The Message of Violence

A Conspiracy Against Children

“How can people love themselves if the message that they were not worth loving was drummed into them at an early stage? If they were beaten black and blue to make them into a different person? If they had it impressed on them that they were a nuisance to their parents, and that nothing in the world would ever change their parents’ dislike and anger?”—Alice Miller, Out of the Prison of Self-Blame1

The message violence sends is that we may use violence ourselves as a means to ‘correct’ others who don’t do what we want.2 Not without reason, from an early age, beaten children pass on the violence they experience to their own brothers and sisters.3 Hitting hurts, but later in life, the effects of emotional and verbal violence cause greatest psychological problems.

The societal effects of violence against children are difficult to oversee. Childhood beatings increase the chance of mental disorders in adulthood.4 Corporal punishment destroys a child’s self-confidence: their whole lives long, they’ll make fewer friends and have fewer relationships.5 In adulthood, they’ll develop “a higher chance of depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, [and] various personality disorders.”6

Fleeing to the Top

In 1953, sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New-Zealander Edmund Hillary were the first to reach the top of the Mount Everest. What kind of people feel attracted to this superhuman beating by the forces of nature? Certainly, in the early days of mountaineering, the climb to the top demanded more than mere perseverance, but especially self-sacrifice.

Is it possible that some pilgrims not only came to enjoy the view, but that they sought healing in the blows of the icy wind for deeply hidden mental wounds? National hero Sir Edmund Hillary strengthens this presumption in an interview:

“My father really wasn’t very interested in adventurous activities. He was a man of very strong beliefs. The climbing of mountains he probably regarded as a bit of a waste of time. I fought with my father, and I would usually end up being taken over to the woodshed and being given a good thumping. I’m rather proud of the fact that I never actually admitted I was wrong, even if I had been.”7

His entire youth, Edmund suffered from the physical beatings by his own father, Percy Hillary, who had returned from the First World War several years before the birth of his famous son. He had participated in the Battle for Gallipoli.

The war had mentally damaged Percy to such an extent that he would never be cured from shell-shock, the condition known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. On a daily basis, Percy would beat his sons for the smallest irregularities, for example the time when Percy had discovered several grapes were missing from his grape tree. Edmund hadn’t picked them, but in the woodshed, he endured the heaviest beatings for it.

The admissions create the image of a teenage boy who was forced to flee to great mental heights in order to overcome his father’s sadistic violence. As an adult, out of his own movement, Edmund would go looking for a repetition of his trauma on the barren peaks of the Andes, in an attempt to once more overcome his childhood pain.

In a frank interview from 2003, then 84-year-old Edmund claimed that the fights with his father had made him stronger, but also that he had never processed the emotional beatings from his childhood. Despite his hero status, his childhood humiliations had, in his own words, made him a shy man with low self-confidence.8 Even seventy years after a gym teacher had humiliated him in front of his classmates for his lanky body, he still felt true indignation.9

Edmund Hillary’s story tells us that while beaten children forget their pain, they cannot overcome emotional beatings on their own.10 If even a national hero failed to overcome childhood traumata of over half a century ago, what can we expect of mere mortals?

A Conspiracy Against Children

As one of the few scientist to do so, sociology professor Murray Straus researched the adverse effects of spanking children. According to the professor, this includes all spanking, hitting or beating, by hand or using some object targeting the child’s body, with the intention to cause pain, but not injury.11

Straus is disturbed by the lack of interest for his subject, “It is astonishing that even books about child abuse fail to discuss the role of spanking in causing physical abuse.”12

I discovered the professor is right. In the third edition of a widely cited handbook on child abuse by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), the authors included chapters on various forms of emotional, psychological and sexual maltreatment, but the expected chapter on various forms of physical abuse, and on the role spanking plays therein, is missing.

