The History of Childhood As the History of Child Abuse
by Lloyd deMause
ABSTRACT: The historical record points to childhood being
a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. Children
have historically been killed, abandoned, terrorized, and sexually abused
by their caretakers. Children are routinely used as poison containers by
adults, i.e., they are used to "absorb" the bad feelings and anxieties
of their caretakers. Rather than the incest taboo being universal, it is
incest itself that is universal. This pattern of abuse is at a high level
currently in the West, but it is even higher, even routine, the further
back in time and the further from the West one looks. The evolution of
childhood from incest to love and from abuse to empathy has been slow and
uneven but is both unmistakably progressive and is an independent source
of sociocultural evolution. This evolution is characterized by six childrearing
modes—infanticidal, abandoning, ambivalent, intrusive, socializing, and
helping. All social violence is ultimately a consequence of child abuse,
and we are likely to continue our periodic sacrificial rituals of war if
the infliction of childhood trauma continues. A parenting revolution is
needed to stave off the periodic destruction of our resources, both material
During the past two decades, I have spent much of my scholarly life
examining primary historical sources such as diaries, autobiographies,
doctor's reports, and other documents that reveal what it must have felt
like to have been a child—yesterday and today, in the East and the West,
in literate and preliterate cultures.
History Founded Upon Abuse of Children
In several hundred articles and books published by myself and my
associates in The Journal of Psychohistory and by our Psychohistory
Press, we have documented extensive evidence that the history of childhood
has been a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken.
The further back in history one goes—and the further away from the West
one gets—the more likely children are to have been killed, abandoned, beaten,
terrorized, and sexually abused by their caretakers.
Indeed, my conclusion from a lifetime of psychohistorical study of
childhood and society is that the history of humanity is founded upon the
abuse of children. Just as family therapists today find that child abuse
often functions to hold families together as a way of solving their emotional
problems, so too the routine assault of children has been society's most
effective way of maintaining its collective emotional homeostasis. Most
historical families once practiced infanticide, erotic beating, and incest.
Most states sacrificed and mutilated their children to relieve the guilt
of adults. Even today, we continue to arrange the daily killing, maiming,
molestation, and starvation of children through our social, military, and
economic systems. I hope to summarize here some of the evidence I have
found as to why child abuse has been humanity's most powerful and most
successful ritual, why it has been the cause of war and social violence,
and why the eradication of child abuse and neglect is the most important
social task we face today.
Children Used As Poison Containers
The main psychological mechanism that operates in child assault involves
adults using children as what I have termed poison containers—receptacles
into which they project disowned parts of their psyches, so they can control
these feelings in another body without danger to themselves. In good
the child uses the caretaker as a poison container, much as it earlier
used the mother's placenta as a poison container for cleansing its polluted
blood. A good mother reacts with calming actions to the cries of a baby
and helps it "detoxify" its dangerous emotions. But when an immature
baby cries, she cannot stand the screaming; she strikes out at the child.
As one battering mother put it, "I have never felt loved all my life. When
the baby was born, I thought he would love me. When he cried, it meant
he didn't love me. So I hit him."* Rather than the child being able to
use the mother to detoxify its fears and anger, the mother instead injects
her bad feelings into the child and uses him to cleanse
her of her
depression and anger.
Consider a typical infanticidal and incestuous preliterate culture,
the Bimin-Kuskusmin of New Guinea. As is typical in preliterate cultures,
the mothers sleep naked against their children until they are about six
years old, and they regularly masturbate them "to make their penises grow."
One three-year-old boy describes how whenever his mother was sad or angry
she masturbated him so roughly that it hurt him, and he struggled to get
away, complaining of a pain in his penis. "It hurts inside," he told the
ethnologist. "It goes 'koong, koong, koong' inside. I think it bleeds in
there; I don't like to touch it anymore. It hurts when I pee...." Sometimes,
after his mother hurts him while masturbating him, he wounds himself in
the thigh and abdomen with a sharp stick and draws blood, looking at his
penis and saying, "Now it hurts here, outside, not in penis. Look, blood.
Feels good...." Although he is only three years old, he understands quite
well that he is being used as a poison container by his mother to relieve
her depression. He says, "Mother twist penis, tight.... Hurt inside....
Mother angry, hurt Buuktiin's penis. Mother sad, hurt Buuktiin's penis....
