Parenting in Jesus' Footsteps

Letter to an Expectant Father

by Norm Lee

Dear Patrick:

   Your excitement in anticipation of the birth of your first child - I heard it in your voice yesterday as we talked on the phone - took me right back 22 years when I, too, was about to become a father. So I admonished you, as I do all new parents,

   "Don't ever punish that child!"

   When I said that our two sons had been brought up successfully without punishment of any kind, you asked me to write about it for your magazine, John Holt's "Growing Without Schooling."

   Just as I was thinking, as you are now, what kind of parent I was going to be, and agonizing over the "duty" of "correcting behavior," something happened that changed my life: a copy of A. S. Neill's incredible book, SUMMERHILL - A Radical Approach to Childrearing, fell into my hands. Neill taught me how extraordinary the possibilities are when we really respect children, and place our trust in them and the democratic process.

   As a victim of severe child abuse at the hands of a brutal "guardian" in a freelance "foster home" (this was in the back hills of Vermont in the 30s), I could see, at first, few alternatives to "a good slap" or "a sound thrashing," when "needed." I had known no other. Abandoned by my mother at age four and by my father at age seven, I was "farmed out" to work for my keep.

   For five years I labored, serving as a front for a criminal abortion racket. I was beaten regularly and severely with a hardwood stick - for the "sin" of being a child. My indoctrination in the hellfire and brimstone of Christian fundamentalism forced the belief that, having been born in sin, I deserved the frequent beatings, the shaming and humiliation. Endure it without complaint, and my reward will be in heaven. Expect no happiness in this life.

   In college courses I discovered there were other ways of controlling a child's behavior. Yet, as a philosophy student, I was rankled by the question: Control for what purpose? And for whose? Later, as a public school teacher, I never used punishment, never sent a pupil to the principal, and yet had no problem with discipline. Nonetheless, as I approached fatherhood I assumed I would have to spank, determined as I was to be a "good father." (Such is the strength of the roles society assigns us.) But I couldn't accept that. Is there no better way of treating children? I asked.

   So I researched the psychology literature, and could find not one alternative to the behaviorists' reward and punishment, carrot-and-stick, conditioning. Any suggested alternatives to assault amounted to subterfuge, trickery, or outright lies. All seemed manipulative, exploiting advantages any adult has over the innocent and trusting. To me, those were all unethical, disrespectful, demeaning, and certainly harmful. If we can't make ourselves worthy of the child's trust, I asked, then who are we? If a child's faith in our word and our protection is not sacred, what is?

   Then I learned that almost all Americans, to some degree, have a deep emotional investment in dominating and exploiting children to meet their own emotional needs. And the reason they do, though not consciously, is to suppress the horrible memory of their own victimization as children.

   My own gulag-type experience, I saw, was no different in kind from 95% of all other children - only in degree. Nearly all children are either attacked with sticks, switches, paddles, and other weapons, as I was, or they were slapped, spanked, shaken, pinched, punched, and kicked. All were yelled at and suffered humiliation and indignities and told it was not only good for them, it was by Biblical command.

   Some children today endure "only" face slaps, spankings, "go to your rooms" and the now-popular "time-outs." Others, like me, barely escape with their lives. The list of those who don't survive it grows with every edition of the news. Despite the headlines, our ghastly tradition of physical and emotional violence against children continues.

Little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through that love?

  - John Holt

   A few years later, my college students, future teachers and parents, vehemently defended their "right," their DUTY, to force children, "in any way necessary," to submit to authority. Otherwise, they feared, the inmates would take over the home, the classroom, and/or the asylum. My sons, they argued, must be exceptional, or over-conditioned "robots." Or that I had exceptional patience, (a charge which invariably provoked laughter). Nothing would convince them that punishment was not necessary - until I brought my pre-school boys and their mother into the classroom. Henry and Russell, by their naturalness and authenticity, brought all argument to an end. Just by being genuine, they charmed their pants off.

   To go back: I began with vowing NEVER to use physical punishment. And for good reason: I could not risk releasing on children the rage within me, internalized by my earlier beatings. Then I became intrigued by the philosophical question: How can ANY punishment of children be justified -ethically or otherwise? I searched the literature for months - and could find no valid justification. The pro-punishment argument came down to this: The child must submit to our will, because children are born bad, and we must shape them to suit us and society. That, clearly, would not stand as valid on any grounds.