According to Straus, society, politics, religion and science are guilty of a “conspiracy of silence” to cover up the effects of, for example, blows to a child’s head.13 His own research shows that all types of beatings, including hitting a child’s body softly, can lead to more severe physical violence against children.14

Parents play down this more severe violence as well, using all sorts of euphemisms such as corrective measures or “discipline”.15 Another scientist complains that we “we can hit any or all of our children in our homes, schools, churches and in most child care institutions any time we wish to do so, provided we call our hitting ‘spankings,’ perform them with ‘good intentions’, and do not break any bones or bruise the flesh to excess in the process.”16

The child’s experience is always of secondary importance. Society looks at children through the eyes of adults, while we completely ignore the pain and the shock a small child can feel, even when softly hit on the fingers.17

That’s in the interest of parents who don’t wish to give up their monopoly on violence. Even political policy makers who speak of children’s rights often really mean the rights of parents over their children.18 To defend the monopoly on violence, parents come up with the excuse that they only hurt their child for its own good, for example, to protect it from a fireplace or to prevent a child from running into a busy road.

Good Intentions

However, a parent’s good intentions don’t protect a child against the emotional damage of a rough treatment. It’s better to hold the child normally and explain it with words that something is dangerous. Peggy O’Mara writes in Natural Family Living:

“Hitting is never the best way to teach a child. Even in the case of real danger—as when a child runs out into the road—you can grab him, sit him down, look him in the eyes, and tell him why he must never do that again. The panic in your voice will communicate your message much more effectively than any spanking. You can be dramatic without being abusive.”19

Parents who beat their children also appear to be less good parents in other areas.20 They tend to resort to negative modes of parenting rather than talking to their child in order to explain undesired behavior, even though talking stimulates the growth of a child’s brain. Neurological research shows that hitting the head damages brain development.21 In other words, disciplinary spanking isn’t disciplinary at all, but disastrous to a child’s healthy mental development.

Children who grow up with violence only temporarily behave as desired in order to avoid new beatings, but the only thing they learn is that they must hide their behavior from their parents. Moreover, beaten children are less willing to take after their parents.22 It’s no wonder that parents complain about children not wanting to listen!

Legal Ban

In 1979, Sweden, introducing a legal ban, became the first country in the world to recognize that children have a right to be brought up free from violence. The progressive country of the Netherlands followed thereafter with a small legislative alignment on April 25th, 2007, of which the re-aligned text reads:

“By caring for and raising children is meant, among others, the care and the responsibility for the mental and physical well-being, and the safety of the child, as well as promoting the development of its personality. In the care and upbringing of the child, parents do not apply mental or physical violence, or any other kind of humiliating treatment.”23

Dutch law forbids “violence, or any other kind of humiliating treatment” against children, but the interpretation of the word ‘violence’ leaves room for all sorts of disciplinary hitting, for example on fingers and hands, or even ‘well-intended’ hitting of the child’s head or its bottom. The law falls short, because it doesn’t not stop parents who were beaten as children themselves from persevering in the belief that spanking would sometimes be necessary to discipline a child.24

After all, these parents beaten as children turned out alright, didn’t they? Moreover, they will argue, the blows didn’t hurt them, because they were dealt out of love. What beaten people forget is that as children they learned to suppress the pain of the blows. They carry over that message to their children.

The Family as the Source of Violence

It’s a myth to think only “bad guys” maltreat children. Because modern family members live close together in small town-homes and city apartments, they can’t avoid each others’ anger, contempt or manipulations. Because of that, everywhere in the world, children grow up with violence by their own parents, or other adult family members, which makes violence part of the early life experience of entire generations of people.25

Not the dangerous world outside, but the home environment harbors the greatest threat of violence, “[People] run a greater risk of being attacked, beaten or killed by their own family members than by outsiders. This worrying fact is especially true for children.”26

Murray Straus researched how often American parents hit their children. He discovered that in the period from 1957 to 2000 almost 99 percent of all children had been punished by their parents with beatings to the body.27 Parents not only hit small children, but also their teens. Nearly sixty percent of all American teens regularly took beatings. The violence didn’t stop until they went to live on their own.28

