Saturday, June 4, 2011

Quote A Day #2 - Parenting For A Peaceful World

I'm going to keep calling these a quote a day, even though my blogging frequency probably makes them more accurately Quote A Week.

The Book:

Parenting For A Peaceful World by Robin Grille.

The Quote:

"In a detailed and comprehensive study titled The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, sociologists Samuel and Perl Oliner interviewed over 400 individuals who had placed their own and their family's live at risk in order to hide and rescue Jews.  These rescuers were compared to a group of non-rescuers, who disagreed with the persecution of Jews but took no action to protect them.  Both groups were asked an exhaustive battery of questions about a wide range of personal attributes, their personal and family backgrounds.  ...

[T]he Oliners found that there were no significant differences between rescuers and non-rescuers in almost any of the categories of attributes.  The two groups were not dissimilar in economic status, in exposure to opportunities for rescuing, in religious faith, or in risks involved.  Rescuers and non-rescuers were equally likely to live among Jews and know them as friends or acquaintances.  Members of both groups were asked for help by Jews with the same frequency.  So why if both groups were equal in their circumstances, was one group's care and conviction strong enough to motivate life-risking action?  The only distinguishing feature that set apart the rescuers from the non-rescuers, was the way they were reared as children. ...

Rescuers reported that their parents had placed much less emphasis on 'obedience'.  They tended to describe their relationship with their parents as closer and warmer.  Both groups reported being 'disciplined' by their parents with equal frequency, but the parents of rescuers had used non-violent methods of 'discipline'.  Rescuers reported having been beaten a lot less as children, and certainly not with objects such as rods, wooden spoons or birches.

There is probably no clearer evidence that childhood shapes society.  There is no more compelling and convincing imperative to abandon violent and punitive child-rearing methods.  The willingness to take altruistic action, even when this poses a risk, and the willingness to defy dishonourable authority, these are signs of emotional maturity - the product of non-violent and respectful child rearing.  If more Europeans had been raised in this way around the turn of the 20th century, there would not have been a Holocaust."


I feel this quote really sums up Robin Grille's book.  It encapsulates his key argument: that they way we are raised has an impact on the kind of society we create, where respectful parenting produces more peaceful societies and violent, abusive parenting produces violent, abusive societies.  The book is fascinating and thought-provoking, but it also takes small, selective pieces of evidence and uses them to jump to big conclusions.

I agree with the idea that child rearing practices do have an impact on society.  We think of schools with timetables and bells as being a normal way of life, but when I studied history I was fascinated to learn that schools as we know them were an invention of industrial society, and they were specifically invented to train children in a way of acting that would make them good factory workers.  Today we instill in our children a rigid sense of time from a very early age - an idea that every second counts, that one must always know what the time is, and that time is precious and can be wasted. But it wasn't always this way.

Only a couple of centuries ago, prior to the industrial revolution, even in Western society time was seen as a gentle, cyclical thing.  Ordinary people did not have clocks.  People followed the rhythms of the sun and the tides, the earth turning, and recurring religious events.  When a job had to get done, people often worked at it the way uni students often do: piss farting around for a while, then pulling together and working intensively to make the dead-line, then celebrating with a party afterwards.  In the early days of the industrial revolution, many factory owners lamented the phenomenon of 'Saint Mondays', where their workers preferred to take the day off and drink.  Historians have questioned how wide-spread 'Saint Monday' absenteeism actually was, but the debate itself is a record of a society grappling with a changing concept of time.

This history of time is why I am always a little sceptical of advice that children must have strict to-the-minute schedules or they feel disoriented.  I think many children can be very happy with schedules, but it is unlikely that a way of organising the day that was not even possible until the early 19th century is something that your child absolutely must have.

To return to Robin Grille, he makes an argument that human societies have gradually developed greater moral and emotional health, and as a result greater peacefulness, but that we are yet to reach our full potential (for peacefulness and for respectful, nurturing parenting).  This is at once an attractive and a terrifying idea for parents.  On the one hand, as you change the umpteenth pooey nappy and engage in yet another repetitive game of peek-a-boo, it is a wonderful thing to think that parenting really does make a difference.  On the other hand, we spend so much time worrying about the way we parent, do we really need to feel that if we get it wrong we may be contributing to World War 3?

Robin Grille is a clinical psychologist, not an historian, and it shows.  Rather than simply showing that there may be a relationship between the way children are treated and the rules of a society, he picks selective examples to argue that we are on an ever-advancing path to progress through different stages of social violence.  He talks of humans starting in the 'infanticidal mode', progressing to the 'abandoning mode', the 'ambivalent mode', the 'intrusive mode', and today to the 'socialising mode'.  He hopes we can evolve to the 'helping mode'.

