Letter to an Expectant Father
by Norm Lee
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
SUMMERHILL - A Radical Approach to Childrearing, fell into my hands.
taught me how extraordinary the possibilities are when we really
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
four and by my father at age seven, I was "farmed out" to work for my
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
Christian fundamentalism forced the belief that, having been born in
sin, I deserved
the frequent beatings, the shaming and humiliation. Endure it without
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
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
I would have to spank, determined as I was to be a "good father." (Such
strength of the roles society assigns us.) But I couldn't accept that.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, -
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
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
near traffic, we held their hands, with no fear-talk about getting run
killed, so forth. Instead of the bedtime tantrums we saw in other
developed an evening routine of clean-up, sitting on laps and story
plus music listening. In our weekly family meetings, bedtime was
at by consensus. With shared authority, there was no problem. The
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
health or safety, no one has a right to interfere with your chosen
Countries That Forbid Any Form of Physical Punishment
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
punishment is accepting the RESPONSIBILITY of providing a growing-up
environment free from fear, free from hazards, and free from
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 , 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
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
fast-deteriorating society, and because the price of punishment is too
human suffering. For most of my life there was at least the excuse that
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
has been amassed showing the counter-productive nature of punishment.
The cost in human suffering is beyond calculation, the cost to
amounts to billions of dollars annually in medical care and therapy
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.
PUNISHMENT DIMINISHES OR DESTROYS:
1. the child's love for you
2. self-esteem, self-respect, self-acceptance - the child's,
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
9. the chances of growing up to be non-violent parents and
10 their parents' chances of evolving into happy, stress-free
NETWORK NEWS & NOTICES Websites worth visiting:
www.nospank.net is Jordan Riak's organization, PTAVE (Parents And
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 (www.stophitting.org).
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
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
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
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
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
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.