Alice Miller, For Your Own Good Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence

The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore. Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us–i.e., the weak, helpless, dependent creature–in order to become an independent, competent adult deserving of respect. When we reencounter this creature in our children we persecute it with the same measures once used on ourselves. And this is what we are accustomed to call “child-rearing.”

In the following pages I shall apply the term “poisonous pedagogy” to this very complex endeavor. It will be clear from the context in question which of its many facets I am emphasizing at the moment:

1. Adults are the masters (not the servants!) of the dependent child.
2. They determine in godlike fashion what is right and what is wrong.
3. The child is held responsible for their anger.
4. The parents must always be shielded.
5. The child’s life affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic adult.
6. The child’s will must be “broken” as soon as possible.
7. All this must happen at a very early age, so the child “won’t notice” and will therefore not be able to expose the adults.

The methods that can be used to suppress vital spontaneity in the child are: laying traps, lying, duplicity, subterfuge, manipulation, “scare” tactics, withdrawal of love, isolation, distrust, humiliating and disgracing the child, scorn, ridicule, and coercion even to the point of torture.

It is also a part of “poisonous pedagogy’` to impart to the child from the beginning false information and beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation and dutifully accepted by the young even though they are not only unproven but are demonstrably false. Examples of such beliefs are:

1. A feeling of duty produces love.
2. Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it.
3. Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
4. Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
5. Obedience makes a child strong.
6. A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
7. A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
8. Tenderness (doting) is harmful.
9. Responding to a child’s needs is wrong.
10. Severity -and coldness are a good preparation for life.
11. A pretense of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
12. The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.
13. Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
14. The body is something dirty and disgusting.
15. Strong feelings are harmful.
16. Parents are creatures free of drives and guilt.
17. Parents are always right.

When we consider the major role intimidation plays in this ideology, which was still at the peak of its popularity at the turn of the century, it is not surprising that Sigmund Freud had to conceal his surprising discovery of adults’ sexual abuse of their children, a discovery he was led to by the testimony of his patients. He disguised his insight with the aid of a theory that nullified this inadmissible knowledge. Children of his day were not allowed, under the severest of threats, to be aware of what adults were doing to them. and if Freud had persisted in his seduction theory, he not only would have had his introjected parents to fear but would no doubt have been discredited, and probably ostracized, by middle-class society. In order to protect himself, he had to devise a theory that would preserve appearances by attributing all “evil”, guilt and wrongdoing to the child’s fantasies. in which the parents served only as the objects of projection. We can understand why this theory omitted the fact that it is the parents who not only project their sexual and aggressive fantasies onto the child but also are able to act out these fantasies because they wield the power. It is probably thanks to this omission that many professionals in the psychiatric field, themselves the products of “poisonous pedagogy” have been able to accept the Freudian theory of drives, because it did not force them to question their idealized image of their parents.

With the aid of Freud’s drive and structural theories, they have been able to continue obeying the commandment they internalized in early childhood: “Thou shalt not be aware of what your parents are doing to you.”

– Alice Miller, For Your Own Good Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence


Over the years a sophisticated repertory of arguments was developed to prove the necessity of corporal punishment for the child’s own good. In the eighteenth century, one still spoke freely of “usurping authority,” of “faithful subjects,” etc., and this language reveals the sad truth, which unfortunately still holds today. For parents’ motives are the same today as they were then: in beating their children, they are struggling to regain the power they once lost to their own parents. For the first time, they see the vulnerability of their own earliest years, which they are unable to recall, reflected in their children. Only now, when someone weaker than they is involved, do they finally fight back, often quite fiercely. There are countless rationalizations, still used today to justify their behavior. Although parents always mistreat their children for psychological reasons, i.e., because of their own needs, there is a basic assumption in our society that this treatment is good for children. Last but not least, the pains that are taken to defend this line of reasoning betray its dubious nature. The arguments used contradict every psychological insight we have gained, yet they are passed on from generation to generation. There must be an explanation for this that has deep emotional roots in all of us. It is unlikely that someone could proclaim “truths” that are counter to physical laws for very long (for example, that it is healthy for children to run around in bathing suits in winter and in fur coats in summer) with- out appearing ridiculous. But it is perfectly normal to speak of the necessity of striking and humiliating children and robbing them of their autonomy, at the same time using such high- sounding words as chastising, upbringing and guiding onto the right path….How much a parent’s hidden, unrecognized needs stand to profit from such an ideology. This also explains the great resistance to accepting and integrating the indisputable body of knowledge about psychological principles that has been built up in recent decades.

– Alice Miller, For Your Own Good Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence


Is it possible to have a child turn out well without forcing him to be
obedient, without breaking his will. without combating his egotism and willfulness, as we have been told to do for centuries? Parents cannot permit themselves to ask these: questions. To do so would cause no end of trouble, and they would be deprived of the sure ground provided by an inherited ideology that places the highest value on suppressing and manipulating vital spontaneity.

– Alice Miller, For Your Own Good Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence





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