An open letter to all responsible politicians:
According to recent newspaper reports, the British Government is planning to adopt in March 2000 legislation that would forbid parents from beating their children with implements and on the head, but otherwise would allow smacking and slapping them irrespective of age. This information urges me to write this letter because hitting children has serious political consequences, although these consequences are rarely recognized. At the dawn of the new millennium, probably no one will claim that we should maltreat or humiliate our children. But almost everybody still seems to recommend spanking as an effective and harmless means of raising them. The widely represented idea that you can "teach children the difference between right and wrong" by spanking them is as old as our culture but is nevertheless highly misleading, as new research proves. Hitting children is always a humiliation and a practice near to slavery. It is also educationally ineffective because it induces fear--and nobody can learn appropriate behavior in a state of fear.
However, children learn from example. Thus, when we spank them, we teach them exactly what we don't want to teach: we teach them violence, ignorance and hypocrisy. They learn quickly to do the same as we did: first to submit to the more powerful person, to obey out of fear, and to hide the pain of being humiliated. Then, about 20 years later, they cover their own weakness with violence, are unable to act peacefully, and maintain that smacking children is the right thing to do. They resist all logical arguments against smacking by calling them "coddling," and go on to spank their own children (or to hurt themselves) without a second's thought, without the slightest remorse. Their effort not to feel the suffering of their own childhood hinders them from recognizing that spanking children of any age is a humiliation. A new law that would clearly forbid parents to spank their children in any way would open their eyes.
If you ask adults why they were spanked in childhood they will say something like this: "I was a naughty boy or girl and drove my parents crazy. They were really overloaded by my misbehavior." These people rarely recall any concrete incidents. Nor do they recall any constructive lessons learned from the spankings because they were too scared to learn them. But now, against all logic, they expect to teach their three-year-olds lessons by hitting them. Unfortunately, many politicians also share this illusion. Though they do reject slavery in theory, they don't realize that children must absolutely be protected by law.
Our parents and grandparents are not to blame for having passed on to us misleading messages because, at that time, they had no better information at their disposal. But today we do. We can't claim innocence when the next generation blames us for having rejected information that was readily available to us and so easily understood. Parents of today can no longer claim the unlimited freedom to be ignorant, nor can responsible governments. They cannot ignore the most recent scientific discoveries. Damage to the brain structure of beaten children is no longer a matter of conjecture, but can be clearly seen on the screens of researchers' computers. Child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce D. Perry, a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience, has conclusively shown the destructive effects of fear.
Violence to children produces a violent and ill society. True authority dismisses humiliation. Its discipline is based on listening and talking, on trust, respect and protection of the weaker. It gives children the assistance they need to become responsible adults who will not turn to vengeful actions such as wars and dictatorships. They will simply return to others what they once received and what they learned by example: protection and respect.
Alice Miller, Virago Press, London, February 2000