Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

Open Letter to the President of the United States of America

Letter to the President George W. Bush
January 2001

Dear Mr President,

In view of your expressed commitment to improving the quality of American education I regard it as my duty to bring to your attention important new information about child development and learning that is unfortunately not yet widely enough known to the majority of our population: The brains of beaten children show deficits, even lesions that can already clearly be seen on the screens of computers.

This information changes the basis of all discussions about the legitimacy of using corporal punishment on children and will sooner or later change our judgment about what can be called criminal or not. Legal definitions that typically set "physical injury" as the threshold at which so-called "discipline" becomes child abuse have now taken on a new meaning. However, the general public, and probably most people in education policy-making fields, remain unaware of these recent discoveries, specifically about how fear experienced in early childhood adversely effects brain development and about the life-long effects of the resulting impairments to learning. The consequences of this fear, of punitive violence, are indeed also physical and, moreover, permanent.

It is true that many children often beaten by their parents at home are difficult to discipline at school because corporal punishment makes them obedient in the short term but more aggressive later. At school they display the same violence they have been taught at home. Thus, using the same destructive method and repeating this brain-damaging behavior will only add fuel to the flames.

Combating violence at school, by giving teachers legal support for paddling disturbed children, is therefore a case of putting the coach before the horse.

Like many well-informed experts of today, I believe that instead of encouraging teachers to use damaging methods and thus display their own weakness and helplessness toward young people who have already been harmed by their parents, we should promulgate a law that forbids parents to hit their children so that these children can grow up without fear. They will then be able to develop their full brain potential, learn with interest, and to cope with challenges, as they crop up. And if teachers refrain from using violence, even those children with a history of beatings at home, will not be driven by those past experiences to provoke their teachers in order to avenge the humiliations they have endured by being maltreated at an age when they are at their most vulnerable.

Paddling children at school who have been beaten at home only repeats the old trauma, with severe consequences to society, such as criminal tendencies and mental illness. Research done by Drs. Bruce D. Perry, Bessel van der Kolk, Martin Teicher, Megan Gunnar and many, many others provide incontrovertible proof of causal relationship between early trauma and the risk of subsequent brain impairment. Dr. Gunnar writes: "We don't know when the door of the brain's plasticity closes".

This is not speculation. These changes have been monitored, measured and studied on the researcher's instruments.

I very much hope that you will be able to take the time to reconsider your intentions of supporting the teachers in their "right" to discipline children by means of corporal punishment.

Sincerely yours,
Alice Miller

February 2001 : This letter was sent to the White House in January 2001. It is now published as an Open Letter after it has remained unanswered. The same happened with the following letter to the First Lady.

Letter to the First Lady, Laura Bush
February 2001

Dear Mrs Bush,

As an author of books on the roots of violence in childhood I take the liberty of sending you the letter my publisher addressed to the President, Mr. George W. Bush and of asking you to confirm its reception, if possible. I can imagine that many people now look for your help to get some attention for the various problems that life presents to them and that you have to protect yourself and your family from all kind of intrusion.

However, since I read that you are interested in infancy I was thinking again and again that I should at least try to contact you and to confront you with the problem of what I call parental emotional blindness. This blindness, the result of their own upbringing, doesn't allow millions of parents to see the fear and suffering they inflict on their own children by spanking them nor to understand the damage they create by insisting that they do it for their children's own good. In this way, the far-reaching error has persisted for generations. Spanking creates fear. In a state of fear the children's attention is totally absorbed by the strategy of surviving and is not available for absorbing positive messages about the right behavior. Thus, children don't learn from our words but rather from what we are doing to them. As they learn through imitation, they learn from us violence and hypocrisy. They will obey at first but in the long run they may chose to lie to avoid the next punishment.

Fortunately, the new scientific discoveries on the young human brain will soon put the parental lack of sensitivity to an end. The old destructive and erroneous tradition of millennia which was based on the assumption that we must beat the devil out of the child to make him a well-balanced and strong person will be replaced by a new tradition based on knowledge and compassion, a tradition Jesus already tried to create (Matthew, 19, 14). The new discoveries confirm what Jesus had taught 2000 years ago, that every child is born innocent and that his or her capacity to become loving and compassionate depends on how they are treated at the beginning of their lives: either with respect, trust, protection and care, or with violence, humiliation or neglect.

If you wish to get some more information about this issue I will be happy to send them to you. You can use my address for mailing or fax me your request. The main goal of this letter was to keep you informed.

With my kindest regards,
Alice Miller