As we learned from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, negative childhood experiences are often kept secret, downplayed, or repressed because of our powerful desire to put such things behind us. Unfortunately, our minds and our brains don’t work that way. Patterns can play out automatically, no matter how hard we try to be original and create our own realities.
Just as it is important to know family medical history (e.g., diabetes or tuberculosis) it is equally important to know about our social inheritance.
What is your ancestry? What destructive patterns did your parents and grandparents overcome? Think back to your childhood, to how you were disciplined. What were the consequences in the short term? In the long term?
There is a chilling quote from Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow, from his ACES-informed book, Heart: “Generations are boxes within boxes; inside my mother’s violence you find another box, which contains my grandfather’s violence, and inside that box (I suspect but do not know) you would find another box with some such black secret energy—stories within stories, receding in time.”
Punishment and Fear-Based Leadership
Authoritarian or autocratic leadership, the very strict style predominant in early 20th century European countries, was also the predominant style in the U.S. before the 1960s. Many families and subcultures in America still abide by this style. The primary goal of authoritarian parents is obedience; their tools are blame, shame, guilt, threats, force, and abuse. Their goal is to control, and their greatest tool is punishment.
Punishment appears to be an easy fix in the short run, but it can actually cause bigger problems in the long run—instilling fear, distrust, and resulting in a damaged relationship. Youngsters learn that it is okay to bully to get their way. Furthermore, punishment causes great confusion: “How can the most important people in my life, who should be loving and protecting me, be attacking me?”
Research shows that punishment increases aggressiveness and behavior problems, and lowers IQ and academic performance. Punishment provokes anger and the desire for revenge. When backed into a corner, humans may revert to their basest instincts.
The American Psychological Association states that “corporal punishment is violent and unnecessary, may lower self-esteem, and is liable to instill hostility and rage without reducing the undesired behavior.” The APA adds, “corporal punishment is likely to train children to use physical violence.”
Yet, many parents still rely on punishment, holding beliefs such as,
- “My parents used it and I turned out okay”
- “My parents never punished me, and I didn’t turn out okay”
- “You have to beat your own kid or the world/the police/others will beat him/her.”
But punishing does not feel good for parents or for children, nor is it good for anyone; it can physically destroy bodies, brains, and families. In a fear-based parenting style, children become compliant or defiant, shutting down their emotions and avenues to problem-solving. They are likely to become bullies or to attract bullies, since they are taught a rigid, narrow view of right and wrong. They may appear to be confident, but they are controlled by fear.
Breaking Their Will
Parents generally love their children and have the best intentions for them. If punishment feels so awful, and is so bad, then why do parents do it?
The age-old belief behind harsh punishment is that children are wicked by nature and parents must break their will in order to turn them into decent human beings. Generations of parents who were deprived of education relied on superstition and false beliefs.
Murray A. Straus, the foremost researcher on family violence in the world, explains this dynamic. “Stemming from the Christian belief that babies are born with ‘original sin’, children may be perceived as innately bad. Consequently, parents may believe they have the duty to rid children of their evil and willful tendencies. Strict physical discipline may be considered necessary to teach children to be good, and to beat the devil out of them.”[i]
This belief continues to influence many parent-child relationships. These days it is considered very extreme for a parent to “beat the devil out of a child,” but distressingly more normal to beat a child for acting out. Parents still turn to punishment to break a bad attitude, a willful streak, or “brattiness.” But those who punish, even with the best of intentions, harm the child, their relationship, and themselves.
“Breaking their will” does, in fact, damage or destroy a child’s sense of self, the only thing that can experience an authentic connection with life, spirit, and/or God. When kids don’t know who they are or what they want, they look to others to obey—often choosing unhealthy influences.
For Your Own Good
“The most significant thinker in psychiatry today” was obsessed with trying to understand how a Hitler could happen. Author of ten books, Alice Miller portrayed children who had been abused and silenced, then later became destructive to themselves and to others. That was Adolf Hitler’s story.
Hitler’s father was quick-tempered and demanded blind obedience. Adolf was viciously beaten by him and was emotionally abandoned by his mother. Adolf learned to accept daily beatings with unquestioning compliance, numbing himself to the pain. He learned to be obedient. He also learned to be cruel. Many years later, he took revenge on the cruel world that had shaped him.
