An essay about Poisonous Pedagogy back in time and Today

by | Apr 14, 2019 | Freedom with others, Freedom with self | 0 comments

Regardless of the season of my life, I have always had one final goal in mind:

I wanted to be able to start a family. Not just any family. I longed for a healthy family.

I knew, even in the years of “rebellion”, while I was questioning all the values and things taught by my own family, this was the desire of my heart. However, I knew that I could not give anything that I had not received myself.

It was also clear to me that many things I had experienced in my own family were nothing I wanted to imitate. Very early on I knew what I didn’t want… but it was a long process to be able to understand what exactly was wrong, and especially, what it was that would replace these things!

In 2010 I was participating in a Christian counseling school, and at the end of the first year, we had to choose a theme to write an essay on.
I was clear what my subject would be: “Family”. More precisely, I chose the theme “Poisonous Pedagogy”, a reality I was discovering through the literature we had to read for that school.
Reading through this essay a couple of days ago, I decided to transform it into two articles. Of course I made some changes to make it suitable for the open public.

This work is based on the book “The family”, written by John Bradshaw. The pages are from the French version “la famille”, updated version 2004, translated into English.

Bradshaw explains the meaning of the poisonous pedagogy (or in the words of Alice Miller: black pedagogy)  (p.88)

 “The poisonous pedagogy is based on inequality – a kind of master/slave relationship. Parents are deserving of respect simply because they are parents. Parents are always right and are to be obeyed.

And on page 129: 

 “The overt rules that create dysfunctionality are the rules of the poisonous pedagogy. Parents are dysfunctional as a result of these erroneous rules, which they carry within their own psyches.“

The book describes at a deep level this way of living in a family, of being raised.

I realized that, although I found myself affected by the emotions and consequences caused by this treatment described in the book, I did not experience most of the things described in there (physical abuse, sexual abuse, willful malice). My family has not suffered from alcoholism, infidelity in marriage or other things like that.

I then realized that the family system is not ended with every generation  – but that, as Bradshaw describes it:

 “Without critically questioning and updating them (The erroneous rules) , they pass them on to their children. Thus, parents become unintentional carriers of a virus.”  (p.29)

In my case, they mainly transmitted the emotions they experienced during their childhood, their shame, blame, fear, vision of the world, of God and transmitted their “weak” identity. Their sense of “worthlessness”, the denigration they received themselves. 


Poisonous Pedagogy – a description

In my research on the subject I have been able to see that poisonous pedagogy is exactly what Bradshow calls it:

A virus carried involuntarily. (p.129).

It is highly contagious and infects entire families, entire generations. It infects people with the best intentions, the highest moral values, Christian parents, and even those who grew up in such an environment and who have vowed never to do this with their own children. 

It has become clear to me that poisonous pedagogy is based largely on a false image of who a child is – and this image will later reproduce in ourselves, how we treat our own self (inner child) and in the same way, how we treat our own children.


Poisonous Pedagogy back in time

 As I did a weekend of this counseling school, I had my three month old with me. I did as I did at home. Carrying him in a sling, nursing him when he was hungry (my oldest did this every 2 ½ hours, as if he would have an internal clock) and rocking him to sleep.

Three ladies in their fifties came to me during the weekend, telling me how my attitude as a mother touched them deeply. They told me how they were raised very differently.

Triggered by this experience I talked to several people around this age.
I realized that they all had all similar stories.
Nothing very serious in their opinion:  

“it was done like that in past times”…

and yet an image of the child upbringing described in the book “The Family” as poisonous pedagogy:

  • The adult (no matter if it is the parents, the teacher, the village pastor or a peasant friend next door) is always right and has all the rights.
  • The individual did not exist in itself, but only as a function of family (also described in Bradshaw’s book p. 220
  • All of those people in their fifties I talked to, could identify their past with this statement:

    “Instead of learning from our children, the poisonous pedagogy exhorts us to mold and train them like animals. It asks us to crush their vitality, spontaneity and emotional expression.” P.210

  • Corporal punishment was frequent (and poisonous pedagogy encourages it) because it would be a good way to teach children respect and obedience towards parents, (p195)

    One of those ladies I talked to was also sexually assaulted in the name of “education”, as Bradshaw puts it. (p.175) Poisonous pedagogy plays a predominant role in the tragedy of incest and sexual offenses in general….since children must obey their parents and honor them at all costs, implicitly; the latter have rights over their children’s bodies.

  • The people in charge of education have used guilt as a guardian to act, which has taught them to be ashamed of themselves. P.220
  • Yelling, name-calling, labeling, criticizing, judging, ridiculing, humiliating, comparing and holding in contempt are all sources of shame (p.219) and is psychological aggression.