History has to be told very selectively to produce a march of progress like this.  There are societies practicing infanticide today - it is not a matter of ancient history.  And the reasons why infanticide is practiced are complex.  Infanticide was purportedly a heinous crime in colonial Australia, but it was also very common and everyone was aware it went on under the guise of baby farming.  Why?  Because of very strong economic and social pressures on poor young women to work and not have babies out of wedlock.  In some ways, attempting to live up to the moral ideals of colonial Australia was the very thing that caused infanticide.  Infanticide is also practiced in some societies because they do not have birth control or safe abortion, and they are trying to pursue quality of life with limited resources.  This is not so different from the reasons why our own society allows abortion.  Evaluating a society's morality involves dealing with all these tricky, fraught examples, and Grille does not deal with them - he studiously avoids them.

There are other problems.  How he is judging morality is not entirely clear.  I am not sure that abandoning a child to death or to controlling them through severe abuse is really that much of a moral advance on infanticide.  Then there are the grand conclusions he draws, such as in the quote above, where he unequivocally states that abusive parenting practices caused the Holocaust.  He says this despite not even knowing how widespread abusive parenting practices were in the pre-Holocaust generation.

The study by the Oliner's was specifically of people who were sympathetic to Jews and had Jewish friends.  This was not a study of what motivated the Nazi party.  It was not a study of who stood up and fought the Nazis, or who was Anti-Semitic and why.  It was only a study of who, in the situation of Nazi Germany, would risk their lives to secretly hide and smuggle Jews to safety.  This behaviour is only a small part of the picture of what was going on during the Holocaust, and if you think about it, smuggling Jews does not describe actions that would have either prevented the rise of the Nazi's nor would they have caused their demise.  Hiding Jews was brave and humane, and it shows free thinking rather than mindless obedience.  I agree that the study does show us something about human nature and parenting practices.  But I do not agree that is shows that parenting practices caused the Holocaust.

Grille's examples and argument are interesting enough that the book is worth reading just to mull over, and to get some perspective on one's own parenting practices.  But I do feel that as a call to action it is flawed, because it inspires through fear and prejudice, not the compassionate principles it advocates.  It makes people think: 'I don't want to be authoritarian with my children because then I'd be like a Nazi' rather than because I want to be compassionate.  The difference is that when you do it out of fear of being a terrible person, you also feel entitled (if not compelled) to judge other parents for not following Robin Grille's recommendations.

I find myself caught in this quandary sometimes.  Reading a book like Robin Grille's can really open your eyes as to the flaws in many popular parenting practices, but it also makes me inclined to judgment. I was reminded of this harshly in a recent online debate, where I mentioned I was partially night-weaning my 10mo baby (cuddling rather than feeding her for 5-7 hours of the night until she got used to going that stretch without a feed), and someone else responded by quoting Robin Grille, who was stating that nothing less than a child's "emotional wellbeing" rested on being fed on demand 24/7 until they were 2 years old.  When I asked if this was perhaps overstating the case, given there were many, many more securely attached children than the number fed on demand for this long, the scorn and outrage shocked me.  I was not meeting my child's needs.  Other mothers must be warned that what I was doing was dangerous.  And there was no point even arguing about it.

It made me reflect not just on the kind of mother I want to be, but the kind of person I want to be towards other mothers.  I don't want to be the person who passes out judgment.  Sometimes it is a fine line between sharing information and offering judgment, and in the heat of the moment it's hard to tell the difference, and we don't always get it right.


  1. As the author of this book, I need to point out to you that many of your critiques are based on mis-reading. For instance, you say: "do we really need to feel that if we get it wrong we may be contributing to World War 3?" I took great care throughout the book to show that it is not individual parents, but how the society SUPPORTS all parents, that makes the difference, I see that your prime concern is to avoid guilt, and perhaps that explains your mis-reading of my book. So far, the overwhelming feedback from my readers is that my book has helped them feel free of guilt, more committed to parenting, and forgiving towards their own parents. If as you say my book makes you 'inclined to judgment', please know that is about your interpretation. Most readers are moved to compassion towards self and others.
    "..he picks selective examples.." - from a large number of historians, if you look at the endnotes.
    I also made it very clear that the 'stages' of parenting in history overlap considerably, that not all cultures evolve together, that the most violent practices still exist in places today, and that the 'stages' are blurry and that they are no more than a convenient mode of presenting the abundance of evidence.
    "..How he is judging morality is not entirely clear..." That is because I make no statement about morality whatsoever. None. I made it clear that parental behaviour is not to be placed on a moral matrix. Infanticide was mostly family planning in times of despair. The parents' moral ranking is not a point of this book. The point is that irrespective of anyone's moral appraisal, the impact of violent parenting is the same on children. My concern is for the affect on the child, not about a moral judgment on the parent. Not sure how you missed that in my book. The way to avoid guilt feelings as a parent is to not use scientific information against oneself. Here is why my book has helped so many parents to be released from guilt: they discovered in reading that we are, all of us together, learning and growing a parents and doing our best given our circumstances, and therefore there are no parenting experts. The whole world learns and - hopefully - improves together.

    1. Thanks for the response. I guess each reader brings their own perspective to a text and my review is about how your book was received by me personally. Good luck with your next book!
      Cheers, Caroline