Recently, I picked up one of my favorite books, Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille. This fascinating book explores how parenting practices have shaped societies and world events, including human rights abuses and ecological destruction. It’s a must read book for anyone interested in how child rearing creates the world in which we live.
As I was reading, I came across several passages detailing the work of Alice Miller. It made me realize just how often I see Miller referenced in contemporary books that deal with psychology, sociology, and the like.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Alice Miller is a Swiss psychologist whose insights on the consequences of child maltreatment—or as we would say today “adverse childhood experiences”—became highly influential after the publication of her book Prisoners of Childhood in 1979.
Miller claimed that most cases of addiction, neuroses, chronic depression, and a slew of other disorders were caused by buried feelings and unresolved trauma and grief related to some form of child abuse.
She wrote extensively on why she believed that these problems impacted not just the individual, but society as a whole. According to Miller, “Child abuse like beating and humiliating not only produces unhappy children, not only destructive teenagers and abusive parents, but thus also a confused, irrationally functioning society.” She concluded that all social and global problems, including worldwide violence and even warfare, were a direct manifestation of the early childhood maltreatment that led to this “confused, irrationally functioning society.”
In her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Miller hammers home her provocative stance that the root causes of ALL violence are a consequence of childhood trauma. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all children who are mistreated will unleash violence on society. Far from it! Nevertheless, according to Miller, we should all be wary of this powerful dynamic that unfolds again and again across the globe.
To make her case, Miller uses the example of Hitler’s childhood to show the genesis of his insatiable hatred, which, of course, resulted in the horrifying fate of the Jews in the Third Reich.
Specifically, Miller describes how the parenting manuals that were in vogue when Hitler and his Nazi collaborators were children belied extreme hostility to children. Parents were exhorted to “show no mercy” when it came to breaking the child’s will. Rather, parents were advised to withhold affection and enforce rigid obedience by whatever means necessary. Physical demonstrations of love were deplored, and using “the rod” was an absolute necessity in child rearing.
Surely not all German parents adhered to these austere standards, but plenty did, according to Miller. She writes that these disciplinary techniques, which she calls “poisonous pedagogy,” enforced a continuum of violence that reverberated throughout Nazi Germany.
Of course, the idea that war and genocide is a symptom of childhood trauma is not new or unique to Alice Miller. But because she speaks with such ferocity and clarity on the far reaching impact of psychological injury, I highly recommend For Your Own Good, which is utterly illuminating in its entirety. Her insights were ahead of her time, and this oldie-but-goodie remains an important reminder of how ACEs affect, sometimes dramatically, the world in which we all live.