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"It is Never Right to Hit a Child"

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 child."

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 understand."

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 children.

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 children?

Her answer, equally straightforward, compels us to re-examine both our history as children and our roles as parents:

"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 damage?

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 their assumptions."

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 very beginning."

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."

This article appeared in the September 7, 1999 Times of London, in a slightly shortened version.

Reprinted by permission of the author and Alice Miller.