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?'
I think we can take no comfort from this assumption that the child's hate is only 'an error.' It would be a rather serious error if the child did not learn to hate certain things. The real point is that he does not learn it; he comes blessed or cursed with it, and then he learns to use it wisely or unwisely. Under proper tutelage, and with what we may call normal experience, he gradually becomes more and more able to distinguish between those objects which are properly to be feared, hated, and fought against, and those which may be more properly accepted, utilized, and loved.
Unfortunately, however, early in his life the child makes mistakes in his differentiations. He mistakes friends for foes, and vice versa. The hot fire looks pretty and attractive, but it burns him. The cat looks soft and safe, but it scratches. The fierce, noisy person, who later turns out to be an older brother, is not nearly so dangerous as he at first appears, but is actually a protector. The new baby sister does not deplete the mother of all her capacity for love, as at first seemed to threaten. All sorts of such misunderstandings and wrong estimates must later be corrected by a continuous testing of reality which requires many years for the achieving of even a fair degree of accuracy.
I am conceding here that what might be called 'error' or ignorance or inexperience in the child plays a part in forming the early patterns of hate. For the present I am minimizing the contribution to these early reaction patterns of the ignorance and inexperience of the parents in dealing with this child. We shall come back to that in a moment. For there is yet to mention the effect of certain great 'natural' disasters, those unpredictable, unpreventable blows from the hands of fate or Nature which all too early fall upon the heads of some children. Against these he has no defense but resentment. His mother dies, his home burns, his sister sickens, his father and mother separate, the country is visited by a famine. No adult can be quite objective, in the face of such disasters, let alone an immature, inexperienced personality whose pattern of loving and hating is still in the process of formation. It is not surprising, therefore, that no one grows up entirely logical and sagacious in his program of emotional investment. At times everyone hates unwisely and loves unwisely, to some degree. Perhaps it would be clearer to say that we sometimes hate the wrong persons and love the wrong persons. When this confusion of loving and hating is excessive we call the individual neurotic.
I have already suggested how these confusions arise, but I have perhaps overemphasized their logical, rational aspects. Logic and reason imply some ability to see beyond the immediate present, and this, of course, the child cannot do. His earliest reactions are not rational; they are entirely instinctual, based upon the feelings induced by the immediate stimulus and the way it is followed up.
For, just as certain deprivals evoke the hostile capacities of the child, so certain gratifications allay them. If we can imagine a parent sufficiently skillful to replace each satisfaction of which the child is deprived by another satisfaction which the child could accept as approximately equivalent, without disloyalty to the requirements of reality, we should expect to see in the progeny of such a parent an ideal person, a man without any neurotic sense of thwarting in the adventures and misadventures of life, and hence a man not without hate but without hate for anything except those things which should be hated and fought against in defense of his own best interests.
But parents are only human beings; they too had childhoods, and they too had parents who made mistakes, and they too underwent accidents of fate which may always upset the otherwise ideal milieu.
Consequently what it comes to is that we should determine precisely what sort of thwarting and comforting gives rise to the childhood dissatisfactions which now seem to be so apparent in contemporary adults. In other words, if psychological principles are true, the hatred of today is ascribable in part to parental mismanagements of yesterday. But what were these mismanagements?
Some readers will undoubtedly feel that psychoanalysts put too much emphasis on nursing and weaning and erotic sensations to the exclusion of many subsequent frustrations. Others will conclude that such principles apply to a minority of individuals, and explain very little of the present world-wide epidemic of hatred. Surely, thinks the reader, not all those who clamor for war or gloat over the torture of those weaker than themselves are to be regarded as the children of exceptionally unhappy childhoods or of exceptionally unskillful weaning.
The fact remains that, both in the psychological study of young children and in the personality study of a large number of adults whose life adjustments have failed, there are certain striking and inescapable correlations of adult behavior with childhood traumata. One of these quite uniform findings is that the inability to endure frustration of the degree to which we are subjected in the ordinary experiences of daily life is regularly connected with the childhood experience of having been frustrated too considerably or too rapidly. These children are reared in such a way as to make them feel that they have been robbed or cheated.
