every smack is a humiliation

By Alice Miller

Few insights gained in the last 20 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 a part of their behavioral repertoire. Battered children will batter others, punished children act punitively, children lied to become liars themselves.

In the short term, corporal punishment may produce obedience. But it is a fact documented by research that in the long term the results are inability to learn, violence and rage, bullying, cruelty, inability to feel another's pain, especially that of one's own children, even drug addiction and suicide, unless there are enlightened or at least helping witnesses on hand to prevent that development.

When laws prohibiting corporal punishment were launched in 1977 in Sweden, 70% of the citizens were against it. In the latest survey, 20 years later the figure has dropped to 10%, most of them fundamentalists. These statistics show that the mentality of the Swedish population has changed radically in the course of a mere 20 years. A destructive tradition, upheld and acted upon for thousands of years, has been done away with thanks to this legislation. Where is the rest of the world?

The claim that mild punishments (slaps or smacks) have no detrimental effect is still widespread because we got this message very early from our parents who had taken it over from their own parents. Unfortunately, the main damage it causes is precisely the broad dissemination of this conviction. The result of which is that each successive generation is subjected to the tragic effects of so called physical "correction."

Fundamentalists propagate beating children because they disavow their own painful experiences and are unaware of the fact that they are using children as scapegoats. It is imperative for us to launch this kind of preventive legislation in the major countries of Europe and the USA before the fundamentalists gain any further control of the political arena. It is designed to have a protective and informative function for parents. It does not set out to incriminate anyone.

Sanctions deriving from it could take the form of parents being obligated to internalize information on the consequences of corporal punishment, in much the same way as drivers of motor vehicles are required by state law to be familiar with the highway code. In the case of our children, the point at issue is not only the welfare of individual families -- the vital interests of society as a whole are at stake.

Physical cruelty and emotional humiliation not only leave their marks on children, they also inflict a disastrous imprint of the future of our society. Information on the effects of the "well-meant smack" should therefore be part and parcel of courses for expectant mothers and of counseling for parents.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other dictators were exposed to severe physical mistreatment in childhood and refused to face up to the fact later. Instead of seeing and feeling what had happened to them, they avenged themselves vicariously by killing millions of people. And millions of others helped them to do so. If the legislation we are advocating had existed the time, those millions would simply have refused to perpetrate acts of cruelty at the command of crazed political leaders.

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"There was some trouble when the authorities attempted to contact our jetsetting parents. Aldo was very displeased; on his return, he lashed the boy so thoroughly with his Cartier belt that for a week, he limped and could not sleep. Arabic cultures are not the only cultures in which the anger of the father is believed to be that of God. Mother refused to discuss the incident. Her couture expedition had been interrupted, her husband was enraged, she did not want to know."

The Pure Weight of the Heart, by Antonella Gambotto

domestic violence + children

Domestic violence includes emotional, financial, sexual and physical abuse. It is most often committed by men against women in the home. Violence in the home is a crime. Countless children and young people in Australia are witnesses to domestic violence each year.

These children grow up in a "climate of fear".

In most cases they will be in the same room or the next room when the violence occurs. Until recently the effects on children who witness violence have not been fully acknowledged by the community, because the violence has not been seen as direct abuse of the children. In this way the effects on children have been easy to minimise or attribute to other causes.

the impact on children

Many children who witness domestic violence have been found to have higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems than other children. The impact varies according to their age, sex, and role in the family.

Some children feel responsible for the violence. They may think they are making things easier for their mother by appearing to cope with the situation, by trying to be quieter, and by not saying how they feel.

While most children escape without physical injury they may bear emotional scars which in many cases can last a lifetime.

what can we do?

Firstly we need to understand and accept that witnessing domestic violence harms children.

We need to place the responsibility for the violence with the offending parent, and support the abused parent in order to improve her capacity to protect her children. Most importantly, children who witness domestic violence need to know they are not forgotten.

The effects on children who witness domestic violence may include:

- Feelings of fear, anger, depression, grief, shame, despair and distrust a sense of powerlessness;

- Physical reactions such as stomach cramps, headaches, sleeping and eating difficulties, frequent illness;

- Slowed developmental capacities such as poor school performance, low self-esteem, difficulty relating to peers substance abuse, glue sniffing;

- Behavioural problems such as running away from home, aggressive language and behaviour, acting out; and, most frighteningly,

- Learning that violence is a legitimate means for resolving conflict, or for obtaining control of a situation.

