Parents Against Children

"None but the most romantic can hide from himself the fact that, however sweetly we may interpret it, the human child begins his life in anger."

IT is almost a commonplace to-day to say that the world is seething with hate. Even the pretense of good will has been cast aside, and men everywhere, wearily acknowledge the unquenchable resentments which exist between races, countries, and even religious sects. It has become the literary and philosophical vogue to blame civilization for this state of affairs. Civilization is said to encourage hostilities and to force men into deadly rivalry by diminishing time, space, and mechanical difficulties; it furnishes them with weapons to kill each other and robs thorn of privacy, security, and freedom.

This doctrine is widely accepted. Yet, what a paradox! What a strange twist of irony that civilization, which made savages into men, should now make men into savages! Our civilization, our social structure, forged with what painful strivings and what godlike aspirations, in the hope of making man more than animal, of enabling him to live in communities in peace and cooperation, nurturing his children in safety and plenty, becomes in itself a threat to the individual, forcing him into hates he does not understand or wish to share. Strangest of all, the civilization which brought romance into being and exalted the unselfish emotion of love now seems to have aroused the resentments between the sexes to a higher pitch than ever before.

How is all this possible? How can we have forgotten in the course of a few thousand years what beneficent blessings civilization was supposed to bring to mankind? Why is it taken for granted with such grim resignation that civilization proceeds toward hatred and misunderstanding?

It devolves upon us in answering such grave questions to investigate some of the origins of the emotion of hatred more minutely, especially those origins which are implicit in civilized life. For civilization is after all man-made, and if it has increased our woes it cannot be regarded as a dispensation of Providence which has mysteriously gone awry, but rather as a mishandling of human affairs caused by ignorance of and resistance to fundamental psychological laws.

In the face of such vast and universal phenomena as war, crime, and revolution, it is hard for us to believe that the origin of such things can be in the heart of the individual. For this reason the psychologist is like a voice crying in the wilderness. We find it difficult to accept the fact that the world is made up of many other people just like ourselves, who like ourselves were born, reared by mothers and fathers, teased and threatened by brothers and sisters and by the still more hostile playmates of the neighborhood and school. It is difficult to accept the psychological axiom that, the behavior patterns of adults are determined by the experiences of childhood. We forget or discount the fact that Hitler had a mother, that Chamberlain had a childhood, that the President, the Senators, the editors, the political and social leaders, had their disappointments and frustrations, misconceptions and obsessions.

After reading this article most readers, I am afraid, will heave a sigh of impatient incredulity and begin again to think of the tragedy in Spain, the shambles in Germany, the slaughter in China, in terms of high-sounding phrases about trade balances, racial antagonisms, geographical expansion, and political economy. I myself have a great interest in these sociological concepts, but I do not see any evidence that they are determined by intrinsic, natural, non-human laws. They are simply aspects of the behavior of people in groups, and this behavior is in the last analysis determined by the psychology of individuals. We have a right, therefore, to examine whether such behavior occurs according to certain patterns, and, if this be the case, we are bound to accept the empirical discoveries of psychology that such patterns are formed in childhood.

It was Freud's original idea that the child's greatest resentments arose from his jealousy in the family situation. Much as the father adores her, the little girl cannot but have some bitterness over the fact that he does not treat her as he does her mother. And similarly the warm affection that the little boy receives from his mother seems always to run into a hopelessly one-sided conflict with his father. In the Greek tragedies of Oedipus Rex and Electra this jealousy was solved by murder. The hate that burns in the child's heart is, according to this concept, the hate of jealousy.

But evidence derived from the study of children seems to justify our ascribing the birth of hatred to occasions of earliest thwarting. Thwarting of certain needs of the child arouses rage. I say certain needs, because it is not true of all needs: the deprival of oxygen and calcium, for example, does not produce rage. But those needs associated with conscious satisfactions to the child and pertaining particularly to his physical comfort and his sense of security, physical and emotional, are entirely supplied in the earliest weeks and months by individuals about him, who, therefore, become the agents of the thwarting when this occurs.

True, if we study the physiological mechanisms by which anger becomes manifest and the circumstances under which it may be aroused, we might come to the conclusion—as many have—that rage and the hatred which it expresses spring in the earliest observable instances from some deep self-protective purpose. This is the most benign, the most self-flattering, and until recently the most prevalent, view. Unfortunately, it does not entirely correspond to the known facts or satisfactorily explain the subsequent manifestations of the hostile impulses. It was the deductive genius of Freud that outlined for us in scientific terms the concept of an intrinsic malignancy within the organism, an instinct in the direction of destructiveness, which only to some extent serves the uses of self-preservation. This is the real and palpable 'original sin,' a potential danger to the individual and to his environment which it is the proper function of education—that is, civilization—to modify.

The fruitfulness of this point of view lies in the fact that according to the older theory the child is a tabula rasa, a lump of clay upon which are written merely the mistakes of the parents. The mistakes of the parents are important, as what I shall say hereinafter will demonstrate. But to understand most effectively the origins of hate, we do well to assume as a working hypothesis the validity of Freud's conception of an instinct of destruction, with which the 'mistakes of the parents' interact.


None but the most romantic can hide from himself the fact that, however sweetly we may interpret it, the human child begins his life in anger. The painstaking observations by Margaret Blanton and others of the first minutes and hours of infant behavior justify Kant's statement that the cry of the child just born has the tone, not of lamentation, but of aroused wrath.

One is easily persuaded by apologetic explanations for the baby's earliest rage. Rebecca West, for example, in an otherwise magnificent chapter1 concedes that 'hatred necessarily precedes love in human experience.' But she assumes that this is 'an early error of the mind, which becomes a confirmed habit before reason can disperse it . . . . After the tideless peace of prenatal existence the child is born into a world of uncomfortable physical experiences and terrifying uncomprehended controls. It must feel that in order to preserve itself it must lay about it; it must beat with its hands and plot evil against the aggressors. Thus a habit is initiated; thus a fantasy is engendered. It is imagined that it is right to inflict pain, which is given the most intricate and noxious ramifications by early experience. When one inflicts pain on the surrounding world one is punished, one suffers a greater pain than one inflicted, one is treated as guilty. This does not rob pain of its majesty, for punishment is pain, and punishment is acclaimed as good and holy. Is it not a way of salvation to be punished?'

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