FOR YOUR OWN GOOD: HIDDEN CRUELTY IN CHILD-REARING AND THE ROOTS OF VIOLENCE
by Alice Miller, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY 1983 - translated from the
1980 German edition
(Summary for WAVE by C. Briggs - August 1996, MD, pediatrician and member of the American College of Preventive Medicine)
(Note: this so far is a summary of the two of three sections of the book:
pp 1-243 of a total of 280)
First Section: “HOW CHILD-REARING CRUSHES SPONTANEOUS FEELINGS:
A REVERED TRADITION”
Introduction: to ‘Poisonous Pedagogy”
Miller, as a professional psychoanalyst, feels that “every act of cruelty
has traceable antecedents in its perpetrator’s past”. She also states in
the introduction that “every small child needs an empathetic and not a
“controlling” human being (whether it be father or mother) as caregiver”.
Breeding Grounds of Hatred (A review of 2 centuries of child-rearing
Miller states at the outset her goal: “It is my task to expose the roots of
In a 1977 book called “Black Pedagogy” she was introduced to older texts
which explained how parents should “deal” with obstinacy, willfulness,
defiance as well as children’s exuberance.. For example, a 1948 book
advises that the main occupation of childhood educators should be to “drive
out willfulness and wickedness”, and continues, “If parents are fortunate
enough to drive out the willfulness..by means of scolding and the rod, they
will have obedient , docile and good children”..
From this background, Miller states her case that older texts join in
teaching that “obedience is so important that all education is actually no
other than learning how to obey”; and that “disobedience amounts to a war
against [parents and educators...] who are “justified to use force to
She then wonders, can this vicious cycle ever be broken, to which she
answers: “The poisonous nature of the false information which has dominated
us for so long was dependent upon our fear, our confusion and our childish
credulity; once it is exposed by the light of truth, it will inevitably
disappear”. And she adds, “Courage can be just as infectious as fear”.
Further, “We do not need to be told whether to be strict or permissive with
our children. What we need is to have respect for their needs, their
feelings, and their individuality....King Solomon’s mistaken belief (“Thou
shalt beat him [the child] with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from
hell”(Proverbs 23:14) - and today’s dictum, “if you spare the rod you spoil
the child”) is still accepted today in all seriousness as great wisdom..”
And, she reflects on the parallel problem that “many people in the U.S.
still believe that..permissiveness, not ‘poisonous pedagogy’, is
responsible for increases in crime and drug addiction”.
More points made by the author in this chapter:
· “We will continue to infect the next generation with the virus of
‘poisonous pedagogy’ as long as we claim that kind of upbringing is
· “The line between the two things - spanking and beating - is a tenuous
one..the psychic pain and humiliation, and need to repress these feelings,
are the same...”
· “Feelings of resentment and rage over this devious form of manipulation
cannot surface in the child because he does not see through the
subterfuge..the pedagogues take pains that their methods remain
undetected..the conscious use of humiliation, whose function is to satisfy
the parents’ needs, destroys the child’s self-confidence, making him or her
insecure and inhibited..”
· “For purposes of self-protection, it is only the adult’s friendly manner
that remains in the child’s memory, accompanied by a predictable
submissiveness on the part of the “transgressor” and the loss of his or her
capacity for spontaneous feeling.” (Related to descriptions of old texts
which describe the correctness of renewed beatings if the child cries)
Schmid, 1887: ..”discipline, as the Old Testament ..indicates, is
basically chastisement ... The perverse will, which to its own and others
detriment is not in command of itself, must be broken..A consideration of
the idea of punishment reveals that, in the task of education, healthy
discipline must always include corporal punishment. Its early and firm but
sparing application is the very basis of all genuine discipline because it
is the power of the flesh that needs most to be broken...”
She also describes other methods of manipulation and conditioning of
children and their behaviour that are evident in the pedagogical texts.
Yet, since the child is supposed to “defer to the adult without asking for
explanations” there is, sadly, no way for the child to understand this at
their early age.