Ways you can help a child who has witnessed domestic violence include:

- Explain things in language that children can understand tell them that the violence is not their fault;

- Give them permission to talk about the violence;

- Help make a safety plan which they can follow;

- Find them someone outside the family with whom they can share their feelings;

- Let them know that others have had similar experiences;

- Ring and discuss the situation with domestic violence and protective services to find out how else you can help the children.


information for mothers

"He hits me, but he's good to the kids." This is commonly said by women subjected to domestic violence. But by abusing you, the childrenís mother, he is not being "good to the kids". Showing attention or affection to his children cannot make up for denying them (through his violence) their right to a safe and happy childhood.

There is still a prevailing attitude in society that mothers should be perfect and almost wholly responsible for their children's well-being. This attitude can lead to blaming the mother even when the father is perpetrating the violence.

You may be feeling responsible for your partner's violence, and for the impact his behaviour is having on the children. Remember you are not to blame for his violence, and you are not responsible for the effect his abuse of you has had on your children.

You need help, so you can help your children No matter how caring a parent you are, at some level your ability to do your best for your children will be affected by your partnerís violence.

Sadly this is a time when your children are likely to need your care and attention more than ever. Until you can get the help you need to make yourself safe, your children cannot feel safe or happy knowing that their mother is being hurt.

difficult choices

Concern for children is probably a major factor (if not the major factor) in whether you decide to separate, as it is for many women in abusive relationships.

It is likely to be confusing and difficult for you to weigh up which situation is best for your children. You may have thought:

- "How can I take them away from their dad whom they love, their home, their pets, their school?"

- "He says he will get custody of the kids."

- "Can I offer the kids anything better?"

- "Are we in more danger if we leave?"

If you are going to be able to help your kids you need to get help too. You can contact the following services;

- Even though your children may not have been in the room, they will have been able to sense the atmosphere, so if you can, explain to them what is happening let them know it is not their role to protect you;

- Let them know that you want to know how they feel;

- Assure them that feeling frightened, angry, confused or sad is normal in the situation; and

- Find a trustworthy, sympathetic adult that the kids can talk to (ie; school counsellor, relative).

If you have separated, or are leaving the situation:

- You can seek counselling and support groups for yourself and your children;

- Encourage your children to talk about how they are feeling;

- If you leave your home, take favourite toys and some of your childrenís other items;

- Seek parenting support;

- Contact domestic violence and / or legal services - The Family Law Act now considers the witnessing of domestic violence as harmful to children.

where to get help in australia

- Womenís Domestic Violence Crisis Service 24 hours - (03) 9329-8433 or toll free 1800 015 188 for callers in rural Victoria. Provides support, information and referral to womenís refuge (safe accommodation);

- Immigrant Womenís Domestic Violence Service (03) 9898 3145 (9.30 -5.30pm Mon - Fri) Provides support and information to immigrant women in refuges in their primary language. Will also provide telephone support and information to immigrant women not in refuge;

- Child Protection Crisis Line Phone - 131 278 24 hours, 7 days a week - receives notification and investigates allegations of child abuse;

- Kidís Help Line - 24 hours toll free - 1800 55 1800 - Counselling line for children 5 years to 18 years;

- The Police - for urgent attendance ring 000;

- For non-urgent police assistance contact your local police or the Community Policing Squad;

- Translating and Interpreting Service 131 450 or 1800 112 477 (24 hours) If you do not speak English you can ring this number and they can provide an interpreter.

Sites on the effects of domestic violence on children:

- The Kids and Domestic Violence Project An initiative of the Queensland government to document best practice with children and young people who have lived with domestic violence. The site provides facts & figures, information on the effects on kids, articles, newsletter, links, etc;

- General Information: Effects of Domestic Violence on Children Domestic Violence Team, Centre for Women's Health, Benevolent Society of NSW;

- Domestic Violence Resource Centre, Brisbane, Qld The Queensland service provides factsheets on domestic violence, and how it affects children, as well as information about their services;

- Domestic Violence Shelter Tour Site Based in USA, provides information about the effects of violence on children, and an art gallery of pictures by children who have witnessed domestic violence;

- Family Violence Prevention Fund USA site provides stories from survivors of domestic violence and people who grew up witnessing domestic violence;

- Fact Sheet: the Effect of Domestic Violence on Children New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Includes statistics;

- Children and Family Violence: the unnoticed victims Gabrielle M. Maxwell, Office of the Commissioner for Children, New Zealand, May 1994. Research Paper;

- Domestic Violence as a Form of Child Abuse Identification and Prevention. Marianne James, Australian Institute of Criminology. Australian Institute of Family Studies National Child Protection Clearinghouse, July 1994;

- Children and Domestic Violence: risks and remedies By Barbara J. Hart Esq. (USA);

- Child Witness to Domestic Violence Kathryn Conroy, DSW, 1996. Paper summarises research in the area.

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