self-esteem are related. The more successfully parents look after
a child's integrity, the greater the possibility that the child
will develop healthy self-esteem. Violence is an
infringement of children's integrity and therefore detrimental to
The fact that we have laws that forbid grievous physical
violence against children does not mean that other forms of
violence are not harmful: we have simply decided that these
manifestations of violence should not be classified as criminal.
Over time, we have coined many synonyms for physical violence.
In Denmark we refer to a parent's "right to inflict corporal
punishment" and talk about "smacks" or
"slaps." In the United States, parents talk about
"disciplining" and "spanking." In short, most
cultures have their own pet names that people use in order to
justify the phenomenon. But no euphemism can obscure the fact that
violence is violence, and that violence destroys the self-esteem
and dignity of victim and perpetrator.
In my experience, parents who use violence on their children
can be divided into three groups. The first group uses violence as
an attitude or ideology. These parents say, "Well, I don't
think that it does children any harm to get a smack on their
bottom when they deserve it." If pressed, they usually admit
that they didn't feel this way before they became parents, and
that their change of heart reflects an attempt to make a virtue
out of necessity.
Those parents for whom the use of violence represents an
ideology, and who believe that violence is an essential part of
responsible child rearing, often come from environments or
societies that are dominated by totalitarian ideologies, whether
religious or political. In such societies, the lives and the
quality of life of ordinary individuals play a subordinate role;
therefore the fact that violence is destructive for the individual
carries little weight.
The second group consists of parents who use violence simply
because they want power over their children. Their goal is control
and domination; they value obedience over closeness.
In the third group are those parents, including the typical
Scandinavian parent, who hit their children on occasion but feel
bad about it each time.
Regardless of a parent's attitude, however, all violence toward
children has exactly the same consequences as violence toward
adults: it creates anxiety, mistrust, and feelings of guilt in the
short term, and low self-esteem, anger, and violence in the long
term. The repercussions of violence are not necessarily
proportional to how often a child is hit. I have met people who
had been treated violently by their parents on only one occasion
in the course of their childhood and adolescence, and who have
never recovered from the pain. I have also met people who have
been hit on ten to twenty occasions and who bear few scars. The
factor that seems to have an impact on how seriously an act of
violence will reverberate is whether the parents take
responsibility for the violence or blame their children for it.