About fifteen years ago I read a book by Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, a book that left a lasting impression on me. Miller was a psychoanalyst who, after twenty years of practicing psychoanalysis came to the realization that she could do more good by writing about the parent-child relationship for the general public. Her earlier work had led her to the conclusion that parents and teachers can harm children even when they believe they are acting in the best interest of the child.
I was particularly struck by her descriptions of child-rearing in Germany a century ago. Miller cited the work of Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, the inventor of the Schrebergärten (the German word for “small allotments”) and whose widely read books had an enormous 摺檯 influence of the way parents treated their children.
One of Schreber’s convictions was that when babies cry they should be stopped by the use of spanking, assuring his readers that “such a procedure is only necessary once, or at the most twice, and then one is master of the child for all time. From then on, one look, one single gesture will suffice.”
In effect, the experts of that period were saying that children were essentially little savages who needed to be tamed for their own good. Moreover, the abuse required for this taming process would simply fade from their minds once they matured into “civilized” adulthood; childhood experiences mattered only as a means to that end.
As Miller writes, “Many people – motivated by what they thought to be the best of intentions – complied with the advice given them by Schreber and other authors about how best to raise their children. Today we would call it a systematic instruction in child persecution and maltreatment.” Indeed physical punishment of children was finally officially condemned the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998.
But there is absolutely no reason to think that German parents a hundred years ago loved their children any less that parents do now. They certainly did not set out to harm their children. They were simply using “approved” methods in much the same way that parents today rely on the advice available to them.
Intellectual honesty requires that we be open to the possibility that a century from now, some of our own parenting practices will be seen as having been as harmful as we today view those of 19th century Germany.
My own personal candidate for such a negative “look back” lies in field of posture – specifically the factors influencing postural development in our children and the ways in which parents and our schools attempt to promote good posture.
Most parents of school-aged children have become aware in recent years of the increasing weights their children are expected to carry to and from school in their backpacks. There has even been some discussion in the popular press about the harmful effects these packs have on the development of childrens’ posture.
Nonetheless at the same time, some middle and high schools are now being built without storage lockers – presumably to prevent students from storing drugs – thereby forcing them to carry these overweight packs from class to class. All the while their packs get heavier and heavier.
As I write this, I can picture a small child I recently noticed on his way to school. He was probably nine or ten years old. I suppose he would be about four feet tall if he were standing normally. But he wasn’t, thanks to his immense backpack. It was so heavy that his whole body curved sharply forward as he trudged along the sidewalk. He looked a little like an undersized and overloaded Sherpa on his way to Mt. Everest!