Sometimes this is the literal truth of what happened, for many children are prematurely weaned and prematurely thwarted of many other infantile gratifications. More often, perhaps, it represents an insufficiently skillful or adequate substitution of other gratifications. The requirements of the new adjustment are too great. A child discovers it is pleasant to pour water on the floor; the technique of many parents is to forbid this gratification and substitute no other. The same could be said of toilet activities, manual manipulation of the genitals, thumb-sucking, and the like. Parents often look upon these things with a quite unjustified horror and do everything within their power to take such pleasures from the child without making any attempt to replace them with something more socially approved which is at the same time acceptable to the child.
In primitive society, where adults leave their children alone and do not thwart them, the child finds for himself substitute gratitications which may subsequently appear to him better than the original ones of which he was deprived not by his parents, but by impersonal forces. He comes to like guavas or bananas better than mother's milk, for example. He learns to 'come in out of the rain,' to step on grass rather than thistles. Thwarting, when it occurs, is entirely ascribable to nature, not his parents. (Most primitive mothers do not wean their babies; the children wean the mothers.) The resentments he feels must be charged up to those malignant forces of nature which it is the duty of mankind to combat.
In contemporary society, on the other hand, even while similar substitute gratifications are made, the process is considerably modified by the interferences of the parents. For not only does society demand that the child restrain his natural healthy impulses, curb many of his desires, and give up some of his greatest satisfactions, but it also demands that he express no untoward resentment at this frustration. He must not only sacrifice much of his freedom, but do so politely and winningly. He cannot even have the satisfaction of screaming, kicking, and fighting. 'Children should be seen and not heard' is an old-fashioned phrase, but the motive behind the saying, the idea that children must be kept in their place and not allowed to rebel, is still very important to many parents, as witness the letters they write to child guidance exports asking how to 'make' the child obey, how to 'break' the child of bad temper.
When resentment is stimulated by thwarting, and then denied all outward expression, what we call suppression is gradually replaced by repression—that is, denial of the experience and then exclusion from consciousness. A repression is successful only if the child has attained sufficient maturity to accept it and to find outlets elsewhere. If it is forced upon him prematurely, it is almost certain to break down later in neuroses, behavior disorders, cruelty, and the like.
I recall an instance of an otherwise kind and intelligent father who told with pride of slapping his three-year-old child's face every time the child said, 'I can't eat this oatmeal.' Since the child was almost as determined as the father, the slapping continued at intervals for ten or fifteen minutes at each meal. And how many parents have placed their children upon the toilet with instructions to remain there until they move their bowels, and how many have shown their senseless anxiety over the child's constipation by an onslaught of soapsticks, enemas, cathartics, and purges!
I mention these illustrations only to remind the reader of the contrast between the way the primitive child grows up and the way the so-called civilized child is obliged to grow. A significant commentary on this difference is contained in a communication I recently received from Dr. Nancy D. Campbell, executive medical officer of the United Pueblos Agency, Albuquerque, New Mexico. She says: 'One fact in the rearing of the Indian child has interested me greatly. Babies and small children are treated with great kindness and indulgence. If a child cries, it is suckled or provided with whatever it appears to desire, whether by our standards this would be good or bad. No disciplinary measures are offered unless restraint by use of a cradle board is considered in this light. During childhood they do very much as they please. I have often had the parents defer to a six-year-old's whims as to whether he would or would not be hospitalized, regardless of the child's degree of illness. Yet at adolescence that same child becomes a thoroughly law-abiding citizen who conforms in every respect to the tribal customs, takes part in the ritual ceremonies and dances, and defers in every matter of great or little importance to his elders.'
An anthropologist who has made a study of the Mohave Indians in Arizona (Dr. George Devereux) confirms these observations so far as they concern the Mohaves. The Mohaves never strike their children or punish them in any way. One who did so would be regarded as 'crazy.' When asked why he did not respond to the blows administered to him by a child, one of the Indians said, Why should I strike him? I am big, he is small. He cannot hurt me. If I did so I should be like the white people who beat their children.'
True, civilization does require much more thwarting of immediate gratifications than does savage life, and although, in theory, it offers more compensations, these are probably not apparent to the child in the first years of his life. One might argue that the difficulty in bringing up children in our sophisticated modern life is that immediate physical goals are denied and abstract distant goals beyond the child's comprehension are offered him in what seems to him an entirely one-sided bargain. Some systems of education attempt to offset this by planting small rewards along the hard upward road of learning, scaling experiences and successes to the child's understanding in a model 'child's world'—the principle of many progressive schools.