Without the predominant parenting style of turn-of-the-century Germany that used violence to inculcate absolute obedience (dubbed “poisonous pedagogy” by Miller), there would not have been a Hitler. If his countrymen had not experienced that same sort of upbringing, Hitler would not have had the psychological sympathy of millions of followers, and millions of victims.
And yet, according to Miller in her 1990 book, For Your Own Good, there was a basic tragic assumption that this treatment was, and is, good for children:
“Most of today’s parents and teachers were physically punished as children. Society’s argument to justify this phenomenon is that being beaten, especially by a parent, prepares children for life and helps them learn to be obedient; indeed, we are all familiar with the exhortation to ‘beat some sense into him/her/them.’”
Because children are not allowed to talk about their mistreatment, enormous damage ensues. The pain, according to Miller, is stuffed deep inside the psyche and morphs into neurosis or psychosis. Being told it’s for “their own good” is degrading and confusing for children, and leads to negative effects later in life. On the other hand, when children can express their feelings and pain, they can begin to release and heal the trauma.
The phrase, “for your own good” has confounded countless children who need to believe in and trust their parents, and therefore have to deny their own truth, their own reality.
The Rights of Children
The United Nations, which set forth the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1945, created the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989 with the awareness that people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. This document outlines in detail the basic rights of every human child: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. This document inspired hundreds of countries to uphold human dignity and harmonious development of every child. It states clearly that children have the right to be protected from abuse and harm.
After Canada ratified the CRC in 1990, researchers sought out studies showing positive consequences of physical punishment and found none. Thirty-six nations have now passed laws against the hitting of children, including parental spanking. Parents who break these laws are not punished for hitting their children; they are instead visited by child-care experts who help them learn better childrearing skills.
The most progressive nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia have improved their family systems and the overall wellness of their children. In some European countries, children have wrap-around support from the government, wherein mothers are given paid leave of three years for each child, and are provided with free health insurance and free pre-school programs, so their children can be loved and provided for with less anxiety. In addition, older children care for younger ones in school so they are able to improve their care giving abilities. When these children become adults, they are then able to relate more peacefully with others, and this has contributed to more stable societies.
Every country has ratified the CRC except two: Somalia and the United States. Somalia had a good reason: it doesn’t have a government.
One of the reasons the United States congress has not been eager to agree on the CRC is that one tiny section of it recommends that “a clear prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the ban on corporal punishment in the family, be reflected in the national legislation.” Many Americans, particularly in southern states, feel very strongly that parents have the right to spank their children; they consistently elect Congressional leaders who agree with this. America is home to some of the strongest voices for children’s rights, but many parents feel it is their right and responsibility to spank or beat their child. One California teacher who got a job in Texas was shocked that parents respected her less because she did not physically punish her students—their children.
Physical and psychological punishment (as opposed to discipline and guidance) constitute mistreatment and degradation of children. Sooner or later they have destructive consequences, visible or concealed. Children who are treated well, who are allowed to feel nurtured and free and strong in childhood do not humiliate or harm others. To create a bully-free world, we need a clear definition of bullying, and wide social agreement on healthy childrearing methods.
Without being harsh or punishing, today’s parents often pass on values to their children that pave the way for bullying issues.
Most parents who pick up this book will be worried about their children in school. Schools are where the values of many families become visible. And schools are where the values that parents teach their children are most apparent. Here are some of the things parents commonly teach their children that teachers can see play out in the drama of bullying:
- “Hit Him Back.” Parents are correct in teaching their children to stand up for themselves, but they are mistaken as to what “being assertive” means. The problem with this approach is that it becomes an eye-for-an-eye escalation process. When a child is hit at school, it’s better to teach them to yell “Stop,” and go get a teacher.
- “Don’t be a Tattle-tale” teaches children to not ask for help when they need it. A better response when it seems a child is tattling is to ask, “Do you need help solving your problem?” Children develop problem-solving skills over time with guidance and practice, and need to be taught or shown ways to defuse and resolve. “Don’t tattle” has evolved into “Don’t snitch,” which is rule number one in gang life. “Don’t snitch” empowers bullies, and keeps ugly dynamics hidden.
- “My Little Prince/Princess.” Parents have beautiful intentions of building self-esteem in their child with this idea, but some parents take it so far that their child can do no wrong. Children who are placed on pedestals feel superior to others, and disrespect the authority of adults. There is a slippery slope to narcissism when children are so confident of their entitlements that they can’t meaningfully engage with others.
