmoil, and her resolution of it, stimulated her first book, The Drama Of Being A
Child, a totally new contribution to the eternal debate on the root causes of violence and its devastating
toll on society. It was the opening salvo in her struggle to change the way we think about our treatment of
The central question, to which she has devoted the last 20 years of her work, seems deceptively simple: why
is it so hard not to smack a child? Why do people who wouldn't dream of striking their friends slap their
Her answer, equally straightforward, compels us to re-examine both our history as children and our roles as
"Beating children teaches short term obedience, but in the long term, only violence and anxiety.
"As beaten children, we have to learn to forget our physical and psychic pain. This blocking out
enables us to continue punishing our own children while we insist to ourselves: smacks teach lessons. Sadly,
all we are accomplishing is sowing the seeds of cruelty for another generation.
"Almost everyone agrees that we should not maltreat children, yet they also claim that corporal
punishment is not a maltreatment, labeling it as 'educational discipline'. This is a dangerous error which can
only be solved by a law preventing the punishment of children within the home as well as school. The goal of
this law should not be the punishment of parents. It should educate them into understanding that every beating
is a maltreatment, both socially and emotionally."
This central message, born out of self-knowledge and from what she had learned from dealing with thousands
of patients, gradually gained Miller recognition as one of leading figures in the study of abused children, in
spite of years of skepticism from her peers.
Her seven best-selling books have become an inspiration. Novelist Edna O'Brien has described her as the
child expert "every parent should read." Another writer, Sara Paretsky, believes Miller's books
"changed the way I think about my life".
Many professionals in the field also agree, such as Brenda Robinson-Fell, an independent child abuse
consultant based in Brighton who works for a variety of bodies, including the
NSPCC, the police and social services departments.
"Alice Miller was a pioneer," she says. "Her breakthrough was in asserting that parents
carry responsibility for the adults their children become. Fortunately, her beliefs have become mainstream,
and like many of my colleagues I regard her as one of the main influences on my generation of professionals.
We owe her a great deal."
But the parent reading for the first time of Miller's work will doubtless have two lingering questions. The
first is the most common defense for slapping: surely the occasional smack can't possibly cause any lasting
The second: how do we account for the fact that every smacked child doesn't become a Hitler?
Surely, I asked Miller, an infrequent cuff, or a spontaneous slap delivered in a moment's fury when one
child is caught being cruel to another, is reasonable?
Not so, says Miller. "The claim that mild punishment, such as smacks or slaps, have no detrimental
effects is still widespread because we got this message from our parents, who got it from theirs.
"It is this conviction which helps the child to minimize or numb their suffering so that each
generation is subjected to the seemingly harmless effects of physical correction. 'What hasn't harmed me
cannot harm my child', we tell ourselves. Such a conclusion is wrong because people have never challenged
Violent behavior in teenagers, especially young male rapists can, according to Miller, be linked with early
emotional neglect, not only with brutal treatment. "I think violent teenagers
are demonstrating what happened to them when they were small. I have no doubts about that. It might not have
been a harsh discipline, but through emotional neglect, lack of warm friendly contact, substituted by
'spoiling' (buying lots of expensive objects to replace love) a child learns to repress its own history.
"The more cruelty is denied, the less these young people are able to feel, to confront the actual
reasons for their distress. Therefore the urge towards destructive behavior grows stronger. "As beaten children we learn very misleading lessons. Because the slaps come from the most
important figures in our lives we believe such behavior is normal and beneficial. I am not the only one to
speak out against such treatment of children. Hundreds or articles and books are written by other experts on
the dangerous consequences and uselessness of corporal punishment, yet many people continue to act and think
as though such information did not exist.
"I often hear mothers saying they smack their babies without violence just to teach them a lesson.
Once, a nice young mother who breast fed her little boy complained to me that he seemed a very anxious child.
I asked if she thought the child might be waiting for the next slap? "Never, she said. At 15 months old
he was far to young to make such connections. I then asked if she had been beaten as a child. Yes, she said,
all the time, by both parents. I asked her how she would feel if a friend told her she was being beaten by her
husband. Would she advise her to leave? Of course, she said.
"Why then was she able to sympathize with her friend, but not her child? Simple. Her upbringing taught
her this is the correct way to treat children."
Opposing Miller are those who claim that a law forbidding parents to hit their children brings us
uncomfortably close to totalitarianism. Many people believe that smacking children
remains a private right, and would have grave misgivings if government legislation intruded into an area as
sacrosanct as the home.
Her answer is emphatic: "You can't claim the right to play with nuclear weapons on your territory
because they belong to you. Similarly, society's interests must go before your pleasure and your habits, and
the government must defend these interests.
"Parents may claim the right to hit children when they are small as though they are property. Yet as
soon as those children become violent delinquents or drug abusers the same parents are eager to turn the
problem over to society. The anonymous taxpayer has to fund the hospitals and prisons these once so eagerly
disciplined teenagers will need."
What then of the argument that so many smacked children do not turn into tyrants? "Of course not all
children who have been violently treated grow into monsters. The key factor in such instances is the presence
of what I call 'a helping witness', someone who serves as a protector or friend. It could be a relative, a
grandparent for example, or a teacher, or even a neighbor. Thanks to this good experience these children are
not forced to repeat the abuse."
Miller's theory doesn't rest only on her observations as a psychoanalyst. She has found confirmation in the
latest research by neurobiologists who have proved the influence of experiences during the first three years
of life to the developing structure of the brain.
"For some years now, it has been possible to prove, thanks to the use of new therapeutic methods, that
repressed, traumatic experiences in childhood are stored up in the body and, although remaining unconscious,
exert their influences even in adulthood. In addition, electronic testing of the fetus has revealed a fact
previously unknown to most adults: a child responds to, and develops, both tenderness and cruelty from the
She is also convinced that the terrible savagery in Rwanda is also explained by the cruel way in which
infants are socialized in that country. "Wherever I look, it is the same. What we do to our children
affects all of society."