Foundations of unhealthy adult-child group systems

For much of my recent career, I have referred the following two lists (“Rules” and “Beliefs”) as the basis for the paradigm in which many of our current practices and polices exist. The information comes from Alice Miller’s work (cited below) and represents destructive, if common, ideas which cumulatively can significantly obstruct positive interactions and engagement, commitment, cooperation, and self-management on the part of a child. I also believe that these ideas apply to power dynamics in unhealthy adult relationships, whether personal or professional.

Rules of Unhealthy Adult-Child Group Systems

  • Adults are the masters of the dependent child.
  • Adults determine in a godlike fashion what is right and wrong.
  • The child is held responsible for the anger of adults.
  • [Adults] must always be shielded.
  • The child’s life-affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic [adult].
  • The child’s will must be “broken” as soon as possible.
  • All this must happen at a very early age so the child “won’t notice” and will not be able to expose the adults.

This information is known as the “poisonous pedagogy” and was taken from For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller, page 59.

Beliefs of Unhealthy Adult-Child Group Systems

  • A feeling of duty produces love.
  • Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it.
  • [Adults] deserve respect because they are [adults].
  • Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
  • Obedience makes a child strong.
  • A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
  • A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
  • Tenderness (doting) is harmful.
  • Responding to a child’s needs is wrong.
  • Severity and coldness toward a child gives him a good preparation for life.
  • A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
  • The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.
  • Neither [adults] nor God would survive being offended.
  • The body is something dirty and disgusting.
  • Strong feelings are harmful.
  • [Adults] are creatures free of drives and guilt.
  • [Adults] are always right. (p. 60).

This list of beliefs was also taken from For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller, page 60.

Comments on Miller’s work by John Bradshaw, from Bradshaw On: The Family: “The ‘poisonous pedagogy’ concept exalts obedience as its highest value. Following…are orderliness, cleanliness, and the control of emotions and desires. Children are considered ‘good’ when they think and behave the way they are taught to think and behave… when they are meek, agreeable, considerate, and unselfish…. Probably no modern [adults] embody all of the above. In fact, some have accepted and imposed the opposite extreme of these beliefs with results just as abusive.”

According to much of the literature, many families function according to many of these rules, which ultimately hurt children. Children come to school with a host of adaptive behaviors they have developed in order to survive in painful families–behaviors often inconsistent with learning and social goals.

Related Links:

The School as a Dysfunctional Family (with Positive Alternatives)
Industrial Age vs. Information Age
Appreciating Diversity: What kids are really learning
Are We Still Guilty of Gender Stereotyping? Self-assessment survey
Building Your Classroom Community
Dealing with Difficult Colleagues
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Friendships

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