- “You Should Know Better Than That.” Adults come down hard on children for making mistakes, when they should be teaching them. You can’t tell kids something once and expect them to know it, any more than you can show dogs a trick once and expect them to learn it. What builds knowledge and understanding is repetition and good modeling. Children should be forgiven for forgetting…and then taught again.
- “He’s Just a Child.” On the opposite end of the balance, adults let children off the hook and let them make mistakes without learning. Kids can learn and do a lot more than we let them in most cases, and need constant opportunities to self-manage and self-regulate. This phrase goes along with “boys will be boys” in terms of making excuses for children and enabling them to avoid accountability.
One of the most widespread and lethal things that parents practice, however, is allowing Hate Speech in the home. When adults have hostile outbursts—yelling and screaming—that are irresponsible, threatening, and/or without empathy or regard to others, they give their children permission to do the same outside the home. Children see, children do. When children bring hate speech to school, they bring family conflict into society. And when school leaders fail to see name-calling, harassment and threats as hate speech, they perpetuate the problem.
Rudeness is Anti-Social
In every generation, rude behavior by children has been noticed, complained about, and corrected by adult members of society. But today, so many adults participate in disrespect, rudeness and incivility that children are confused. This epidemic of meanness seems casual, but it threatens everyone. Casual rudeness and “cute nastiness” are unfortunate parts of a permissive and open society, one that permits and welcomes comedy (and often at someone else’s expense).
Peter, Paul, and Mary had a popular song that went, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning. I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land…” it’s a wonderful song about social justice, but makes a charming metaphor as well. You don’t give a child a hammer, since they’ll hammer all over the house. When rude speech and anti-social behaviors are permitted, they are like hammers… that hammer all over the land.
Anti-social behaviors escalate into bullying and violence; pro-social behaviors do not. Children are especially at risk when they grow up thinking that put-downs, swearing, and bullying behaviors are “normal.” They have to unlearn their habits of @#$&! language if they are to have satisfying and successful work, love, and social relationships in their adult lives.
Rude speech is powerful, and can be titillating when used by rock stars and comedians, but out of the mouths of children, and in relationships, it can be a downhill slide into trouble. Mild disrespect can turn to incivility, rudeness to meanness, complaining to blaming and threatening, and from there to physical harm. Slaps, spanks, hitting with hands, hitting with objects are all steps on the path of abuse, violence, harm, and damage… even killing.
On a societal scale these disrespectful actions are an abuse of power, and may show up as date rape, domestic violence, gang fighting, torture, and war. This “hammer” slope can escalate into enormous pain and suffering, destruction and devastation, always inflicting humiliation. Some of the consequences can be foreseen; some are unforeseen and surprising.
In reality, there are numerous tools, unlimited strategies, and an abundance of non-damaging, pro-social approaches that many people simply don’t know about. Everyone needs to have a toolbox packed with effective strategies, motivators, and discipline tools (in addition to hammers) that solve problems and bring out the best in all relationships. If one approach doesn’t work, there are many more (non-injurious) options.
Pro-social tools and skills are based on Positive Parenting Rule #2, Do No Harm. Positive outcomes result from using caring and respect, values and a moral compass. Positive social skills strive for win-win resolutions for everyone’s benefit.
It is the job of parents, caregivers, teachers and adult friends to teach youngsters respect and other pro-social behaviors. Day-to-day positive interactions between parent and child shape a child’s brain positively. It is the responsibility of parents, caregivers, teachers and adult friends to evolve from their own negative patterns of the past and develop and re-create positive habits. Keeping “civil” in our civilization is everybody’s business.[ii]
This is an excerpt from The Bullying Antidote by Louise Hart, Ed.D. and Kristen Caven, a book that “triumphs as an in-depth guide to the troubling world of bullying” and is “an in-depth trove of easy-to-implement strategies in abuse prevention.” Louise Hart (www.drlouisehart.com) is also the author of The Winning Family and On the Wings of Self-Esteem. Kristen Caven (www.kristencaven.com) is also the author of Perfectly Revolting and The Souls of Her Feet. Learn more about bullying by perusing and subscribing to The Zorgos Reader.
[i] Strass, 1994, quoted in Physical Punishment in Childhood: The Rights of the Child, by Bernadette J. Saunders and Chris Goddard, 2010, John Wiley and Sons. Also read Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and its Effects on Children. 2001,
Featured Vintage Photo Shutterstock/Roman Nerud