Janet Reno's dangerous endorsement of violent childrearing
Norm Lee, February 2000
This article, revised here by the author, first appeared in The Current, December 1993.
On October 25, 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno, in PBS's hour-long Bill Moyers interview, explained her methods of dealing with violent criminals: the "carrot and stick" approach. Put violent criminals in jail. Fine. Then she extended the reward and punishment methods to children as well. Like most behaviorists, she would have parents control children by behavioral conditioning, as Pavlov did with his salivating dogs. But children are not dogs, and if they are treated as Reno suggests, we will raise (another) generation of alienated, conflict-ridden, violence-prone kids.

The attorney general's thinking is a high-profile example of the kind of child-rearing approach that is endemic in America: hitting children to "make them behave." We are all shocked by stories of child abuse. It often seems that most parents agree with Fred Clark's grim view in Auntie Mame: "I'm going to turn this kid into a decent, God-fearing Christian if I have to break every bone in his body!" (The fact that this was a major laugh line gives us something to ponder.) Here we're not talking about the horrid, life-threatening treatment. This is about the everyday, casual violence that otherwise decent parents consider proper "discipline:" the spank on the bottom, the slap across the face, the box on the ears, the grab-and-shake, ear-twisting, head-rapping physical assaults that are routine methods of controlling the behavior of kids in millions of homes.

Parents, as a general rule, raise their children as they themselves were raised. Violence is perpetuated by inflicting violence on children, who, in turn, punish their children. Thus the seeds of violence are planted in each succeeding generation- This traditional domestic violence is perhaps the principal cause of the widespread violence we see today. Yet great conferences and "summit" meetings are held during which civic leaders scratch their heads, puzzling over the cause of it. We sow the seeds of the violence we reap. Big surprise

In Moyer's interview, Reno reveals the reason she is so vehemently in favor of punitive methods. "[My mother] used to spank the day-lights out of us!" she blurted with obvious pride. Later on, when Moyers posed the hypothetical instance of her mother being victimized by a violent criminals, Reno's instant reaction was one of rage: "I would tear them limb from limb!' This, in the midst of her sermon against violence.

In a recent article Reno told how her mother would never allow the children to watch television. If Reno's violent proclivities did not come from watching TV, what is the source? Could it be the pain, both physical and emotional, that was inflicted upon her by a domineering mother who smacked her kids around? TV'S dramatization of violence can have nowhere near the impact on children as being smacked around by those they love and depend upon for comfort and security. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us.

During the interview, Reno's description of the carrot-and-stick method for managing criminals abruptly segued into childrearing methods: "Begin with the zero-to-three-year olds. Set limits, and when they go over the line, PUNISH THEM!" Her caveat, to tell them after the punishment that they're "loved," only serves to legitimize hitting and humiliating kids, while allaying the conscience of the perpetrator. As for the child, he or she can be driven further into confusion and alienation--not to mention perversity. (This is made clear in Alice Miller's book, For Your Own Good).

Then Reno made a chilling proposal: "We [the federal government] want to be a partner with you parents" - in enforcing on children her Draconian carrot-and-stick method. Practices which are known to undermine self-esteem and inevitably end in exponentially increasing crime, mental illness, dysfunctional families and violence.

The attorney general and others with her punitive mentality are fond of speaking of defining limits for children. Limits? The first limits need to be applied to the adults whose responsibility it is to protect and nurture children, the parents, teachers, babysitters, and child care professionals

Limit #1: NEVER HIT A CHILD of any age. Only a bullying coward would strike a child. Adults can defend themselves with fists and laws; their emotional growth isn't dependent on protection and approval.

Let the attorney general get laws passed protecting children from the violence perpetrated by parents and teachers. Use of a paddle or other weapon should be made a felony; use of open hand, a misdemeanor. In Sweden it is a federal offense to spank a child, and has been for a quarter century.

Limit #2: NEVER USE REWARD-AND-PUNISHMENT METHODS. What may be appropriate for rats in a psych lab is dehumanizing to children. That is why the approach Reno is selling to American parents is actually causing the violence she so stridently preaches against. It robs children of their self respect. When that goes, respect for authority, respect for the law and respect for human life go with it.

The reward-and-punishment method of dealing with kids never works. This kind of treatment, which America borrowed uncritically from German "experts" more than a century ago, is the chief cause of the violence we see today. The trouble with the "stick" approach is that it makes the child either dangerously withdrawn (and apt to explode later) or openly rebellious. In either case, it influences him or her to seek security in totalitarian figures who promise approval, status and identity. The opposite all-carrot method (over-permissiveness), is, in reality, neglect. Here, parents cop out on their responsibilities by abandoning the child emotionally, leaving him or her to choose surly rebellion as the only perceived way to gain recognition, if not approval. This is called "spoiled."

Fortunately there is a third approach: democratic discipline. Only by sharing the decision-making, rule-making power in the family can the child maintain his or her self respect and learn self-discipline. Almost all American homes operate autocratically, where the parent has sole and unlimited power. This is where the harm is done. "Benevolent" dictatorships are totalitarian still. When the home operates democratically, where individual rights are respected and defended, where the child's view point has real weight in the rule-making process, that child is more likely to obey the rules and to develop a sense of responsibility.

The processes of democratic discipline are not difficult to learn. The evidence clearly shows that this way of viewing and treating children is infinitely easier and happier for both parents and children than the authoritarian, abuse-prone carrot-and-stick approach. It can transform squabbling, whining children into happy, confident, self-respecting (and therefore respectful) family members.

Punishment of children undermines self-esteem. The harmful effects of punitive methods have been known for at least a quarter century, with the publications of Dorothy Corkille Briggs' Your Child's Self-esteem: Step-by-Step Guidelines for Raising Responsible Productive Children (Doubleday), and a decade earlier, A.S. Neil's landmark Summehill (Simon & Schuster). Even preceding that, in 1957, Sears, Maccoby and Levin in Patterns of Child Rearing (Harper & Row), showed that punishment methods simply do not work in producing the desired behavior.

Since "punishment never works" is the overwhelming lesson to be learned from bringing up children, the fact that so few parents ever heard about it is curious. Over 200 years have passed since that pioneering criminologist Cesare Beccaria observed, "The fault no child ever loses is the one he was most punished for." Perhaps our society has progressed too far down the road to madness to make its way back. One of the measures of insanity is persistence in a course of action that consistently fails to yield positive results.

Return to Subject Index
Return to Table of Contents