This argument, however, while it conthins much truth, overlooks the most important factor in learning. It ignores the immediate pleasure which the child obtains in the form of love whenever he gives up a socially disapproved habit or attitude. The encouraging smile of the mother when the baby remembers her prohibitions, the beaming pride of the parents in his efforts to use a spoon instead of his fingers—these are tangible rewards for which the child barters his naive ideas of comfort and selfish ease. This is why society so wisely leaves the tremendous task of the child's first four or five years of education almost exclusively to parents, the persons who can best give this love and attention. Never again in his entire life will the child learn so much with such rapidity as he does in these first years. From then on, no matter how brilliant he may appear to be, he is a dull and stodgy person in comparison to the triumphant flowering of his babyhood.
But without love to sweeten each step in this prodigious uphill climb, the boundless energy and curiosity of the little child are diverted into other paths. The great frustration which the modern child in civilized society sufFers is not entirely due to the rigid curbing of his natural pleasures and unsocial habits; it derives also from the fact that he is deprived of the extra portion of love which his sacrifices require. When the restrictions are accompanied by expressions of the parents' hostility toward him, reinforced by their resentment of his intrusion upon their comfort, it is small wonder that the child reacts with bitterness.
Parents often treat their child as they were treated by their own parents, many years previously, thus achieving a long deferred and displaced revenge for the indignities and suffering they endured. But, queerly enough, such parents rarely recognize the hate implicit in their behavior. They defend their position with the most respectable rationalizations: 'What was good enough for me is good enough for my child.' 'They knew how to bring children up in those days. The old folks were pretty hard on me, but it didn't hurt me any.' 'One thing I can say for my parents, they didn't spoil me.' So they say; and while they claim to be teaching their children to obey, to control themselves, to endure hardship and criticism without flinching, they are actually teaching that might makes right. The child learns quickly enough that his parents do what he is forbidden to do, and that such hypocrisy is permitted because of their superior power and strength. His object in life, therefore, becomes that of attaining adulthood in order to punish those who are weaker than he; and the revenge of the man upon the child is perpetuated for another generation. Some few children give up the idea of attaining manhood altogether under those discouragements, and become irresponsible weaklings.
We should be quick to add at this point that not all the unwise restrictions and mistakes of the parents in rearing their children are to be charged to hostility, conscious or unconscious. Some of these mistakes are certainly due to ignorance and still others to a faithful adherence to the advice of false prophets. Much harm has been done, in my opinion, to the children of the present generation by the dogmatic, opinionated instructions delivered to young mothers by faddists of one kind and another, sometimes in very respectable garb. The fad of beating the child into submission was succeeded by the fad of ignoring the child's emotional needs completely; the fad of purging the child was succeeded by the enema fad and the dietary ritual. The disciplinarian doctrine competed with the laissez faire doctrine. The authority for the various regimens in which the parents were instructed, and which were then more or less consistently inflicted upon the child, was sometimes a psychologist, sometimes a physician, and sometimes, I am sorry to say, a psychiatrist. More often, I believe, it was a grandparent or a neighbor; but, having mentioned grandparents unfavorably, I must add that sometimes it is they who exert the most favorable and normative influence upon the process.
And yet, while we must make these allowances for the false instructions which mothers got in regard to the rearing of children, we must remember that not infrequently the willingness to accept such principles is dictated by an inner unrecognized hostility for the child which only needs the backing of some authority to put it into action.
One form which this hostility may take is that of overindulgence, the 'spoiling' which annoys so many observers, and which they frequently attribute to the recommendations of psychiatrists. Swamping children with 'advantages' is often a substitute for giving the child time, interest, companionship, and love; these material gifts are frequently made to the child out of a sense of guilt for the unconscious hostility and lack of love felt toward him, and hence, as is always the case, they actually accomplish in the long run the hostile purpose which was their original incentive. The same is true of the mother who 'lives only for her child,' who is uncomfortable when she is away from him if only for a few minutes, who accompanies him to school, helps him with his studies, and allows him no friends for fear that they will contaminate him.
