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Dear Mother, A part of your child was killed today at school


This is based on a true story of what I saw in Malaysia.

Dear Mother,

It is with great sadness that I report to you that your child was seriously injured at school today. In fact, a small part of your child was killed today. Your child is still alive physically, but something was killed inside your child's mind. It is hard for me to tell you just what exactly was killed, because I can not see inside your child's brain and I cannot see the future. But I can say with certainty that something was killed.

Perhaps what was killed was a small part of your child's trust in adults and authority. Perhaps it was a small part of your child's feeling and belief that the world is a safe place where people care about each other and try to help each other. Since your child was hurt in school by someone who portrays herself as a teacher, perhaps it was a small part of your child's desire to learn and a small part of your child's desire to go to school and to see school as a safe place.

There is very little I can do for you or your child to compensate for the injury and losses which your child suffered. If the scientists are correct, the impression left on your child's brain from this injury will remain there forever. Your child's brain has already stored all the details of the incident, including what happened and what feelings were associated with it.

But though I cannot erase what has already been stored inside your child's brain, at least I want you to know what happened and who is responsible. First, I want you to know that your child did nothing wrong. I want you to know that your child did nothing to deserve being hurt, frightened and robbed of so many important feelings which were given to your child at birth by a source much greater and wiser than you, I, or any human.

Your child was simply being a child. But your child was put into an unnatural environment and forced to remain there by someone physically and psychologically more powerful. I do not believe I exaggerate too greatly when I say that this was close to emotional torture for your child. Your child was in psychological pain, then your child was punished for trying to stop the pain.

Your child was in psychological pain was because its needs were left unmet for too long, as if being starved. Your child was being deprived of certain basic human emotional and psychological needs. Your child needs to be challenged. Your child's mind needs to be stimulated and engaged. But on the day when I saw your child get injured, your child's mind was being suffocated psychologically.

I have told you that your child did nothing wrong and that your child did nothing to deserve being hurt and injured. So who is responsible then?

Unfortunately I can't tell you precisely who is responsible -- I can only tell you what I saw and give you some of my ideas. What I saw was your child sitting in a school building, listening to a several speeches being read aloud. The first speech was written by none other than the highest political leader of your country. The speech was something about progress and technology. Then there was a speech written by the Minister of Education from your country. Next there was a speech by the Deputy Minister of Education. These speeches were not interesting to your child or to any of the other children. Even the teachers in the school were not interested. The teachers, though, were free to wander off -- which they did.

But your child was told to remain seated throughout the duration of the speeches. As the pain from having nothing to do and nothing to stimulate their brains intensified, the children started to get restless. They started to try to amuse themselves and put their minds and bodies to use. The room got noisier and noisier. Most of the teachers understood that the speeches were boring so they felt some compassion for the children and did not scold them for talking and moving around in their chairs.

But there was one teacher who began to walk up and down the aisle holding a white, plastic rod. I am not familiar with these rods. I had never seen one before. But I understood that this was a modern day replacement for the cane.

The teacher had a very mean and unhappy look on her face. I am not sure why she was so unhappy. I don't know why she didn't simply stay out of the room as most of the teachers had done. I could not see any reason for her to come into the room with her hard plastic rod. I suspect she felt uncomfortable with the children responding naturally to their uninteresting environment. She did not approve of the trying to make it more interesting. She did not approve of them trying to meet their own needs. She did not approve of them trying to be happy children. No doubt, she was not a happy child herself. No doubt she was punished when she was a child. No doubt she was hit with a cane when she tried to get her needs me. Because she wasn't happy, she didn't want your child and the other children to be happy either. So she walked down the center aisle, holding her "cane" out in front of her. She looked like a predator, waiting to find her victim and strike. A predatory animal though, only strikes when they are trying to feed themselves. They don't attack just to hurt their prey or inspire fear.

It did not take her long before she found your child. I could not see your child's face, but I could see her reach out and strike your child with her cane. She did this several times to other children also. And she pointed the cane at many other children in a menacing way. There were too many restless and bored children for her to strike them all or even see what everyone was doing.

I am unsure, now, just who is most responsible. Was it the leader and his Ministers for writing boring speeches and expecting, or commanding, them to be read to young children? Was it the school authorities who followed the instructions they were given and read the speeches rather than disobeying the instructions? Or was it the unhappy teacher who took it upon herself to start hurting and frightening the children?

If we look deeper for cause and effect we might wonder if we can also assign some responsibility to the authorities in the past who instilled a fear of disobedience in the school authorities. If your child's school authorities had been raised to be more self-confident and to trust their own instinct, experience and judgment, I suspect that they would have taken one look at the boring speeches and decided not to read them. I suspect they would have said something to themselves like, "There is no way I am going to waste the students' time with these boring speeches. I could not possibly expect them to sit and listen to all of this hot air. I wouldn't want to sit and listen to it myself, so I certainly won't ask my 7-12 year olds to listen to it. I would get restless after two minutes. These speeches will easily take 30 minutes to read. I simply won't do it. The government authorities can punish me if they want, but I won't make my students suffer this unnecessary pain. I care about them too much to do that."

