For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

Alice Miller is a Swiss psychoanalyst who seemingly writes from the perspective of a primal theorist rather than from that of a Freudian. Her writings have always reflected her own pain, and soon after writing For Your Own Good , she published Pictures of a Childhood: Sixty-Six Watercolors and An Essay. It was the feelings triggered by the paintings, illustrated in that book, which ultimately led her into primal therapy.

But even though For Your Own Good is from her psychoanalytic days, you won't read anything in it about the id, drives or complexes; nor does it contain psychoanalytic jargon. What it does have is much good material about the long term damage of early childhood hurts suffered by children as a result of abuse from their parents. For Your Own Good was on the bestseller lists in Germany for more than 120 months when it was published. It was translated into English about ten years' ago.

The author feels that early mistreatment of children can result in neurosis, psychosis or psychosomatic disease but concentrates her efforts in showing how a damaged childhood can be the source of psychopathic violence. Since the end of World War II, she was haunted by the dual questions of the motivation of Adolph Hitler in not only gassing millions of people but also about how easy it was for German citizens to acclaim him and assist him in carrying out his plan. Her answer to this question forms the core of the book. Besides examining the childhood of Hitler, she also analyzes the childhood of a young prostitute and drug addict and a sadistic child murderer.

Alice Miller traces the history of child rearing in Germany for the past two centuries and concludes that the source of criminality and of war itself lies in the abuse of children by their parents. Books on child rearing written during that period are quoted extensively and illustrate how beatings were used to condition children.

Centuries ago helpful advice was given to parents to encourage them to eliminate obstinacy, defiance and natural exuberance from their children's lives. Dr. Miller states that the parents' motives then were the same as they are today: to condition and manipulate the child and then to rationalize that it is done for the child's own good. This process she terms "poisonous pedagogy.''

The use of humiliation (which satisfies the needs of the parents) destroys the child's self-confidence. To suppress crying and feeling, the parents were told to reward stoicism and self-control. Childhood excitement was considered a vice, and "inhibition of life'' was extolled as a virtue. Even the expression of natural maternal feelings were characterized as doting.

In order to satisfy the normal childhood curiosity of the differences between the sexes, one author suggested the viewing of naked corpses in order to evoke solemnity and reflection and thus combat the sex drive. We may sum up these early instructions in child rearing thusly: The child must be made to understand that parents are always right and the needs of the child should not be responded to since it will not prepare them for the rigors of life.

The author delves into the background of Adolph Hitler's henchmen. She notes that they had been successfully trained to be obedient so that feelings for the atrocities they performed never emerged. At their trials, all of the war criminals pleaded that they were simply following orders. The morality of their orders was never questioned.

Eichmann was able to listen to highly emotional testimony at his trial in Israel with no feeling whatsoever, yet blushed when it was pointed out to him that he had forgotten to stand when his verdict was read. Rudolf Hess, the commandant of Aushwitz, was reared to be a Catholic missionary. He was taught to be obedient to authority so it should have been no surprise that he ran the death camp as he had been ordered to do. Similar attitudes were held by Heinrich Heimmler who deplored the shooting of animals for sport but who had no feelings for those people who were not citizens of the Third Reich.

Miller believes that people with sensitivity to feelings could not be turned into mass murderers overnight. Only the children of authoritarian parents are able to believe that their parents are always right and must be obeyed. She theorizes that if Hitler had had children against whom to direct his feelings for revenge, World War II might not have happened. She considers but rejects Lloyd de Mause's theory of war as a disconnected feeling of traumatic birth.

Hitler's followers looked to him as a child does to a father who knows what to do. Hitler to them was God-like, all knowing and infallible. Non-Germans were never able to understand the power this prancing little man had on the masses. His weaknesses were easy to see. But the Germans could not see through his theatrical gestures. The more pompous he become, the more he was admired. His inadequacies were not seen by children reared according to the precepts of strict obedience.

Miller feels that present-day German parents still believe that "sparing the rod spoils the child'' since two-thirds of the people recent polled in Germany believe that corporal punishment is necessary, good and correct for children. She states that 60% of modern-day German terrorists are the product of Protestant ministers' homes.

The author believes that during their lives, most people go through five psychological stages:

  • As a small child to be hurt and not recognizing the fact.
  • Failing to react to suffering with appropriate anger.
  • Showing gratitude to the parents for their supposedly good intentions.
  • Forgetting everything.
  • Discharging the stored-up anger onto others in adulthood or directing it against oneself.

Like most psychoanalysts, Dr. Miller feels that insight (which she terms the "aha'' reaction) is sufficient to stop the parent from continuing the chain of neurosis to the next generation. She feels (I should say she felt, since the book was written before she went into primal therapy) that the solution to the problem of criminality is education and that there is power in knowledge. There indeed is power in knowledge but the problem is not there is even more power in unfelt repressed Pain.

When insight battles primal Pain, insight will lose every round. After the parent mistreats his child he might offer an apology based on his newly acquired insight. So now the child must try to understand and forgive his parent. How can the child be hurt or angry at such an insightful, well intentioned parent?

Miller ends the preface to the American edition of her book with these words: "And if we are courageous enough to face the truth, the world will change for the power of that 'poisonous pedagogy' which has dominated us for so long has been dependent upon our fear, our confusion, and our childish credulity; once it is exposed to the light of truth, it will inevitably disappear.''

Unfortunately, it just isn't quite that simple. However, it is the beginning.

For Your Own Good is available free for downloading or reading at