Mother not like Buuktiin's penis, want to cut off...."*
Incest Is Universal
In my study "The Universality of Incest," I concluded that rather than
the incest taboo being universal, as is commonly held, it is incest
itself—direct and indirect—that is universal for most children in most
cultures in most times. A childhood more or less free from adult sexual
abuse is in fact a rather late historical achievement, limited to a few
fortunate children in a few modern nations, mainly in the West. To give
you some idea of the extensive evidence I have gathered for such an unlikely
conclusion, I begin by summarizing the statistical evidence that exists
for the sexual abuse of children around the world today.
High Incidence in the West
In America, the most accurate scientific studies, based on lengthy interviews,
report that 30 percent of men and 40 percent of women remember having been
sexually molested during childhood—defining molestation as actual
genital contact, not just exposure. About half of these are directly
with the immediate family; the other half occurred with neighbors, but
with the complicity of caretakers in at least 80 percent of the cases.
These experiences of seduction are not just pieced together from fragmentary
memories but are remembered in detail. They usually occurred over an extended
period of time. They have been confirmed by follow-up reliability studies
in 83 percent of the cases. All things considered, they are unlikely to
have been fantasies. Furthermore, the seductions occurred at much earlier
ages than had been previously assumed, with 81 percent occurring before
puberty and an astonishing 42 percent under age 7.
As high as these molestation rates seem, however, they represent
only a portion of the true rates. Those interviewed did not include populations
that have been shown to have extremely high rates—i.e., criminals, prostitutes,
juveniles in shelters, psychotics, and so on. But more importantly, only
conscious memories were counted, and the earliest seductions of children
are almost never remembered except during psychotherapy. Adjusting for
these additional factors, I concluded that the real sexual abuse rate for
America is 60 percent for girls and 45 percent for boys, with about half
that being directly incestuous.
Other Western nations have made fewer careful studies. A recent Canadian
study by Gallup of two-thousand adults has produced incidence rates almost
exactly the same as those found in the United States. Latin American family
sexual activity—particularly, widespread pederasty as part of macho
considered even more widespread. In England, a recent BBC "ChildWatch"
program asked its female listeners—a large though admittedly biased sample—if
they remembered sexual molestation. Yet of the 2,530 replies analyzed,
83 percent remembered someone touching their genitals and 62 percent recalled
actual intercourse. In Germany, the Institut fuer Kinheit recently concluded
a survey asking Berlin schoolchildren about their sexual experiences. Eighty
percent reported having been molested.
Routine Molestation Outside the West
Outside the West, the sexual molestation of children is a routine practice
in most families. Childhood in India begins, according to observers, with
the child being regularly masturbated by the mother; the girl "to make
her sleep well," the boy "to make him manly." The child sleeps in the family
bed. He or she witnesses and most likely takes part in sexual intercourse
between the parents. The child is often "borrowed" to sleep with other
members of the extended household, leading to the Indian proverb that "For
a girl to be a virgin at ten years old, she must have neither brothers
nor cousin nor father." Childhood is so eroticized that, as one Western
observer put it, "The little Hindu girls are deflowered by the little boys
with whom they play, and repeat together the erotic lessons which their
parents have unwittingly taught them on account of the general promiscuity
of family life throughout India. In all the little girls of less than ten
years of age the complete hymen is wanting.... Incest is often the rule
rather than the exception."
Of course, child marriage was also a long-standing Indian practice.
When laws were passed in 1929 trying to outlaw it, the government was overwhelmed
by men insisting that early marriage was an absolute necessity, since children
were naturally very sexual and have to be married if they are to be restrained
from seducing adults. "Cupid overtakes the hearts of girls...at an early
age," they said. "A girl's desire for sexual intercourse is eight times
greater than that of males." Indian mothers as well often supported early
marriage, frankly admitting it was necessary in order to protect their
little girls against rape. They claimed, "they were afraid to leave their
daughters at home, even for one afternoon, without a mother's eye and accessible
to the men of the family."
Childhood in China has historically had the same institutionalized
rape rituals as in India, including the pederasty of boys, child concubinage,
the castration of boys to be used sexually as eunuchs, marriage of young
girls to a number of brothers, widespread boy and girl prostitution, and
the regular sexual use of child servants and slaves. So prevalent was the
rape of little girls that Western doctors found that, as in India, few
girls entering puberty had intact hymens. Even the universal practice of
foot binding was for sexual purposes. A girl underwent extremely painful
crushing of the bones of her feet for years solely in order that men could
make love to her big toe as a fetish, a penis-substitute.