In her book “For your own good” Alice Miller, the inventor of the expression “black pedagogy”, includes the following points on pages 59-60:

  • A feeling of duty produces love.
  • Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it.
  • Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
  • Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
  • Obedience makes a child strong.
  • A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
  • A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
  • Tenderness (doting) is harmful.
  • Responding to a child’s needs is wrong.
  • Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
  • A pretense of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
  • The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.
  • Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
  • The body is something dirty and disgusting.
  • Strong feelings are harmful.
  • Parents are creatures free from drives and guilt.
  • Parents are always right.

 Poisonous pedagogy today

In our present time the image of the child has changed a little. However, we find it everywhere in our society.

As a present example (remember I wrote that in 2010, around the birth of my firstborn) I came across a current example, when I was pregnant with our first baby and followed the advice of several friends of mine.

They were enthused over a book about raising kids that is widely spread in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. “Schlaf gut mein kleiner Schatz” – the German version of “Babywise” of well-known author Garry Ezzo. The ministry of the Ezzos started back in the 1980s.  I know many families in the English and German-speaking world who raise their kids by his teaching.

I bought that book.

I studied it.

I even ordered material from the United States.

I did research on it, reading many reviews on Amazon – both the one stars and the five stars (all back in 2010, when I wrote this essay).

To reassure those of you approving of his books, I will include right here in the beginning my conclusion: I know several parents who are doing a great job as parents while loving that book. Today I believe that it all comes down to this “virus of poisonous pedagogy”. If you are infected by it, you will apply any teaching with this mindset of poisonous pedagogy. And Ezzo’s teaching and view of a child will not help you to get rid of it. In contrary, it helps you to do it more firmly.
However, if that’s not your story and you can’t identify with the above mentioned points, then you will be able to take everything with a grain of salt and apply the things that work for your family and your child.

Having made that clear, back to my example:

Being well aware how this poisonous pedagogy has hurt my life, I was very sensitive to the message of this author. I found many of his statements about child rearing, his understanding of child development and the way he assumes that his way is the only correct way, very disturbing.

Let me explain me why I say that:

He teaches, for example, that:

  • “Your task is to get control of the child so you can effectively train him.” (GKGW)
  • “If anything, continuous close mother/infant contact produces abnormal mother/child dependency.” (NEPrep)
  • “Because the desire for continual and immediate gratification begins at birth, the need for cultivating self-control in your child also begins at that point.” (NE GKGW)
  • “The foundations of moral training are laid early in life, and the cornerstone is discipline. Getting your baby on a routine and sleeping through the night are the results of basic discipline.”  (Prep for the Toddler Years p84)
  • “When your baby awakens [in the middle of the night] do not rush right in. Any crying will be temporary, lasting from 5-45 minutes.” (Speaking of babies 8 weeks and over)
  • Parents must be careful not to become slaves to their newborn child
  • Responding to every crying of the newborn will make him narcissistic and unable to have healthy relationships later on (because they will believe that the whole world revolves around them)
  • It spoils your baby (and even your newborn) to pick him up with every crying. You have to learn to let the baby cry, especially if it is not an adequate moment of crying (i.e. if the child has just eaten, the diapers are clean and the baby’s not hurting)

These are only a few of his ideas.

Bradshaw, on the other hand, explains (p. 214) that

“A child’s earliest needs are for a warm, loving person to be there to mirror, echo and affirm them. This means that the first 15months of life (called the symbiotic stage), a child needs a face with accepting eyes to reflect his self.  Whatever is the mothering person’s eyes becomes the core and foundation of the child’s identity.

He also points out that

“Alice Miller has argued that the infant child’s inner sensations come from the core of the child’s self. The earliest sensations come from the mothers feeling about the child. Since the child is nonverbal, everything depends on feelings. These early feelings about the self are the core out of which the child’s self esteem will be formed. This earliest need is called the healthy narcissist need.  P.215

Next week, I will explore some more the subject. 

We will see that 

  • We can’t give what we haven’t received,
  • We transmit the image we have formed since our early childhood to our own children (and our inner child, of course)
  • Our emotions of shame, worthlessness, blame, etc. are passed on to our own children without us saying anything, even often without realizing it ourselves.
  • The image (whether present or absent) of our own authority figure (father) reflects the image we have of God. What our beliefs are about Him. What we believe that He thinks of us, the way we believe that He cares for us (or doesn’t take care of us) .

However, I will also share with you how you can break free from a past of poisonous Pedagogy and enter into the freedom of experiencing a different reality for yourself and your children.