   When the babies came I realized I knew nothing. So I looked to them to teach me who they were, how they learn, and how they should be treated. Then my real education concerning childrearing began, for my sons taught me the most important things I know.

   My FIRST surprise came in discovering how EASY it is to raise children if they are not "taught lessons." I had imagined I would have to develop patience - of which I had not an ounce. To my astonishment, it didn't require any. The alternatives to punishment now seem obvious to me, and so much fun!

   The SECOND surprise was how well behaved, how spontaneous and enjoyable and lovable children can be when not living under the threat of violence or humiliation or "correction." And how they naturally search out what they need to learn - without lessons, without teaching or preaching or any sort of coercion. No "preparing for life," no "bending the twig," no shaping and forming. No authoritarian control.

   The THIRD big surprise was how HAPPY our family was in contrast to the suppression, the competitiveness, and the underlying resentment so evident in other homes, those heavy vibes that kill spontaneity and warmth. On witnessing the callousness and incivility dealt children in stores, homes and the street, my sons would whisper in shock and horror, "Daddy, why is that lady hitting that boy?"

   The FOURTH surprise to me was how quickly and eagerly they assumed the responsibility for their own behavior, how mature they were compared to others their ages. This quality is what impressed my students most.

   And the FIFTH and biggest surprise was how a simple change in my view and thinking - that is, dismissing as an option all punishment - brought about a positive and remarkable change in me as a person. Unburdened of father-authority-punisher self-concept, I was rapidly becoming a more understanding, a more compassionate, a more loving person. My colleagues and friends began commenting on it; I was a lot more enjoyable to be around, they said, - what happened?

    I felt better about myself, more self-accepting and approving, therefore I developed more tolerance, more compassion. I had more self-respect, confident now that I was not the kind of person who would exploit or harm any child. And I was greatly unburdened of the internal conflict between loving my children on the one hand, and inflicting pain in the name of "parental duty" on the other. I am now convinced that letting go of the punitive mentality can rapidly make any person happier, more self-accepting, and more understanding, even if they have no children of their own.

   Comes the inevitable question: So what did you DO instead of punishing, instead of spanking, say, for "disobeying" by running into the road? (Why is this always the example? It is the universal "justification" for walloping children - "for their own good.") Their mother and I recognized that punishing does not teach safety, it teaches fear. And all punishment forces the burden - sometimes life or death - squarely on the child, conveniently allowing the parent to avoid responsibility for the safety of the child. ("I TOLD him not to run into the road!")

   The boys and I decided to install an inexpensive three-foot high wire fence (see PWP Chapter One) around the front yard where they could play in safety, in view and within earshot of the kitchen. During the times we walked near traffic, we held their hands, with no fear-talk about getting run over, killed, so forth. Instead of the bedtime tantrums we saw in other homes, we developed an evening routine of clean-up, sitting on laps and story reading plus music listening. In our weekly family meetings, bedtime was negotiated, arrived at by consensus. With shared authority, there was no problem. The clock, not the parents, announced time for bed. No tears, no hassle.

   In family meetings, everything was fair game for questioning, for discussion and negotiation - with one exception: Health and Safety. Here we, as parents, reserved dictatorial control. The message was clear and firm: "We are responsible for your growing up safely and in good health. It is our job to protect you, even from yourself if necessary, and we intend to do a good job of it. But unless we can justify a given instance as a matter of either health or safety, no one has a right to interfere with your chosen activities."

Countries That Forbid Any Form of Physical Punishment of Children:

Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Croatia, Latvia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Iceland

   The boys readily accepted that - indeed they were delighted with limits that made sense, combined with a general freedom to follow their interests. We sometimes explained dangers, but without instilling fear. We rarely announced rules to obey. What few rules there were came out of family meeting decisions. The boys were then able to enjoy their childhood, with its serious business of play, and know the security of parental care.