“Obedience appears to be the undisputed supreme principle of religious
education” For example, as quoted in a 1902 text, “He who loves his son
chastises him often with the rod, that he may be his joy when he grows up”
(Sirach 30:1) The Psalms include warnings of the danger of loss of love if
the sin of disobedience should be committed.
The Bible is also cited in the pedagogical texts reviewed to discourage the
expression of natural maternal feelings, which are described negatively as
“...instead of accustoming the baby from the first day of life on earth to
discipline and regularity in intake of nourishment and thereby laying the
groundwork for moderation, patience, and human happiness, doting lets
itself by guided by the infant’s crying.. A doting love..allows itself to
be dominated by a blind desire to be kind, as if this were a natural
instinct; it permits when it should forbid, is lenient when it should
punish... it allows itself to be tyrannized by the child’s contradictions,
by his willfulness and defiance, or even by the pleas, flattery, and tears
of the young tyrant..”.
And from an 1887 text: “..the adult must instill obedience by the exercise
of his power...[including] by means of punishment....Pedagogy correctly
points out that even a baby in diapers has a will of his own and is to be
As an adult, the child who has learned that corporal punishment is a
“necessary measure “ against “wrongdoers”, will attempt to protect himself
from punishment by being obedient and will then be inclined to cooperate
with a larger system. That is, the citizen in a totalitarian state, which
is only a mirror of the upbringing of its citizens, can then carry out any
form of torture or persecution without having a guilty conscience. His
“will” becomes identical with that of the government; an early dependence
on tyrannical parents can be preserved.
Thus, in the tradition she describes, it was considered obstinacy to have a
will and mind of one’s own. All intelligent children would want to escape
the punishments devised for those demonstrating these traits. The
political leader only has to harvest what has been sown - as an adult, the
child will often allow himself to be manipulated again, this time by
various forms of propaganda, since he has not known anything else ....”let
this be a reminder for wise parents to make their child docile, malleable,
and obedient at a very early age and to accustom him to conquer his own
will..this is a major aspect of moral education and to neglect it is the
worst mistake we can make” (Bock, 1780).
In summary, the elements of what Miller terms “poisonous pedagogy” are the
1. Adults are the masters 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
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 t he 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
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
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 child 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 drive and guilt
17. Parents are always right.
Intimidation plays an important role in this ideology, which was still at
the peak of its popularity at the turn of the century. Miller also
discusses Freudian and psychoanalytic reflections on this subject, and
refers readers to a previous book, “The History of Childhood, by L de
Mause, stating that “those who read this book ...will no longer find the
atrocities in human history hard to understand. ..they will locate the
places where the seeds of cruelty have been sown...and [thus be able to]
..bring about basic changes..but only if we develop an understanding of the
hazards of early childhood, that time when the ideology of child-rearing is
passed on to the next generation.”
The “Sacred “ Values of Child-Rearing.
A sample of Miller’s points in this chapter:
· “Every brand of Fascism lacks a respect for the weaker than ourselves,
including of course the child, and respect for life and its laws, without
which all creativity would be stifled. Fascism..causes psychic death
because e it lacks this respect. Among all the leading figures of the
Third Reich I have not been able to find a single one who did not have a
strict and rigid upbringing. “
· “But, those who were permitted to react appropriately throughout their
childhood - i.e. with anger - to the pain, wrongs, and denial inflicted
upon them either consciously or unconsciously will retain this ability to
react appropriately later in life too. When someone wounds them as adults
they will be able to recognize and express this verbally. But they will not
feel the need to lash out in response.”
· “Sixty % of German terrorists in recent years have been the children of
Protestant ministers. The parents undoubtedly had the best of intentions..
they wanted to inculcate values of goodness, good behavior, undemanding,
considerate, unselfish, self controlled, and above all meek...by whatever
means, and were even ready to use force to obtain these pedagogical ends...
These young people who become terrorists never were allowed to trust their
own feelings, and they continue to suppress them for ideological reasons -
ideology in whose service they allow their inmost selves to be completely
dominated, as had been the case in their childhood...”
