from Parents Magazine (August, 1945)

How Not to Raise Our Children

The tragic picture of childhood in Germany presents sober lessons for American parents.

by Harriet Eager Davis

As the wife of the Carnegie Endowment representative in Geneva, the writer was witness to events that culminated in World War II. She traveled extensively in Germany, was well-acquainted with German families and their young people. The mother of three boys brought up in Europe but in the American way, she sounds a passionate note of warning concerning the dangers inherent in what she terms "the authority system of education."

The making of a German presents so strange and tragic a picture of childhood, with its consequent disastrous effects on adult life, that democracies need look no further for an object lesson on how not to raise their children. Submission, not self-reliance, has been the great virtue. Authority, not justice, has been the god. Power, not principle, has been the philosophy. Status, not equality, has been the preoccupation. Obedience, not achievement for its own sake, has been the goal of conduct.

And even obedience was not enough; the child has always had to keep proving his inferiority to adults by visible symbols--shaking hands, bowing from the waist, clicking his heels, cramping natural movements into stiff mannerisms considered "correct" by his elders. There is no doubt that we teach our children better manners, but even our carelessness is healthier than such emphasis on servility. In Germany good manners have been based not on kindness but on fear. Whatever his own inner feelings, a child always had to behave in a certain way toward adults.

"Your American children," a freshly arrived German nurse exclaimed to her employer, "they have no fear! Nothing I threaten frightens them. Their father is too gentle; he plays with them like a comrade. He should act more like a father. In Germany," she said proudly, "we raise our children like little soldiers. When my brother speaks, his children jump!"

The German father reigned supreme in the home; his wife bowed to his will, and his presence was a source of potential fear to the children. Their first duty, like their mother's, was submission to his authority. Mothers might express natural love when alone with their children, but the moment father appeared, they dropped submissively into an inferior role. A child saw his mother suddenly change from a natural protector to a weakling, acquiescing in everything her husband did, even if it was cruel or unjust and against the child's best welfare. Small wonder, the psychiatrists conclude, that the German child's image of parenthood has been confused and his sense of safety in his mother's protection so shaken that it has become a deep psychological insecurity for life.

Conversely, therefore, a sound inner core of strength should grow from our American ideal of parent-partnership, both father and mother strong, both kind, both standing for the same principles, with a mother so vital and protective that she can defend her child even against her own husband if necessary. Any mother who longs in a weak moment for the kind of husband who exerts old-fashioned discipline may well ask herself how she would enjoy seeing her children cringe in their father's presence and how long she could submit to the masculine arrogance which accompanies such a family system.

The psychologists agree that German aggressiveness, springing from insecurity, is therefore partially due to the inferior position German women have long occupied.


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