   The alternative to punishment is not neglect, as so many parents assume - and even seem to wish. It is not "permissiveness," the claim of those who know only the extremes of punishment and neglect. The alternative to punishment is accepting the RESPONSIBILITY of providing a growing-up environment free from fear, free from hazards, and free from domination, and not forcing it on the children with punishment.

   Don't forget to send me a birth announcement. If you ever think it "necessary" to inflict punishment in any form on your child, give me a call first. - Norm 

UP-DATE: Henry and Russell, now ages 35 and 36 [2000], live happy and fulfilling lives with their respective successful careers and families. Both earned college degrees, neither went to jail despite all the dire warnings from friends, colleagues and students that they would tear out the drapes, dump paint in my typewriter, and set fire to the cat.

P.S.: Henry and his wife have made me a grandfather. To all of us, the idea of punishing little Charlotte is unthinkable.

Why We Can't Wait

I AM PUBLISHING THESE CHAPTERS BECAUSE we need to get serious about making changes in how children are viewed and treated. We cannot wait yet another generation to reduce the hatred and violence in our fast-deteriorating society, and because the price of punishment is too high in human suffering. For most of my life there was at least the excuse that we didn't know any better. But serious large-scale research on the long-term effects of punishment began in the 1940s, and during the past 25 years overwhelming evidence has been amassed showing the counter-productive nature of punishment. The cost in human suffering is beyond calculation, the cost to taxpayers amounts to billions of dollars annually in medical care and therapy responses to spouse-bashing, mental illness, large-scale clinical depression, plus a justice system to deal with nearly every adolescent criminal offense from date-rape to murder. America's War On Children has gone on far too long.


1. the child's love for you

2. self-esteem, self-respect, self-acceptance - the child's, and yours

3. the child's respect for you

4. the child's capacity to live a healthy life with minimum stress and internal conflicts

5. the ability to accept responsibility

6. the capacity to love another person, or themselves

7. the right to a happy, loving home, safe from fear

8. the child's creative drive, learning - , and later, earning - power

9. the chances of growing up to be non-violent parents and spouses

10 their parents' chances of evolving into happy, stress-free human beings

NETWORK NEWS & NOTICES Websites worth visiting: is Jordan Riak's organization, PTAVE (Parents And Teachers Against Violence in Education). His booklet, "Plain Talk About Spanking" has been read by thousands nation-wide. His non-profit and the one below are vital supporters in our local effort during April.

The Annual Spank-Out Day - April 30 - is sponsored by EPOCH-USA's Center For Effective Discipline (

Continuing Narrative: The Strange Case of the Children Who Were Not Punished

Crayons on the walls.

   The lovely old farmhouse we lived in had beautiful oak frames around each door. Henry and Russell had just begun drawing on them when I happened by.

  "Orange door frames?" I asked. "That won't do." But how can we draw on the walls with our crayons? Henry wanted to know.

   "Well, let's figure out how that can be possible," I said. The discussion ranged from coloring books, to large sheets of newspaper on the dining room table, to maybe bidding on an easel at an auction, if there was an auction with one and no one else bid on it. But the discussion always returned to the desire to draw "standing up" and drawing large-scale. Admittedly the wall was perfect for that. "How about if the wall has the paper on it?" someone - I think it was I - said.

   "We don't have paper big enough," came the objection.

   "Then where can we find big-enough paper?" Further talk brought us to newspapers again, but it was already "drawn on" - with ink. What about newsprint, newspapers before it was covered with ink? Where can we find some? The newspaper printing plant! A quick search in the phone book, and a fast phone call gave us the information we needed: Yes, they had "end rolls" of newsprint they'd give us cheap. A trip to the plant and $3 got us all the paper we'd ever need.

   We began on one corner of the dining room, exactly the place they had begun drawing on the woodwork, and proceeded, masking-taping our way, all around the room, skipping the doorways, of course. Then the entire family joined the "crayon party." After a week or so we tired of looking at it, tore it down, put up fresh paper, and did it again. What a great time we had!

   That went on for several days. When it was over, it was over. They never again wrote or drew on the walls, or even mentioned the idea.

From "Parenting Without Punishing," Chapter 2, copyright 2002, by Norm Lee.  Reprinted by permission from the author.

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