· “Adolf Eichmann and Rudolf Hess were trained to be obedient so
successfully and at such an early age that the training never lost its
effectiveness...to the end of their lives they carried out the orders they
were given without ever questioning the content..For example, Hess writes
of being instilled with the principle that the authorities must always be
obeyed, no matter what their demands. “I must obey promptly the wishes and
commands of my parents, teachers, and priests, and indeed of all adults,
including servants, and that nothing must distract me from this duty.
Whatever they said was always right.” He had been beaten by his father and
was shown no affection; he was a nearly perfect product of training to be
blindly obedient - the total subordination of the child to the adults
The Central Mechanism of “Poisonous Pedagogy”: Splitting off and
(Quick summary:) “Children who have grown up being assailed for qualities
the parents hate in themselves can hardly wait to assign [project] these
qualities to someone else so they can once again regard themselves as good,
“moral”, noble, and altruistic”
Is there a Harmless Pedagogy?
Gentle violence: “Overt violence is not the only way to stifle a child’s
Pedagogy fills the needs of Parents, not of children.
“My antipedagogic position is not directed against a specific type of
pedagogical ideology but against all pedagogical ideology per se, even if
it is of an anti-authoritarian nature”; “I am convinced of the harmful
effects of training for the following reason: all advice that pertains to
raising children betrays more or less clearly the numerous, variously
clothed needs of the adult..
Miller lists, based on her psychiatric background, what she describes as
adults true motives, which would include: 1. The unconscious need to pass
on to others the humiliation one has undergone oneself; 2. The need to find
an outlet for repressed affect; 3. The need to possess and have at ones
disposal a vital object to manipulate, and others, including “revenge for
the pain one has suffered”.
When children are trained, they learn how to train others. Thus,
“ Children who are lectured to, learn how to lecture; if they are
admonished, they learn how to admonish; if scolded , they learn how to
scold, if ridiculed, they learn how to ridicule, if humiliated, they learn
how to humiliate; if their psyche is killed, they will learn how to
kill..the only question is who will be killed: oneself, others or both.”
On the other hand, what Miller feels is all-important to remember about
bringing up children is :
“Crucial for healthy development is the respect of their caregivers,
tolerance for their feelings, awareness of their needs and grievances, and
authenticity on the part of their parents, whose own freedom - and not
pedagogical considerations - sets natural limits for children.
And the fact that children need a large measure of emotional and physical
support from the adult, which Miller says must include the following
elements if the child is to achieve his or her full potential:
1. Respect for the child
2. Respect for his/her rights
3. Tolerance for his/her feelings
4. Willingness to learn from his/her behaviour: (about the child’s nature,
about the child in the parents, and about the nature of emotional life ..)
“Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better
listening and attentiveness to the other person...to learn from the child,
we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn”.
The second section of the book, after the first section above which dealt
with childrearing, is
“THE LAST ACT OF THE SILENT DRAMA: THE WORLD REACTS WITH HORROR”
“Cruelty can take a thousand forms” and often goes undetected even today..
and the damage done by cruelty to the child, and the ensuing consequences,
are still incompletely recognized and understood.
She reviews what she considers “the psychological stages in the lives of
1. To be hurt as a small child without anyone recognizing the situation as
2. To fail to react to the resulting suffering with anger
3. To show gratitude for what are supposed to be good intentions
4. To forget everything
5. To discharge the stored up anger onto others in adulthood or to direct
it against oneself.
She follows by saying, “the greatest cruelty that can be inflicted on
children is to refuse to let them express their anger and suffering except
at the risk of losing their parents love and affection. This anger is
stored up in the unconscious, and since it basically represents a vital
source of energy, and equal amount of energy must be expended to repress
it. . This (loss of vitality) can lead to suicide or drug addiction which
is a form of suicide...” And at this point, she gives the first of her case
studies, the case of Christiane, which she discusses as “The War of
Annihilation against the Self” (not reviewed here)
Her next case study is of Adolf Hitler’s Childhood, which she discusses
under the theme, “From Hidden to Manifest Horror”, with a total of 55 pages
of analysis and discussion. (This summary cannot begin to do it justice)
One memorable point from his childhood was that he was “beaten nearly to
death” by his father, for trying to run away from home at age 11. At about
this time he also began to do poorly in school. Overall, she describes a
childhood of repeated humiliation.