How these children feel about it years later (if their visit to the psychiatrist is postponed that long) is vividly portrayed by many patients. One son said of his mother: -
She brought me into the world, but I don't know whether it was because she wanted to have one human being that she could see successful in the eyes of the world and get pleasure out of it, or whether it was to make me happy. She lost the others and had me out of the whole damned batch to fill the place she had dreamed for this child. In these horrible sessions, she would tell of the dreams she had cherished when she felt me inside her. I had to listen to that. Every night she expected me at her bedside to kiss her. Every damned night. And yet I was so dominated that although I would threaten not to come into her room and she would say 'all right,' nevertheless, whether I was drunk or sober I would be there. I cannot break away from it, and each time I went I would not know whether she would fly up like a maniac at me or sob or have something to laugh about. That kills me. That's where that insecurity laid his, hand on me. But I remember her. Why, if she had had a cat-o'nine-tails, it would have suited her just fine. She might as well have had it. She wouldn't have worn herself out so much. She would whip me until she was exhausted, and it would be over the damnedest trivial thing. Maybe she thinks that is why I have such a keen sense of honor [tears], and I do have it, but what good does it do me? No wonder I drink!
This case, while extreme, shows the excessive sentimentality by which the child frequently feels fettered, except that the hidden aggressiveness of the parent's attitude is more plainly revealed in this instance by the outbursts of rage which accompanied the demanding affection.
Whenever we speak about the hostility of parents toward their children we are met by vigorous defenses, often from the very persons who are most guilty. 'Why, I love my children devotedly,' exclaims the mother who is most obviously behaving in a way likely to harm them or which has already ruined them beyond redemption. President Neilson of Smith College recently brought showers of abuse upon his head by making the intelligent observation that much which passes for mother love is really self-love.
It is natural that we recoil from observing our own aggressions. To admit them is often to bring our guilt feelings into such an acute stage of awareness its to provoke severe anxiety. Some parents present a pitiful picture as they reproach themselves (usually on the wrong scores) for their earlier treatment of a child who has become maladjusted or mentally ill.
On the day I write this I have just talked with a mother whose boundless but unrecognized hate for her son drove him into a state of hopeless mental illness. He has been confined in a hospital for a dozen years, and will remain there all of his life. The mother told me proudly that she visited him regularly every month, in spite of the disapproval of the hospital physicians. 'I know he is glad to see me,' she said, 'and I think it does him good. Of course he never speaks. But I know he loves me.' Such a tragedy wrings one's heart, and perhaps now, for her, it is just as well that she cannot realize the part she played in her son's retreat from life. But there are other mothers and sons for whom it is not too late.
We know that most children are reared by women. The early frustrations which we have been discussing, as well as the earliest gratifications of the child, come to him most often at the hands of a woman. Not only this, but the subsequent training throughout the formative years of childhood until adolescence, and sometimes even then, is in the hands of women. It is therefore a presumptive conclusion that the patterns of emotional behavior of both loving and hating in men and women are to a far larger extent than any of us realize determined, not by 'the parents,' but by the mother. The child is born of her, and his first interpersonal experiences are with her; she is his first and greatest source of pleasure and love and food; but since every mother transfers her child from the comfort of her own womb and her own breast to the relative discomfort of a realistic world, one could postulate that she is also the one who first stirs up bitterness and revenge wishes in the child.
For this reason I feel that a careful study of the particular effects of civilization upon women and the way in which it deprives them of instinctual gratifications is of reciprocal importance in the understanding of why we grow up so much more prone to hate than to love. In a previous' article in the Atlantic2 I indicated some of the ways in which women are increasingly frustrated and cheated in their adult life. They have good and abundant reason I believe, for the resentments they feel, consciously and unconsciously. Herein lies the vicious circle. The women who must rear the children are themselves so thwarted and resentful that they tend to impose the same restrictions upon their children. The children grow up and reenact the same error; males frustrate females, and females divide their aggressions between their male partners and their dependent children.
This sounds as if we were making woman the centre of human society. And, in the sense that it is she who moulds the early patterns of behavior of each individual unit of the coming generation, the mother is the centre of human society. The fact that we do not recognize her as such is one of the ways in which we frustrate her most. The tendency is rather to demote woman, to patronize her, and to deprive her of recognition of her biological superiority by polite condescension. Muscles and brains are still considered more important in our culture than love and endurance. This, scientifically, is a fallacy.
To be sure, women themselves fall into this way of thinking. It is very difficult for a woman to think about women; she is too wise to have any confidence in generalities. If she must think about women, she adopts masculine attitudes and joins in the general trend of the prevalent mores. By doing this she hides from herself the essential selfdestructiveness of such a departure from her biological birthright, and she hides from herself also the way in which she continues the vicious circle of frustration.
