Science continues to inform--and affirm--the case against spanking
A message from Olivier Maurel, January 21, 2004

Translation from the original French by Tom Johnson

Dear friends,

This message is to keep you abreast of my discoveries with regard to childrearing violence. I'm sending this to everyone I know who is interested in the problem of violence and in protecting children. If you do not wish to receive such information, please let me know.

In the latest book by American neurologist Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza (Heinemann, 2003), I recently found one of the most significant confirmations of the dangers to children of violent upbringing. And Damasio has personally affirmed the hypothesis I've formulated from his writings. (Damasio is currently considered one of the finest investigators in the field of brain research.)

In his book, Damasio shows (p.158 [of the French edition, Spinoza avait raison]) that social and pedagogical factors, among others, can bring on a microscopic functional defect of the neural circuits. A possible result of this defect is that "innate social emotions and feelings are not deployed normally. At the very least, this leads the young patients to abnormal interactions with others. They react inappropriately in a host of social situations, and, in turn, others will react inappropriately to them. The young patients develop a skewed concept of the social world." All of which ultimately has "devastating consequences."

From here Damasio formulates a hypothesis: What if it were not just a small minority of the population who suffered from the frontal lobe damage which causes these functional defects, that is to say, if they had been "deprived of the ability to respond to others with sympathy, attachment, embarrassment, and other social emotions"? Answer: ". . . there would have been no spontaneous exhibition of the innate social responses that foreshadow a simple ethical system--no budding altruism, no kindness when kindness is due, no censure when censure is appropriate, no automatic sense of one's own failings." Damasio continues to list the negative consequences and concludes: "With the natural system of emotional navigation more or less disabled, there would not have been a ready possibility of fine-tuning the individual to the real world. Moreover, the possibility of constructing a fact-based social navigation system, independently of the missing natural system, appears unlikely."

So I wrote a letter to Damasio. Here is the gist of it:

The hypothesis you formulate on page 158 of the French edition under the heading : Et si tout le monde... [What If the World?] caught my interest in particular. You wonder what man's social behavior would be like if a majority of the population suffered from lesions of the frontal lobe. And you list all the negative consequences that would have resulted.

But the question I asked myself was just the opposite. Just about all of us, on every continent, have been subject to parental violence aimed at teaching behavior, which according to the most reliable surveys is experienced by 80-90% of the human race, and so it has been at least since the earliest recorded civilizations. In the great majority of countries, this correctional violence is quite intense (strokes of a cane, whip, electric cord, plastic hose and other traumatizing punishments), but mere slaps and spanking can also be quite traumatic. This is inflicted on children starting at a very young age (sometimes a few weeks) and continuing up to adolescence, sometimes up to adulthood and even beyond in certain countries. It is inflicted by parents, the very people who are or should be children's role models and source of security. What's more, it is inflicted on them in such a way that they can neither run away or defend themselves, just like the rats in Henri Laborit's movie (Mon oncle d¹Amérique...), a situation where stress hormones will attack the body.

In other words, my question is not "What would humanity be like if most people were afflicted with brain lesions?" but rather: Is it not reasonable to suppose that animals of whatever species, being subjected by their own parents to such treatment for so long a period of their lives, will inevitably sustain injuries more or less serious to the brain's emotional centers? Is it invalid to think certain aberrant or especially cruel behaviors witnessed throughout human history, yet not found among any animals closely related to man, may originate from the most widely used child-raising method on Earth?

Multiple studies have shown that maltreatment of children makes them more susceptible to illness and accidents and disposes them to violence against themselves or others. This seems to me the mark of a profound disorder.

But the term maltreatment is deceptive because it supposedly concerns only a minority of children, those with the misfortune of having child-torturers for parents.

What almost always gets overlooked nowadays is that in most countries the majority of children are subjected to intense violence in the course of their upbringing. And if the majority of people overlook or ignore this, it's precisely because they were hit and thereby, along with the blows they suffered, got the message that hitting children is perfectly normal and beneficial. This is why religion and philosophy alike, until most recent times, have been indifferent to this problem.

A month later, Damasio sent me this reply:
Dear Mr. Maurel,

Many thanks for your letter of October 28. I entirely agree with your point. It is an important complement to the issue I was raising in Chapter 4 of Looking for Spinoza. Education in general and some education systems in particular are indeed responsible for some of the major problems that face us today.

With all best wishes,
Antonio R. Damasio

Shortly thereafter, I came across the following passage in the book Synaptic Self (Viking; 2002) by Joseph LeDoux, another eminent American specialist in neurology: "Because emotion systems coordinate learning, the broader the range of emotions that a child experiences the broader will be the emotional range of the self that develops. This is why childhood abuse is so devastating. If a significant proportion of the early emotional experiences one has are due to activation of the fear system rather than positive systems, then the characteristic personality that begins to build up from the parallel learning processes coordinated by the emotional state is one characterized by negativity and hopelessness rather than affection and optimism."

It seems to me that these confirmations, combined with the WHO's report from November 2002, leave hardly any doubt about the important role childrearing violence plays in the genesis of human violence generally, as well as in such phenomena as the diminished capacity for compassion that enables the worst massacres.

Given the scarcity of doubt on this point, it seems to me also that denouncing childrearing violence should be one of the main tasks for everyone in the fight against violence.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, and for those like myself who are doing all they can to inform people on the subject, it often feels like they're preaching in the desert. Practically everywhere we continue to talk about violence as if it had nothing at all to do with the way children are initiated into it by their very own parents and, in many countries, their teachers.

I myself am convinced that this is not due to some kind of ill will but to the simple fact, as noted in my letter to Damasio, that it's extremely difficult for those who were hit by their parents to recognize the dangers of this training method, much less denounce it, especially if the blows they suffered did not exceed the level commonly permitted in their society--but often even when this level was exceeded. As very few people have escaped childrearing violence, very few see the danger of this method, and only a tiny minority will go so far as to denounce it and see all its consequences. It's as simple as that.

It's for this reason I allow myself a bit of heavy-handedness in insisting that everyone keen on combating violence, particularly within the framework of the Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence, take serious account of childrearing violence in their informational campaigns.

For my own part, I write articles and books, as well as giving educational lectures on the subject. Please let me know if you know of any publications that might be interested in some articles on this topic, and if you can, put me in touch with those in charge. I also try to lend my support here and there around the globe to initiatives undertaken in this field and help with coordinating them. For instance, in a month or two an anti-corporal punishment campaign will commence in Togo, whose organizers are using my book La Fessée [in English,"Spanking"], of which they've ordered 1,000 copies from the publisher, and drew inspiration from the manifesto I diffuse against childrearing violence. But if we had greater numbers, things would progress much faster. To be sure, there's a lot to be done on the Internet. I've managed to publish articles on some fairly well-referenced websites, articles which often generate contacts from various countries around the world. But we could surely do a lot more and a lot better. If any of you have some ideas, I welcome your suggestions.

Especially given the state of the planet, we can't afford to let children's potential be maimed and shunted toward violence. I cannot overstate how imperative it is that the Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence make childrearing violence an essential focus of activism.

Here's wishing everyone a great 2004!
Olivier Maurel

(All comments or criticisms regarding the message above may be sent to

* Translated from the original French by Tom Johnson


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