Poisonous Pedagogy

Presenter: Isa Helfield

International Conference on Women and Literacy – January, 2001



Childrearing practices are the basis for adult personality and as literacy practitioners, we must question and seek understanding of those factors in our students’ lives that have influenced or affected their learning.   I would like to suggest that it is crucial that educators realize that childhood and adulthood are not two disparate spheres but rather that adulthood is a stage in life that is determined by childhood.  I suggest that both an examination of society’s attitude towards children (as reflected in our homes and schools), and also a study of the history of childhood itself are crucial if we want to help our present day adult students (as well as those of future generations) learn and go forward in their lives.  I suggest that as educators we must address the humanity of our students if we want to affect any real change in their ability to learn and live productive lives.  


The history of childhood has been largely ignored.  Such determined avoidance must be examined, for a society’s childrearing practices are not just items in a list of cultural traits.  They are the very condition for the transmission and development of all other cultural elements and place definite limits on what can be achieved in all other spheres of human endeavour. 


Few insights gained in the last twenty years are so securely established as the realization that what we do to children when they are small-good things and bad things –will later form part of their behavioral repertoire.  Battered children will batter others, punished children will act punitively, children lied to will become liars themselves, protected children will learn to be protective, and respected children will learn to respect others weaker than themselves. 


Alice Miller, in her book, For Your Own Good, examines the ways in which society views children.  She delves into the history of pedagogical practices from the eighteenth century onwards, and indicates how they provided breeding grounds for hatred.  The pedagogy promoted the idea that children be regarded as property, and legitimized the power basis of the parent-child relationship.  According to Alice Miller, it is the parents’ conscious, uncontrolled and covert exercise of power over their children that is the primal source of all contempt and discrimination.  Except in extreme cases -i.e. murder- this unrestrained use of power is tolerated by society; what adults do to the spirit of their own children is totally their own affair.  Unless and until we become sensitized to the child’s suffering, states Alice Miller, the wielding of power by adults will continue to be regarded as a normal aspect of the human condition. 


The pedagogy practiced by parents and teachers was poisonous because it called for the destruction of a child’s will and the murder of his soul.  Obedience to authority was believed to be of prime importance, the basis of all education, so that willfulness and wickedness were to be eliminated in a child’s very first year of life.  Love of order was to be instilled by the age of two.  The suppression of the child’s emotion, of the child’s vitality, of his desire to know, was considered necessary pedagogical practice.  Since it was believed that the things that happen to a child at an early age would never be remembered, parents and teachers did not realize there would be serious consequences to such practices.


They could not have been more wrong.  Things we do not remember make us sick.  If the child must risk losing love in order to feel, he will repress his emotion, and it is this repressed emotion, the defence mechanism of the vulnerable child, that becomes fateful in the adult.  Repressed emotion lives in the body, inexperienced, but powerful nonetheless.  It produces feelings of abandonment, feelings of despair that are so dreaded, that the adult turns to alcoholism, criminality, drugs, or sexual perversion as defence mechanisms against feeling them.  Repression of anger and hatred leads to the destruction of one’s own children and fellow human beings, and to the acceptance of abuse as a normal way of life.


Poisonous pedagogy is a term that reflects the complex practices of childrearing that perpetuate the generational abuse of children.  In order for a child to develop naturally, he needs respect from his caregivers, awareness of his needs and feelings, and authenticity on the part of his parents.  Disrespect functions as a defence against unwanted feelings and, if it goes unchecked, is transferred to our own children when we see our childhood selves in them.  This means that, as adults, we must face our own history.  We have to break down our own walls of repression and develop feelings of empathy for the child within.


Today authors carefully mask the importance of gaining control over the child and replace the practice of physical abuse with a form of mental cruelty hidden under the term of childrearing.  Without a doubt, the values of the parents of the present generation have changed.  They don’t adhere to the concepts of absolute obedience, coercion, lack of feeling and severity.  However, they have trouble dealing with the repression of their own childhood, often idealizing it.  As a consequence, they lack empathy; and empathy for the self is key.  Without it all appeals to love, solidarity and compassion will be useless.


Present day society is callously indifferent to the suffering of children. There is no empathy. When Quebecers, for instance, permit their government to ignore social reality and to pretend that a fraction of the required budget for child protection is perfectly sufficient, despite the massive increase in child suicide (300% among 10 to 14 year-olds from 1975-1998, for example), they are not only demonstrating a complete lack of empathy but also a determined avoidance of the truth about childhood: for many children, it is an ordeal that has to be survived.   Society so fervently idealizes the notion of childhood that we unknowingly live our lives blind to the brutal reality of these children’s existence.   We fail to realize that while the notion of childhood has been protected….the children themselves have not.