This may sound to some as if I were heaping a great deal of blame, upon women for the present state of affairs, and making mothers the 'precipitating cause' of all the present woes of the world. This is not my idea. It is philosophically naive to talk about causes, first or last, because everything is related to, and in that sense causes, everything else. It is not a question of cause or blame, but a matter of describing as accurately as we can what is happening and then, if we wish it to be ameliorated, attempting to break the vicious circle with the aid of our intelligence. If mothers are unduly restrictive toward their children, it is not through some original sin or some inherent viciousness, but because of some unfortunate experiences of their own for which civilization has not enabled them to be compensated satisfactorily.
Nor should this seem to be a great whitewashing of all fathers, because, as I have elsewhere indicated, the preoccupation of men with their business and with each other has acted as a disappointment and deprival to women and fanned the flames of their discontent. In this way, men are certainly responsible for some of the unnecessary embitterments which are stimulated in children. In a more direct way, however, the way in which the average person would think of it, I think men are less closely related to the problem because they are less important to the child.
Critical renders will want to remind me of innumerable examples of the harsh father—the father who beats his children, the father who scorns or ignores them, the father who deserts them, the father who forces them into celibacy, hard work, martyrdom, or flight. Surely such fathers excite hatred, and in such instances it may seem unfair to incriminate the mother.
The answer to this will probably tax the credulity of the reader, but I must state it as an empirical fact that even in such instances as those I have just mentioned, while the father gives plenty of occasion for the conscious hatred of the child, it is often the mother who aroused this resentment in the first place. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is the mother toward whom the deepest layer of resentment attaches itself. Logically or illogically, correctly or incorrectly, such a child in the secret places of his heart often feels that his mother should have protected him from such harshness, or else that it is the mother who in some way exposed him to such mistreatment. Of course, consciously the resentment is entirely displaced, as we say, on to its more conspicuous provocator, the father. His harshness makes such a displacement the easier. The child's feelings can then be justified to himself more convincingly. But if we penetrate the many layers of hatred we come eventually to the deepest hurt of all—'Mother failed me.'
I remember a conscientious schoolteacher who had led a very hard life. She had never permitted herself any pleasure except that of intellectual application and devotion to her work. She had been reared by pioneer parents, a kind, hard-working mother and a stern, harsh father. 'I remember,' she said, 'many times being struck in the face by his fist and knocked to the ground for such an offense as dropping a teacup.' And yet, as it developed, it was not the father—much as she consciously hated him—against whom this woman harbored her inmost feelings of injury. It was against her mother. Her rationalization was that her mother should have protected her and her sisters from such cruelty. I say 'rationalization' because under this justification were hidden more infantile grievances, not the least of which was that she had been the oldest child and had been forced, while still a baby herself, to make way for younger children and to share her mother with them.
Another instance was the weak son of a very strong, self-made German-American father. The father was proud of his older son but extremely disappointed in his younger one, and punished him severely for his poor schoolwork. Ho was sent to a succession of boarding and military schools, where he was lonely and frequently mistreated. When he begged to be allowed to come home, his father refused, calling him a 'nitwit' and a 'mollycoddle' and comparing him unfavorably with his older brother. In spite of this, the boy's misery at school was so great that he finally ran away and refused to return to school. At home the father showed his contempt and dislike for the boy continually; his mother, on the other hand, was a quiet, tenderhearted woman who indulged and comforted her son in every way she could, although remaining loyal to her husband.
Yet, curiously enough, it was not the father against whom this boy's bitterest hostility was felt, nor yet the older brother. He thought his mother, in some mysterious way which he could not explain, should have 'explained things' to him, helped him to get along, or saved him all his friction with his father.
In both these cases (as always) the mother was the first and most important link with the world. She was the first antagonist in the child's battle to get his own way, and these apparently unreasonable and unfair accusations the child brought against her in later years therefore had a peculiar kind of validity in that they were representations of a conflict in which the child felt worsted.
If the early conflict between mother and child is not too severe and the child is not too bitterly thwarted, we may expect him to reorient himself to women as he grows older and no longer to consider them as exclusively agents of nourishment or policemen to curb his pleasures. But the opportunity to do so is considerably lessened by the fact that the child's care and education are entrusted almost entirely to women, who quite often reinforce and strengthen his idea that women exist to frustrate him. I say 'strengthen' because when the child is turned over to a substitute mother at an early age it often increases his burden of hate without expanding his capacity for love.