Parents who beat their children do so most often between ages three to four, but because of that, as adults, people have greatest trouble to call to mind memories from that period.29 That doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten the beatings. By then, the effects of violence have already been stored in the nerve paths of the developing brain. These children grow up with the ingrained message that violence is ‘good’, with the result that the interplay between parent and child unintentionally maintains a cycle of violence.30

Parents are inclined to underestimate the frequency of their beatings. They think they hit their children several times a year, at most, but Straus suspected that the real numbers must be much higher. During an interview with young mothers, for example, the interviewer determined that seven percent of all mothers had beaten their children even during the interview. In reality, most children that are beaten receive such beatings over 150 times a year—on average every other day of their life, a young life long.31

The safe haven the family is supposed to be, appears to many children as the source of violence in the world. No wonder people still go to war!


1 Alice Miller, “Aus Dem Gefängnis Der Schuldgefühle,” oktober 2005, http://www.alice-miller.com/artikel_de.php?nid=39.
2 Murray A. Straus and Denise A. Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001), 9.
3 Heather A. Turner and David Finkelhor, “Corporal Punishment as a Stressor among Youth,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58, no. February (1996): 156.
4 Harriet L. MacMillan et al., “Slapping and Spanking in Childhood and Its Association with Lifetime Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders in a General Population Sample,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 161, no. 7 (1999): 805.
5 Turner and Finkelhor, “Corporal Punishment as a Stressor among Youth,” 156.
6 Tracie O. Afifi et al., “Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US Sample,” Pediatrics, July 2, 2012.
7 Leanne Pooley, Beyond the Edge, 2014.
8 Ibid.
9 Anthony Hubbard, “Sir Edmund Hillary: Kiwi Legend: 1919-2008,” Sunday Star Times, January 1, 2009, http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/212689....
10 Freda Briggs and Russel Hawkins, Child Protection: A Guide for Teachers and Child Care Professionals (St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1997).
11 Straus and Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, 4–5.
12 Ibid., 13.
13 Ibid., 10–14.
14 Ibid., 81–97.
15 Murray A. Straus, “Is It Time to Ban Corporal Punishment of Children?,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 161, no. 7 (1999): 822.
16 John E. Valusek, “People Are Not for Hitting and Children Are People Too,” Empathic Parenting 22, no. 1 (1999).
17 Straus and Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, 5.
18 Maud De Boer-Buquicchio, “Being a Parent Is Not a License to Hurt,” New Europe, maart 2009.
19 Peggy O’Mara, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting (Simon and Schuster, 2000), 198.
20 Melissa K. Runyon and Anthony J. Urquiza, “Child Physical Abuse: Interventions for Parents Who Engage in Coercive Parenting Practices and Their Children,” in The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, ed. John E.B. Myers, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2011), 195.
21 Murray A. Straus and Mallie J. Paschall, “Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Development of Children’s Cognitive Ability: A Longitudinal Study of Two Nationally Representative Age Cohorts,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 18 (2009): 460.
22 Ibid., 460–61.
23 Artikel 1:247 lid 2 van het Burgerlijk Wetboek.
24 Murray A. Straus, “Corporal Punishment and Primary Prevention of Physical Abuse,” Child Abuse & Neglect 24, no. 9 (2000): 1112.
25 Straus and Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, 22.
26 Sandra A. Graham-Bermann and Kathryn H. Howell, “Child Maltreatment in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence,” in The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, ed. John E.B. Myers, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2011), 169.
27 Straus and Paschall, “Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Development of Children’s Cognitive Ability: A Longitudinal Study of Two Nationally Representative Age Cohorts,” 460.
28 Straus and Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, 3.
29 MacMillan et al., “Slapping and Spanking in Childhood and Its Association with Lifetime Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders in a General Population Sample,” 809.
30 O’Mara, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting, 189.
31 Straus and Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, 25.

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The Message of Violence by Mathijs Koenraadt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.