Violence is Violence
Integrity and self-esteem are related. The more successfully parents look after a child's integrity, the greater the possibility that the child will develop healthy self-esteem. Violence is an infringement of children's integrity and therefore detrimental to their self-esteem.
The fact that we have laws that forbid grievous physical violence against children does not mean that other forms of violence are not harmful: we have simply decided that these manifestations of violence should not be classified as criminal.
Over time, we have coined many synonyms for physical violence. In Denmark we refer to a parent's "right to inflict corporal punishment" and talk about "smacks" or "slaps." In the United States, parents talk about "disciplining" and "spanking." In short, most cultures have their own pet names that people use in order to justify the phenomenon. But no euphemism can obscure the fact that violence is violence, and that violence destroys the self-esteem and dignity of victim and perpetrator.
In my experience, parents who use violence on their children can be divided into three groups. The first group uses violence as an attitude or ideology. These parents say, "Well, I don't think that it does children any harm to get a smack on their bottom when they deserve it." If pressed, they usually admit that they didn't feel this way before they became parents, and that their change of heart reflects an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity.
Those parents for whom the use of violence represents an ideology, and who believe that violence is an essential part of responsible child rearing, often come from environments or societies that are dominated by totalitarian ideologies, whether religious or political. In such societies, the lives and the quality of life of ordinary individuals play a subordinate role; therefore the fact that violence is destructive for the individual carries little weight.
The second group consists of parents who use violence simply because they want power over their children. Their goal is control and domination; they value obedience over closeness.
In the third group are those parents, including the typical Scandinavian parent, who hit their children on occasion but feel bad about it each time.
Regardless of a parent's attitude, however, all violence toward children has exactly the same consequences as violence toward adults: it creates anxiety, mistrust, and feelings of guilt in the short term, and low self-esteem, anger, and violence in the long term. The repercussions of violence are not necessarily proportional to how often a child is hit. I have met people who had been treated violently by their parents on only one occasion in the course of their childhood and adolescence, and who have never recovered from the pain. I have also met people who have been hit on ten to twenty occasions and who bear few scars. The factor that seems to have an impact on how seriously an act of violence will reverberate is whether the parents take responsibility for the violence or blame their children for it.
Dr. Juul is the director of the Kempler Institute of Scandinavia.
Excerpted from Your Competent Child: Toward New Basic Values for the Family. Reprinted with permission of the author.