Childhood in contemporary Japan—although somewhat more Western than
that of other Eastern nations—still includes masturbation by mothers "to
put them to sleep." Parents usually have intercourse with the children
in bed with them; and "co-sleeping," with parents physically embracing
the child, often continues until the child is ten or fifteen. One recent
Japanese study found daughters sleeping with their fathers over 20 percent
of the time after age 16. Recent sex surveys report memories of sexual
abuse even higher than comparable American studies. "Hot lines" of sexual
abuse report mother-son incest in almost a third of the calls, the mother
saying to her teenage son, "It's not good to do it alone. Your IQ becomes
lower. I will help you," or "You cannot study if you cannot have sex. You
may use my body," or "I don't want you to get into trouble with a girl.
Have sex with me instead."
The sexual use of children in the Near East is as widespread as in
the Far East. All the institutionalized forms of pedophilia that were customary
in the Far East are documented extensively for the Near East as well. The
list includes child marriage, child concubinage, temple prostitution of
both boys and girls, parent-child marriage (among the Zoroastrians), sibling
marriage (quite common among Egyptians), sex slavery, ritualized pederasty,
and child prostitution. Masturbation in infancy is said to be necessary
"to increase the size" of the penis, and older siblings are reported to
play with the genitals of babies for hours at a time. Mutual masturbation,
fellatio, and anal intercourse are also said to be common among children,
particularly with the older boys using younger children as sex objects.
The nude public baths (hammam) are particularly eroticized. They
are notorious as a place of homosexual acts, both male and female, where
boys attend with their mothers and sisters until puberty. Girls, of course,
are used incestuously even more often than boys, since females are valued
so little. One report found 80 percent of Near Eastern women surveyed recalled
having been forced into fellatio between the ages of 3 and 6 by older brothers,
cousins, uncles, and teachers. The girls rarely complained, since "if there
is any punishment to be meted out, it will always end up by being inflicted
Arab women, of course, know that their spouses are pedophiles and
prefer having sex with children to having sex with them. Their retribution
comes as follows: When the girl is about six years old, the women of the
house grab her, pull her thighs apart, and cut off her clitoris and often
also her labia with a razor. This usually ends the girl's ability to feel
sexual pleasure forever. One Egyptian woman relates her memory of how it
happened to her. After being used sexually by the men in her family during
her early childhood, she says,
I was six years old that night when I lay in my bed, warm
and peaceful.... I felt something move under the blankets, something like
a huge hand...another hand was clapped over my mouth to prevent me from
A recent survey of Egyptian girls and women showed 97 percent of uneducated
families and 66 percent of educated families still practiced clitoridectomy.
Nor is the practice decreasing. UN reports estimate that more than 74 million
females have been mutilated, with "more female children mutilated today
than throughout history."
They carried me to the bathroom.... I remember...a rasping metallic
sound which reminded me of the butcher when he used to sharpen his knife....
My blood was frozen in my veins...my thighs had been pulled wide apart....
I felt that the rasping knife or blade was heading straight down towards
my throat. Then suddenly the sharp metallic edge seemed to drop between
my thighs and there cut off a piece of flesh from my body.
I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth, for
the pain was not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through
my whole body. After a few moments, I saw a red pool of blood around my
I did not know what they had cut off from my body, and did not try
to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the
worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my
side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right
in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them.
Like all sexual mutilations, clitoridectomy is, I believe, an act
of incest. If it is incest when a father rapes a daughter, it is also incest
when parents assault their children by cutting off, sewing up, burning,
flaying, or gashing their genitals. In all these cases, the child is being
used for the sadistic sexual pleasure of the parent. Therefore, the practice
of sexually mutilating children's genitals—one of the most widespread rituals
in the world—by itself makes incest a near-universal trait.
Sacrificing Children to Appease the Gods
Historically, the use of children as poison containers to prevent adults
from feeling overwhelmed by their anxieties has also been universal. My
work on the history of childhood regularly encounters children routinely
used to "absorb" the bad feelings of their caretakers. Newborn infants,
in particular, were perfect poison containers because they were so "unpolluted."