The tendency toward the use of substitute mothers is quite understandable in the light of the widespread change in vocational interest of later years. From being the principal gratification of their mother, children have come to be one of the chief obstacles to her achievement of personal success in masculine or worldly terms. With this lessening degree of personal contentment in modern women, and the social and economic as well as psychological disadvantages of bringing children into the world under existing conditions, it is logical to expect that those who are charged with the responsibility of children would bring to their task more resentment and derive from it less satisfaction and glory than formerly. Children are aware of this attitude in their elders. A little boy of four who had never had reason to think of himself as unwanted went with his parents to find an apartment. After they had been turned away from many houses because 'we don't take children,' he somewhat sadly suggested to his father and mother that they leave him in the car when they interviewed the next manager, so that they would have a chance to rent a home. Contrast this state of affairs with a child of the past generation who, born on a large farm, was not only accepted with tolerance, but welcomed as an addition to the farm force.
Until recent years only the very rich could entrust entirely to maids the duties ordinarily performed by the mother, but, since the turn of the century, woman's entrance into the economic world has extended the custom to families of even moderate means. Ostensibly such help is for the purpose of relieving the mother of the menial tasks associated with the care of the children, but in reality such maids or 'nurses' or governesses are frequently assigned to all the major responsibilities of the child's care. Not the least important of these, from the psychological standpoint, are such matters as toilet training and eating habits.
Of course it is conceivable, and no doubt frequently true, that these hired women may be more objective, stable, and loving than the mothers themselves. But they certainly do not have the same incentives to give the child love or to exert their utmost skill in managing the difficult transition stages from uncontrolled instinctual life to life according to civilized standards. Frequently they are extremely neurotic; not infrequently they are feeble-minded. If parents who were disinclined to care for their own children were as seriously concerned with getting the best substitute parents as they are with the question of getting the best beauty-parlor operator or the best possible dressmaker or the most competent dentist, it might be that they would really do their children a favor by putting them in more skillful hands. But this isn't what happens.
At any rate, for better or for worse, these substitute mothers are almost always women, and the necessity of thwarting and control, the slightest mismanagement of which the child resents, is again relegated to a woman. Any way one looks at it, the earliest struggles and hence the patterns of subsequent hostilities are developed by the child's earliest experience with women, and are accordingly with the greatest facility displaced in later life to other women.
And this generally goes on throughout the entire school system; the child's intellectual growth, edification, and inspiration are (in the United States) relegated almost entirely to women. I am tempted to digress at this point, and describe the type of woman most communities select as the inspiration and guide of their children's mental and emotional development, and the barriers most communities erect against obtaining a normal and superior woman for this task. But this would lead us away from the subject. The point is that because women are cheaper than men, and perhaps because they are more patient and more diffident, society has pressed them into this job almost exclusively. And once again it is women to whom the child must learn to adjust himself, women whom he must try to please, women from whom he must learn to accept authority.
But now I must raise, another psychological question. What, to a child, is a woman? How, in the unconscious, is woman identified as such? We speak of men and women, male and female, so glibly that we forget that the psychological differentiation between them is difficult to make. The anatomical differences are obvious enough to an adult. And they are known, although usually not clearly understood, by young children. But long before these anatomical differences are perceived, differences in dress, manner, tone and pitch of voice, and similar secondary characteristics must be much better known. In other words, to the very young child secondary sex characteristics are much more important than what we later call primary (anatomical) sex characteristics. It is a clinical fact that many children believe, occasionally even until adolescence, that their mothers arc anatomically similar to their fathers. And yet there is no doubt in these children's minds to the existence of women as distinct from men. We do not know at what age children actually realize that only women have breasts; they learn very early that only women offer them the breast, but this period of life merges gradually into the period when these women offer them the bottle and then the oatmeal and then the beefsteak and potatoes, which their fathers do also.
Little is known about the child's earliest conception of femaleness as contrasted with maleness. All we can say is that it. must be very inaccurate, but very definite. It must certainly consist, in each instance, in the peculiar personal attributes of the particular mother of a given child, and that mother in contrast to her husband and other members of that family, male and female. How soon the child can think in terms of genus instead of only in terms of species, we do not know. Let us suppose a girl baby is born into a family of a father, mother, a brother and a sister. It. is presumptive that at first the world, as far as she is concerned, consists only of the person she later learns to call mother. A little later she is able to distinguish somewhat similar objects—human beings—but probably classifies them in distinction to her mother as 'the non-motherly ones.' If she knew the words that we use, she would think of her mother as female and all others as something different—that is, male, or at least non-female. They certainly do not treat her as the mother does. It must be considerably later that she learns that her sister belongs in the same genus as her mother, and we know definitely that it is much later that she is able to accept the fact that she, too, belongs in this genus.