Miller’s point here is “because the relationship of child beating to
subsequent criminality is not perceived, the world reacts with horror to
the crimes it sees committed and overlooks the conditions giving rise to
them, as if murderers fell out of a clear blue sky”, and that she used
Hitler as an example so as to show that:
1. Even the worst criminal of all time was not born a criminal
2. Empathizing with a child’s unhappy beginnings does not imply exoneration
of the cruel acts he later commits.
3. Those who persecute others are warding off knowledge of their own fate
4. Consciously experiencing one’s own victimization instead of trying to
ward it off provides a protection against sadism: i.e. the compulsion to
torment and humiliate others.
5. The admonition to spare ones parents inherent in the Fourth Commandment
and in “Poisonous Pedagogy” encourages us to overlook crucial factors in a
person’s early childhood and later development.
6. We as adults don’t get anywhere with accusations indignation nor guilt
feelings but only by understanding the situations in question.
7. True emotional understanding has nothing to do with cheap sentimental
8, Living out hatred is the opposite of experiencing it.
Her third case history is : Jurgen Bartsch, A Life Seen in Retrospect.
This concerns a case, discussed within 45 pages, which shows “how living
out hatred can lead to the destruction both of the self and of others.
In concluding remarks about the above three cases, Miller says:
1. In all 3 cases we find extreme destructiveness. (against oneself,
against real and imagined enemies, and against children..)
2. This destructiveness can be interpreted as the discharge of long pent-up
childhood hatred and its displacement onto other objects or onto the self.
3. As children, all 3 were severely mistreated and subjected to
humiliation, not only in isolated instances but on a regular basis. From
earliest childhood, they grew up in a climate of cruelty.
4. The health reaction to cruel treatment would be narcissistic rage of
extreme intensity. But because/ of the authoritarian form of child rearing
practiced by all three families this rage had to be sharply suppressed.
5. In their entire childhood and youth , none of the three had an adult to
whom they could confide their feelings, especially their feelings of hatred
6. All 3 felt a strong urge to communicate, to express, their suffering to
7. Since the path to safe verbal communication based on feelings of trust
was blocked to them, the only way to communicate with the world was by
means of unconscious enactment.
8. Not until the end of the drama does their enactment result in feelings
of shock and horror in the world.
9. It lies in the nature of the 3 people’s repetition compulsion that they
succeeded in winning undivided public attention with their
enactments..(just as a child who is beaten regularly also wins attention,
10. All 3 received affection only as their parent’s self-objects and
property, but never for their own sakes. The longing for affection, coupled
with the eruption of destructive feelings from childhood, brought about
their fateful enactments during puberty and adolescence. (and for Hitler,
during a lifetime)
And others of Miller’s main points are as follows:
· “When a person cannot talk about the cruelty endured as a child because
it was experienced so early that it is beyond the reach of memory, then he
or she must demonstrate cruelty. .”
· “It is all the more crucial for us to keep pace with this development by
increasing our understanding of the sources of such intense and insatiable
hatred as Hitler’s....Until the general public becomes aware that countless
children are subjected to soul murder every day and that society as a whole
must suffer as a result, we are groping in a dark labyrinth - in spite of
all our well-meaning efforts to bring about disarmament among nations.”
· “People who have been pedagogically manipulated as children are not aware
as adults of all that can be done to them....and ..the dependence of the
“great leader” on his childhood, on the unpredictable nature of the
unintegrated, enormous potential for hatred within him - is decidedly a
very great danger”.
· “Everywhere I find defenseless children who were mistreated in the name
of child-rearing, and often for the sake of the highest ideals... My
optimism is based on the hope that public opinion will no longer tolerate
the cover-up of child abuse in the name of child-rearing, once it has been
recognized that: 1.Child-rearing is basically directed not toward the
child’s welfare but toward satisfying the parents’ needs for power and
revenge. 2. Not only the individual child is affected; we can all become
future victims of this mistreatment”.
Final Section: STEPS ON THE PATH TO RECONCILIATION: ANXIETY, ANGER, AND
SORROW - BUT NO GUILT FEELINGS