The newborn then became so full of the parents' projections that it had
to be tied up—tightly swaddled in bandages for up to a year or more—to
prevent it from "tearing its ears off, scratching its eyes out, breaking
its legs, or touching its genitals."
Children were particularly useful in early societies when adults
felt anxious about recent or impending success. Success stirs up superego
retaliation, and the sacrifice of children to appease the gods—that is,
the punitive parents—was an extremely widespread guilt-reducing device.
Most early states practiced child sacrifice. Typical was Carthage, where
a large cemetery, called The Tophet, has been discovered, filled with over
twenty-thousand urns, deposited there between four hundred and two hundred
BC. The urns contained bones of children sacrificed by their parents. Often
the parents would make a vow to kill their next child if the gods would
grant them a favor—for instance, allowing their shipment of goods to arrive
safely in a foreign port. Some urns contained the bones of stillborn babies
along with the bones of two-year-olds, indicating that if the promised
child were not born alive, an older child had also to be killed to satisfy
the promise. The sacrifice was accompanied by music, wild dancing, and
riotous orgy, and probably also included the ritual rape of virgin girls,
as it was with the Incans. Plutarch told how the priests would "cut their
throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother
stood by without a tear or moan [while] the whole area before the statue
was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums...."
Whenever new ventures were begun, children would be sacrificed. When
a new building or bridge was built, a child would be buried within it as
a "foundation sacrifice." Children who today play "London Bridges Falling
Down" repeat the catching of the sacrificial child in their game. Whatever
one's physical ills, a child could be used to "absorb" the poison that
was responsible for the disease. When one wanted to be cured of leprosy,
one was supposed to kill a child and wash one's body in its blood. When
one wanted to find out if a house whose previous occupants had died of
plague was still infected or not, one rented some children to live in it
for several weeks to see if they died—rather like the use of canaries in
mines to detect poisonous gas. When one was impotent, depressed, or had
venereal disease, doctors prescribed having intercourse with a child. As
late as the end of the nineteenth century, men who were brought into Old
Bailey for having raped young girls were let go because "they believed
that they were curing themselves of venereal disease." Raping virgins was
particularly effective for impotence and depression. As one medical book
put it, "Breaking a maiden's seal is one of the best antidotes for one's
ills. Cudgeling her unceasingly, until she swoons away, is a mighty remedy
for man's depression. It cures all impotence." And, of course, whenever
a parent had a disease, they always had their children handy to absorb
its poison. Thus British doctors in the nineteenth century, when visiting
men who had venereal disease, regularly found that their children also
had the same disease—on their mouths, anuses, or genitals.
The Evolution of Childhood
No matter what anxieties one had, one had children always at hand to
use as poison containers. The evolution of childhood from incest to love
and from abuse to empathy has been a slow, uneven path; but it is one whose
progressive direction is, I think, unmistakable. This evolution of parent-child
relations is an independent source of historical change, lying in
the ability of successive generations of parents to live through their
own childhood traumas a second time and work through their anxieties in
a slightly better manner this second time around. It is in this sense that
I say that history is like psychotherapy, which also heals through revisiting
one's childhood traumas and reworking earlier anxieties. If the parent—the
for most of history—is given even the most minimal support by society,
this evolution of childrearing progresses, new variations in historical
personality are formed, and history begins to move in new, more innovative
The crucial relationship in this evolution is the mother-daughter
relationship. If little girls are treated particularly badly, they grow
up to be mothers who cannot rework their traumas, and history is frozen.
For instance, although China was ahead of the West in most ways during
the pre-Christian era, it became "frozen" and fell far behind the West
in evolutionary social change after it adopted the practice of footbinding
girls. Similarly, the cliterodectomy of girls in Moslem societies has inhibited
their social development for centuries, since it likewise put a brake on
the ability of mothers to make progress in caring for their children.
Generational Pressure for Change
The "generational pressure" for psychological change is not only an
independent historical force—originating in inborn adult-child striving
for relationship—it occurs independent of social and technological change
and can be found even in periods of economic stagnation. My psychogenic
theory of history posits an evolutionary historical tendency to move
from need to love and from symbiosis to individuation,
with new variations of historical personalities selected by local environmental
conditions. This theory suggests that a society's childrearing practices
are not just one item in a list of cultural traits, but—because all other
traits must be passed down from generation to generation through the narrow
funnel of childhood—actually makes childrearing the very basis for the
transmission and development of all other cultural traits, placing definite
limits on what can be achieved in the material spheres of history. Regardless
of the changes in the environment, it is only when real progress in childrearing
occurs that societies themselves begin to progress and to move in unpredictable
new directions that are more adaptive.