One of her early differentiations must be that some people are feeders and others are competitors or rivals for the position of being fed. As she develops intellectually and emotionally she can revise those estimates and perhaps even differentiate between those who feed directly like mothers and those who feed indirectly like fathers. But certainly she sees that the function of some of those about her is primarily that of giving and of others primarily that of taking, and with the latter she comes into rivalry. This would seem like a very elementary classification, but it might be contended that in the long run it is a more valid and even more useful one than the sophisticated classification that we adults use—, namely, 'male' and 'female.'
However that may be, it is safe to conclude that the child's conception of femininity must be largely determined by early impressions of his mother, impressions which are subsequently reenforced by experiences with substitute mothers, gradually corrected to some extent by widened horizons and prolonged contact with reality. The process of modifying such early impressions never changes them radically, however. As William James said, even the most violent revolutions of thought leave most of the old order standing.
We have admitted, also, that the 'old order' of the personality, the early structure which is determined so largely by interpersonal relationships with the mother, contains—in our culture—too many bricks of hate. As one reads the pages of history it is possible to convince oneself for a moment that things are improving: we no longer use ordeals; we no longer sell slaves; we no longer beat women; we no longer burn witches—or do we? I am afraid we do—all those, and worse. Concentration camps, torture, and starvation in Europe; barbarism and slaughter in Asia; chain gangs, lynchings, and the extinction of wild life in America; an increase everywhere in suicide, in neurosis, in alcoholism, in unemployment, in war. There is no use to multiply instances; the behavior of individuals indicates that there is something seriously wrong in the world. The fact is all too plain that if the manifestations of hate are not actually increasing, at least they grow no less. And if one considers the peaceful life of the primitive peoples of the South Sea Islands prior to the advent of white culture, one can find little pleasure in contemplating the compensatory comforts of electricity, the automobile, and the radio.
In our investigation of the origins of the malignant hate that seems to be at the root of our civilization's sickness, we are led back inevitably to the ways in which it arises and is stimulated in the formative years of childhood; for economic and governmental evils—all the bogies of the modern world—are manmade and hence products of strong psychological drives working in individuals. If we look at the personality scientifically we must cease to think of ourselves as the victims of circumstances. By recognition of our weaknesses, by realization of our strengths, we can to a considerable degree so modify our reactions to the environment that the environment modifies its reactions to us. This, in turn, makes everything easier for us, easier for those about us, easier for the next generation. Begun early enough, such a program should reduce sonic of the excitations of hate in its earliest inceptions—in the heart of the child. For if hate arises instinctively within us, so does love, and if one can be stimulated, so can the other. More than that, we know that both hate and love can be controlled, to some extent. Unfortunately, love is more apt to be controlled than hate. Any program which our intelligence and science can devise for the mitigation of hate in the world must look to the cultivation of love as its central theme. For, to turn the whole problem around, we may say that lack of love is the source of all our difficulties in controlling hate in the world.
If I have seemed to involve women as the more responsible agents in this program, it is because they have two great advantages in prosecuting it: Nature has given them the opportunity of being the child's first and greatest object of love, the pattern for all his subsequent strivings and defeats; temperament has made them the exponents of peace and loving-kindness in the world. If the task seems an overwhelmingly difficult one, we must consider the possibilities of so altering our social structure that women (and therefore children) are not so much thwarted and exploited as at present.
It is not impossible to conceive of a day when the expression of love will be as natural and as spontaneous as is the expression of rage and hostility now. But before that day arrives the study of the child and his proper nurture and training must come to be recognized, not as a pretty little hobby for a few earnest zealots and pedants, but as a task equal in importance to the study of armaments and the compounding of poisonous gases. Someone of great faith might go further and dream of a time when we shall have the wisdom to spend as much on the cultivation of love as we do now on the preparation for war.
1. Living Philosophies, Series 11, No. 4.
2.'Men, Women, and lisLe,' February 1939.