Excerpted from The Authentic Child, Random House, 1969, pp. 117-18, 120-22.
The June 7, 1968 issue of Life magazine was delivered to my office on June 6, a few hours after I had learned of Senator Robert Kennedy's death. In this issue, Senator Eugene McCarthy was quoted as saying, after his victory in the Oregon primary election, that Kennedy had been "pretty well bloodied up."
The timing of the quote was unfortunate, to say the least, and I am sure that Senator McCarthy who, like the rest of us, was still seeing the image of the all too literally bloodied head of his late opponent, regrets most fiercely the untimely publication of his remark. Yet the metaphor is of our time, and even the peaceful McCarthy must assume responsibility for adding to the vocabulary of violence which is so limitlessly and apparently inextricably a part of our language and our reactions. John Chancellor, the NBC reporter, for example, described the many noted persons leaving St. Patrick's Cathedral after Senator Kennedy's funeral as an "arsenal of power." Semanticists have told us of the power of words, how they structure and shape our deepest reactions. Words are not only symbols, once or twice removed from the realities of love or hate; rather, they stimulate, direct, even create love and hate--and fear and violence. A five-year-old child is not a semanticist, but he wonders despairingly if his mother might not really do it when she threatens, "I'll kill you!" The mother will protest, "He knows I was only saying that," but the child, unconvinced that her words were unreal, is far more sophisticated than she: he senses in his mother's threat the real kernel of murderousness lying at the center. When later he suffers the spanking that represents the next stage in his mother's breakdown of control, he appreciates even more convincingly the essential identity of word and deed. He does not understand the psychodynamics of spanking: the mother's emotional immaturity, her own regular spankings as a child, her predictable inflictions upon someone else of her own frustrations and inadequacies, her interpersonal narrowness that allows of only one means--physical violence--of dealing with a child's recalcitrances. He understands only the important thing: that when his mother says something, she means it--far more than she knows...
------To say to the virulent anti-Semite, Love thy neighbor--to say to a parent routinely beaten up when he was a child, Honor and cherish gently your own child--to say to the Southern bigot, All men are created equal--to say to a violence-obsessed, death-loving, gun-bearing psychopath, Thou shalt not kill--to say all this is to speak unheard and unattended. It is not to the behavior, the bigotry, the brutality, that we must appeal, for they will remain unalterably functions of the underlying hatred, quick to explode in crisis or confrontation--as quickly as five minutes after listening to, and agreeing with, a sermon attacking them. It is the underlying aggressiveness, the attitudes of contempt and force against other people, the experience of suffering from violence stemming from childhood that we must try to eliminate. We must look carefully, thoroughly, and rationally at the experiences of childhood, and we must come out forcefully against those experiences that set the stage for later bigotry and brutality and violence--the symptoms of essential contempt for other people. Spanking a child, with all this implies of our senseless lack of acknowledgement of the child as an important and worthy person, is one of the major predisposing factors in later violence. I believe that unless any present or future National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence looks deeply into the childhood antecedents of this sickness in our society and unless the Commission is brave enough to attack this traditionally American way of raising children, its final report will be worthless. Although much discussion came from the violence of 1968, we still have to do something about the problem, not simply outline and describe it.