Six Stages in Childrearing
The stages in the evolution of childhood have been traced by psychohistorians.
I will summarize the six childrearing modes I have suggested are common
to all groups that have traversed the entire path of evolution so far.
These modes are, in fact, quite independent of technological development—there
are loving families in some preliterate groups as well as among some sections
of economically developed nations. However, they are achieved by only a
portion of each society during the period I assign for their first appearance.
Indeed, our own nations today contain parents at each of the six levels
of childrearing. But the overall evolutionary direction of parent-child
relations is evident in the historical record, regardless of which labels
one chooses to put on its stages.
By the time historical records begin, the sexual use of children is
well documented. The Greek and Roman child lived his or her earliest years
in an atmosphere of sexual abuse. Girls were commonly raped, as reflected
in the many comedies that have scenes that are supposed to be funny of
little girls being raped. Both Greek and Roman doctors report that female
children rarely have hymens—just like the Indian and Chinese girls I mentioned
earlier. In order to find out if your young wife was really a virgin (girls
usually married before puberty to older men), one had to use mystical religious
tests for virginity, since intact hymens were so rare.
The earliest childrearing mode I have called infanticidal,
to highlight the constant presence of infanticidal wishes in the parent.
Actual infanticide is, of course, common in most preliterate cultures even
today, and evidence remains of widespread infanticide among all historical
records. Even Pleistocene skeletons show evidence of differential female
infanticide by the presence of more boy skeletons than girl, indicating
far more girls were killed at birth than boys. By historical times, census
figures from antiquity show boy/girl ratios as high as four hundred boys
to one hundred girls. This is an astonishing but believable figure since,
as Poseidippos said, "even a rich man always exposes a daughter." I have
estimated that about half of all children born in antiquity were killed
by their caretakers, declining to about a third in medieval times and dropping
to under one percent only by the eighteenth century. Since these skewed
sex ratios do not vary by economic class—the rich did away with their children
at the same rates as the poor—the evidence suggests that parents were coping
with the emotional anxieties of childrearing in doing this rather than
those of economic conditions, as is usually claimed.
Boys, too, were regularly handed over by their parents to neighboring
men to be molested. Plutarch has a long essay on what kind of person a
father should give his son to for buggering. The common notion that this
occurred only at "adolescence" is quite mistaken. It began around age seven,
continued for several years, and reputedly ended by puberty, when a boy's
facial and pubic hairs began to appear. In actuality it ended at about
age 21—very late, since children suffered from "psychological retardation"
from being so severely abused. Child brothels, rent-a-boy services, and
sex slavery flourished in every city in antiquity. Children were so subject
to sexual use by the men around them that schools were by law prohibited
from staying open past sundown so that their pedagogues—slaves who
were assigned to protect the children against random sexual attack—could
try to see that their teachers did not assault the students. Petronius,
especially, loved depicting adults feeling the "immature little tool" of
boys. Tiberius was said by Seutonius to have "taught children of the most
tender years, whom he called his 'little fishes,' to play between his legs
while he was in his bath. Those which had not yet been weaned, but were
strong and hearty, he set at fellatio...."
That the sexual use of children was traumatic cannot be doubted.
It even affected the physical development of children. Like so many victims
of severe abuse and neglect, children in antiquity suffered from emotional
dwarfism. Even the children of rich parents, who were better nourished
than children today, were much shorter and did not enter puberty until
several years later than now.
This understanding of the prevalence of childhood abuse and molestation
makes sense of some of the grander social themes we have observed historically.
Locating the origin of Christian anti-sexual attitudes in childhood sexual
assault is more credible than attributing it to a small group of religious
fanatics who inexplicably appeared on the historical stage and then faded
out of fashion after nearly two millennia. So, too, the history of Western
social violence and continuous warfare can be traced to the violence with
which children were treated.