Many members of our society are responsible for perpetuating this attitude.  Official biographers ignore the importance of childhood by rarely examining the early years of the people about whom they are writing. Somehow they fail to understand that the child is father to the man.  Literary historians, mistaking books for life, construct a fictional picture of childhood, as though one can tell what really happened in the nineteenth-century home by reading Tom Sawyer. Even teachers - individuals professionally involved with children - devote themselves to the organization and curricula of the schools, and to various theories of education, with only occasional reference to what actually happens to the children at home or in the world at large. But it is the social historian, whose job it is to dig out the reality of the social conditions of the past, who steadfastly turns his eyes away from the truth.  When one social historian described mothers who regularly beat their children with sticks while they were still in the cradle and commented without any evidence that “if their discipline was stern, it was even and just and leavened with kindness;” when another refuted the opinion that mothers who dunked their infants into ice water each morning to “strengthen” them were cruel, one can only conclude that to the social historian, no practice in the past seems anything but benign.


            In actual fact, the history of childhood is a nightmare.  It tells of the heartless treatment of children from the practice of infanticide and abandonment through to the rigours of swaddling, purposeful starvation, beatings, solitary confinement and sexual abuse.  There is considerable evidence that whenever there were selective or neglective factors in place, especially in the earlier medieval centuries, girls were at a disadvantage: they were not valued in a military or agricultural society and were even more at risk if they were illegitimate, physically deformed or mentally retarded.  These children were regarded as changelings, the work of another powerful enemy of children, the devil.


For example, prior to the 12th C. there was no concern for the education of daughters unless they were given to the monastery. Early marriage was the destiny of those girls who did not enter monastic life. The choice was rarely theirs to make; decisions were made by parents who based them on practical reasons rather than on the desires and feelings of their children.  Girls were married extremely young, the minimum age for girls was twelve.  Many women came to marriage as frightened children in which physical brutality and rejection were far from uncommon.  Conjugal affection was a happy accident rather than a natural condition.  The authority and power of the husband was absolute.  In a model marriage, a woman’s submissiveness to her husband’s authority was emphasized.  She was described as pious, dutiful, accepting of burdens and responsibilities and devoted to the spiritual development of their children. She had no authority over herself. To women, marriage was regarded as a state to be endured.  Many turned to (ran to) the security of religious life, once they were widowed.  Many others were sent screaming to a monastery at the age of 12, hands and feet tied. 


By the 17th century, more attention was paid to the inner world of the child.  Self-control was demanded rather than good behaviour by external control.  Method for disciplining girls at this time was the use of shame.  There was an attempt to make them feel guilty.  At Port Royal, France, little girls as young as four were taught to follow a schedule wholly dedicated to putting individual consciences in the service of God.  Body language, as well as the spoken word, was censored by the pedagogue.  Emotions were not to be revealed by movement of the forehead, eyebrows or cheeks. 


Noble adolescent girls became mothers, and often had several children, not all of which would survive.  Lactation could not interfere with fertility so babies were sent to wet nurses.  Female babies survived more often in urban areas.  A threat to the survival of the babies of the poor was that it was believed that the milk that was produced for female babies was superior to that produced for males.  Many poor women made their living by wet – nursing so that many female babies were thrown out.   Incredible abandonment of children existed at this time.


Certainly, there have always been parents who have loved and nurtured their children and who may have made bad mistakes with their upbringing due to ignorance rather than ill will.  But children have always been the victims of forces over which they have had no control, and have been abused in many imaginable and even some almost unimaginable ways.  Indeed, the further back in history one goes, the lower the level of childcare; a large percentage of children born prior to the 18th century would be considered battered children by today’s standards.  And yet despite the gradual emergence of a more humanitarian attitude, too many children still suffer lives waning from neglect and brutality.  Callously, the Quebec government turns a blind eye and refuses to provide sufficient, stable funding to the very agency that was created to protect them.


The fact that society continues to tolerate child abuse raises the question of our attitude towards children. It has always been ambiguous.  In the past, children have been loved and hated, rewarded and punished, considered bad and loving all at once.  They are, and have always been, completely vulnerable to the physical and emotional aggression of adults.  Indeed, children are often regarded as parental property and except in extreme cases – murder, for example – the power relationship between parent and child goes unquestioned: what the adult does to the spirit of his own child is totally his own affair. 


Until we become more sensitive to the suffering of children, the wielding of power by adults will continue to be seen as a normal aspect of the human condition.  Instead of focusing on matters of control, i.e. the right levels of strictness or permissiveness, we must learn to respect the child and concentrate on her needs, her feelings, her individuality.  It is urgent that we do so, for disrespect, passed on from one generation to the next, leads to destructive behaviour.  Psychosis, drug addiction, and criminality are all encoded expressions of the early experience of abuse.


It has been said that whoever asks about our childhood wants to know something about our soul.  Society must take time to inquire.