Despite the advance that abandoning rather than killing children represents,
most of the other childrearing practices of antiquity continued alongside
it. The sexual use of boys—even in monasteries—continuing to be widespread
and even accepted by society. By the time boys were in their teens, they
were so addicted to violent sex that they formed adolescent raping gangs
that grabbed and raped any girls or young women they could find unprotected.
This occurred to such an extent that the majority of women in some
cities would be raped by these gangs at some time in their lives. Parents
even gave their young girls over to the local priests for sexual use.
Although Christianity attempted to reduce the outright killing of
the newborn, thus moving beyond the infanticidal mode, it substituted for
it the abandonment of children. Whether by child sale or by sending to
wet nurse, monastery, nunnery, foster family, or to other homes as servants,
children were frequently rejected and disposed of elsewhere—which is why
I labeled this second stage the abandoning mode.
The erotic beating of children became, if anything, worse, as the
anxieties of living with a child who is so full of one's projections became
evident. Children were experienced as always about to turn into changelings—those
who, as St. Augustine put it, "suffer from a demon." However, what this
undoubtedly means is just that they cry too much. For in the Malleus
Maleficarum it says that one recognizes changelings because they "always
howl most piteously"; likewise Luther says they "are more obnoxious than
ten children with their crapping, eating, and screaming."
That children with devils in them had to be beaten goes without saying.
A panoply of beating instruments existed for that purpose—from cat-o-nine
tails and whips to shovels, canes, iron rods, bundles of sticks, the
discipline (a whip made of small chains), the goad (shaped like
a cobbler's knife, used to prick the child on the head or hands), and special
school instruments like the flapper, which had a pear-shaped end
and a round hole to raise blisters. The beatings described in the sources
were almost always severe, involved bruising and bloodying of the body,
began in infancy, were usually erotically tinged by being inflicted on
bare parts of the body near the genitals, and were a regular part of the
child's daily life. Century after century of battered children grew up
to batter their own children in turn.
Public protest was rare. Even humanists and teachers who had a reputation
for gentleness approved of the severe beating of children. Those who attempted
reform did so only to prevent death. As a thirteenth-century law said,
"If one beats a child until it bleeds, then it will remember, but if one
beats it to death, the law applies." As Batholomew Batty put it, parents
must "keep the golden mean," which is to say they should not "strike and
buffet their children about the face and head, and to lace upon them like
malt sacks with cudgels, staves, fork or fire shovel," for then they might
die of the blows. The correct way, he said, was to "Hit him upon the sides...with
the rod, he shall not die thereof."
These childhood reforms immediately preceded—and I believe pro-duced—the
humanistic, religious, and political reforms we associate with the Renaissance
and Reformation. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Western Europe
represent the great watershed of psychogenic change. The much-improved
childrearing allowed the schizoid and borderline personalities of antiquity
and medieval times—who regularly heard voices and hallucinated visions—to
move on to the more integrated and less split modern neurotic personality
more familiar to recent times. This sixteenth-century watershed is equivalent
to the movement from the Kleinian paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive
position. Depression as a characteristic of this time is witnessed by both
the prevalence of Renaissance melancholy (as in Hamlet's depressive guilt)
and the ability of Protestants to end the good breast/ bad breast splitting
of Mary/Eve and begin to internalize the projective panoply of Catholic
saints and devils.
By the thirteenth century in the West, abandonment via oblation—i.e.,
the giving of young children to monasteries for sexual and other uses—was
ended. At the same time, the first disapproval of pedophilia appeared;
the first childrearing tracts were published; and some advanced parents
began to practice what I have termed the ambivalent mode of childrearing.
From this viewpoint, the child is not born completely evil but is seen
as being still full of enough dangerous projections so that the parent,
whose task it is to mold it, must beat it into shape like clay. Church
moralists first began to warn against sexual molestation of children by
parents, nurses, and neighbors. The length of time of swaddling was reduced
from a year or more to only a few months. Pediatrics and educational philosophy
were born. Parents of means began suggesting that perhaps rather than sending
their infants out to be wet nursed in some peasant village—and thereby
condemning over half of them to early death—the mother might herself nurse
her infant. According to some mothers who tried nursing their own babies,
the infant even responds to this care by giving love back to the nursing
mother, stroking her breast and face and cooing. And if the father, as
usually happens, complains that his wife's breast belongs to him not
the baby, it was suggested now that he should be allowed to hold
the baby too!
Similar uses of punishment can be seen in relation to masturbation and
were championed by child-training literature since Tissot. Prior to this,
children were masturbated by adults and even licked as though they were
substitute breasts. Little Louis XIII, in 1603, was described by his pediatrician
as having his penis and breasts kissed and played with by everyone in the
court, and his parents would regularly make him part of sexual intercourse
in the royal bed. But childrearing reformers beginning in the eighteenth
century began to try to bring this sexual abuse under control; only now
it was the child who was punished for touching its own genitals,
under threat of circumcision, clitoridectomy, infibulation, and various
cages and other genital restraint devices.
By the seventeenth century and particularly in England, America,
and France, the intrusive mode of childrearing began. In this mode
the child was seen as less full of dangerous projections. Thus it could
be unswaddled and not given regular enemas (which had been until then given
regularly from birth to remove the bad contents felt to be inside the infant);
it could be toilet trained early rather than late and hit but not regularly
whipped; and it could be punished for masturbation rather than being
by adults. It was becoming no longer acceptable for men to go about with
a mistress on one arm and a catamite on the other. Intrusive parenting,
in essence, began to substitute psychological pressure for physical abuse.
Rather than whipping the child to prevent it from sin, it was shut up in
the dark closet for hours or left without food in a room for days. One
mother shut her three-year-old boy up in a drawer. Another had a house
she described as "a sort of little Bastille, in every closet of which was
to be found a culprit—some were sobbing and repeating verbs, others eating
their bread and water...." Another five-year-old French boy, in looking
at a new apartment with his mother, told her, "Oh no, mama...it's impossible;
there's no dark closet! Where could you put me when I'm naughty."
These terrorizing warnings and surgical interventions only began
to die out at the end of the nineteenth century, after two hundred years
of brutal and totally unnecessary assault on children's psyches for touching
themselves. Even so, progress was so uneven that one British journalist
could write in 1924 that "cases of incest are terribly common in all classes.
[Usually] the criminal...goes unpunished.... Two men coming out from [an
incest] trial were overheard saying to a woman who deplored there had been
no conviction, 'What nonsense! Men should not be punished for a thing like
that. It doesn't harm the child.'"
By the nineteenth century the socializing mode of childrearing began.
Some parents no longer needed to terrorize, beat, and sexually seduce their
children; and more gentle psychological means began to be used to "socialize"
them. The "socializing" mode is still the main model of upbringing in Western
nations. The mother is featured as trainer and the father as provider and
protector; the child is seen as slowly being made to conform to the parents'
model of goodness. Many of the abusive practices now move from the home
to elsewhere in society. While Elizabeth I was sexually seduced as a girl
by her caretakers and Louis XV had Madame du Barry procure little girls
for the King to rape in his royal bedroom, by the nineteenth century parents
would less often commit incest themselves. Instead they were content to
send their children to schools where they were erotically whipped on the
bare buttocks and usually buggered by the older boys and masters.
In the latest childrearing mode—which I have termed the helping
mode—both parents try to help their children reach their own goals
at each stage of their lives rather than to socialize them into adult goals.
What kind of society might be envisioned by children brought up under this
mode is yet to be seen. I suspect it will be far less class-centered and
more empathic of others than is the socializing-mode modern world with
which we are familiar. From watching the anti-war activities of my children
and their friends, who have been brought up by other helping-mode parents,
it is also becoming evident that helping-mode children grow up to be incapable
of creating wars.
Periodic Sacrificial Ritual of War
For war, I have found, is only understandable as a perverse sacrificial
ritual in which young men are sent by their parents to be ripped apart
and killed as representatives of the independence-seeking parts of themselves.
War, I believe, is a defense against annihilation anxiety, caused by early
failures in the individuation process. This is evident from my study of
the shared national fantasies in the media occurring prior to wars. What
one regularly finds is that images on magazine covers and in political
cartoons in the months prior to wars are dominated by images of dangerous
mommies threatening to engulf and castrate men. These deeply regressed
group-fantasies eventually produce so much anxiety that a sacrifice of
innocent victims is deemed necessary, and a warring partner—who also needs
a sacrifice—is located.
So regular are these group-fantasies in the media that we were able
to predict the Persian Gulf War months before Iraq invaded Kuwait by monitoring
the American media; although, of course, the exact location of the war
was not predictable. Fantasies of dangerous mommies and of children being
sacrificed were both floated in the American press for nearly a year before
Hussein's invasion could provide a location for the sacrifice—a difficult
choice, after all, since the Evil Empire had just disappeared and an inconvenient
period of peace had broken out around the world.
That periodic sacrifices are in fact lawful is suggested by the regularity
with which they occur. Nearly every state produced a major war on the average
of about every 25 years throughout the past two millennia. In between wars,
periodic economic sacrifices serve to relieve our guilt for too much prosperity
and to cleanse us of our dangerous economic and social progress. In individuals,
all progress toward individuation and success produces fears of leaving
mommy, regressions to early maternal insufficiencies, wishes for maternal
re-engulfment, and fears of thereby losing one's self. In nations, the
same thing occurs after periods of rapid change and prosperity, and is
defended against by the ritual of self-sacrifice of war.
That all social violence—whether by war, revolution, or economic
exploitation—is ultimately a consequence of child abuse should not surprise
us. The propensity to reinflict childhood trauma upon others as an adult
in socially-approved violence is actually far more able to explain and
predict the actual outbreak of wars than are the economic motivations that
are usually looked into for such understanding. We are likely to continue
to undergo our periodic sacrificial rituals of war if the infliction of
childhood trauma continues.
A Parenting Revolution Needed
The human race is now quite able technologically to satisfy its needs
if we can live together without violence toward each other. But unless
we employ our social resources toward consciously assisting the evolution
of childrearing, we will be doomed to the periodic destruction of our resources,
both material and human. As Selma Freiberg told us, "Trauma demands repetition."
I would add, "repetition through social action." We cannot be content only
to continue doing endless repair work on damaged adults, with our therapies,
our jails, and our political movements. Our task now in addition must be
to create an entirely new profession of "child helpers," who can reach
out to every new child born on earth and help its parents give it love
This new child-helping profession is already beginning to form. I
think of Child Watch in England and Child Assault Prevention groups in
the US that teach children in their schools how to protect themselves against
assault. I think of a few hospitals in New York with outreach programs
visiting each of the homes in their areas and teaching parents how to parent.
I think of the Healthy Families America Initiative, which is setting up
home visiting services for new parents in several states. I think of a
group of Community Parenting Centers in Colorado, who are trying to contact
every new parent of a child born in their community with child-care information
and help, and which has a volunteer child-care center with support groups,
family therapy referrals, and talks on child development, on how to set
limits, on how not to hit children, and so on. In fact, members of The
Institute of Psychohistory and I have submitted a proposal to the Clinton
administration for nationwide community parenting centers that would operate
across the nation, mostly with volunteers and interns from local schools
To those who object to the cost of helping parents, we can only reply:
can we afford not to teach parenting? To what more important task
can we devote our resources? Do we really want to have armies and jails
forever? How better can we achieve meaningful political and social revolution
than by first achieving a parenting revolution? If war, social violence,
class domination, and economic destruction of wealth are really revenge
rituals for childhood trauma, how else can we remove the source of these
rituals? How else end child abuse and neglect? How else achieve a world
of love and laughter of which we are truly capable?
It appears we have our work cut out for us.
Note: Click on book title or its cover
icon for more info on book or reference, including how to purchase.
This article is based upon primary source material fully referenced
in the 594 footnotes contained in the following sources:
deMause, Lloyd. (1982). Foundations
of Psychohistory. New York: Creative Roots.
deMause, Lloyd. (1988). On writing childhood history. The Journal
of Psychohistory, 16, 135-171.
deMause, Lloyd. (1991). The universality of incest. The Journal
of Psychohistory, 19, 123-164.
by Lloyd deMause include:
History of Childhood (The Master Work)
LLOYD DEMAUSE is Director of The Institute of Psychohistory, Editor
of The Journal of Psychohistory, President of the International
Psychohistorical Association, and author of The
History of Childhood,
of Psychohistory, and Reagan's
America. He has established a 100-plus page Psychohistory
Website at www.psychohistory.com.
It has articles from his journal, his new book Childhood and History,
as he writes it chapter by chapter, and other material of scholarly interest.
Lloyd deMause can be e-mailed at email@example.com
This article was originally published
in Aesthema: The Journal of the International Primal Association, #11,
1994, pp. 48-62. [return to text]
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