We might also wonder what caused this particular teacher, out of all the teachers in the school, to be so unhappy that she had to take her unhappiness out on her unfortunate victims. There was no justice to what she was doing, by the way. Some students were making more noise, but she just couldn't reach them or couldn't see them. Nor did she even know exactly what was happening. If one student pulled on the hair of another and she only saw the second one pushing the first one, only the second one would get hit. She did not listen to any defenses and there was no one representing the "guilty" party. In reality, there is a more just system of punishment for criminals than for the children who were victimized by this woman. No other teachers came to the defense of the children and no one tried to stop this teacher. Perhaps they were also too afraid of her to say anything.

One thing I also want you to know is that this woman was not even legally entitled to hit your child. I was told that the laws in your country state that only the person in charge of punishment and the school headmaster can inflict corporal punishment on children. This woman was just an unhappy teacher, she was not the person assigned in charge of punishment, or "discipline" as it is often called euphemistically.

I don't know why she was unhappy, but I know that it had very little to do with your child or any of the other children. I know that this person was not happy long before she ever started teaching. One can easily imagine this woman being hit as a little girl when she was also in psychological pain from listening to boring speeches. She was probably also hit by her own parents on a regular basis with no one to protect her and no one to turn to.

I am not sure if your child realizes that this woman is not authorized to hit people. I am not sure if your child realizes that she is actually breaking the rules herself. But if your child does realize that, then we can expect there will be an additional loss of trust in and respect for the entire system of authority which society relies on to help us live in peace.

Your child may wonder why there is a double standard and may feel confused and may also feel resentful. Your child may wonder why no one cared enough to stop this woman the pain and fear she caused, and why no one offered protection from her. Your child may feel a little less safe, a little less important and a little less cared about as a result.

Your child may also feel confused about why they were hit. They may also feel confused about why other children who committed worse "crimes" were not hit, and your child may resent this. As a result your child may start wanting others to be hurt to make things more equal and "fair."

I know that you do not want your child to be hurt by anyone. I know you want your child to feel safe and cared about. I know that you want your child to think about maths, science, history, geography and literature when they are at school, as well as to make friends. I know that you don't want them spending their time trying to figure out why they and their friends are being hurt and no one cares enough to protect them. I know you don't want them spending time trying to make sense of the conflict between what they are told to do and expected to do, versus why the adults at school don't do the same things. I suspect you might also want your child to have an enquiring mind -- to question things and try to understand things and the reasons behind them.

I don't know your child personally. I don't know how sensitive your child is. I don't know what the impact of being hit and seeing other children being hit will have. I will say though, that if your child is especially sensitive, the impact will be greater and there will be more damage done. I can also say that if your child is highly emotionally intelligent they are likely to spend a lot of time thinking about what happened and why. They may also speak out against things like this, so it will be important for you to listen to them and take their concerns and their feelings seriously. It will be important for you to come to their defense and let them know that their feelings are valuable. Many teachers and adults will say hitting children is necessary. They will say it does them good and doesn't harm them. This makes it all the more important that you support your child and try to get the system changed so no one hurts your child, even when under the pretext of helping them.

I know that it is possible to teach a class without inflicting pain on children. I know that children have a natural desire to learn. When they are interested in something they are eager to learn more about it. They don't get restless when they feel interested in something and challenged by it or when their minds are actively engaged.

Your child was not to blame for being hit. Your child did not deserve this punishment. Your child was not responsible for writing a boring speech, for reading it, or for insisting that it be listened to. We all want our children to be responsible, but let's not try to hold them responsible for things which are not their fault. And let's certainly not punish and hurt them just because they are bored. It is our job as adults to keep their environments interesting. Left alone, most children have no problem keeping occupied and finding something which interests them. But when we put them in a classroom and restrict their freedom, we have a great responsibility for keeping their minds engaged, not just giving them busy work or worse yet, making them listen to boring speeches... even if those boring speeches are written by the President, Prime Minister or King himself.

The teacher who hurt your child needs your help. She has already been hurt many times in her life so hurting her more is unlikely to make her a happier person. As long as she is discontent she will be a danger to your child. The more she hurts your children the less they will respect her. They might fear her and they might obey her, but they won't respect her or like her. They certainly won't love her. She needs love. She never got it when she was a child. Not the nurturing kind of love. She might have gotten a strict, protective, demanding kind of love, but she didn't get a nurturing, safe kind of love. No one really wants to be feared. We all want to be liked and loved. She can't feel good about herself she goes home at the end of the day. But she simply has never been shown a better way.

The better way is to treat children with respect. The better way is to earn respect rather than trying to demand it. Respect is like love. It can not be forced. Fear can be forced, but love or respect.

The better way is also to earn children's voluntary cooperation. This can be done by filling their emotional needs. We all respond favorably to those who help us meet our needs. A child's emotional needs include the need to feel safe, accepted, appreciated, valued, listened to, understood, encouraged and challenged.

I do not know if she will accept your help, or anyone's help, but I believe it is it our interest to try to help her learn how to manage her own negative emotions so she doesn't poison your children with them. We can be sure that if she will physically strike your child, she will also verbally attack them. Hurtful words last much longer than physical pain, so we can't just think we have created a safe school environment once we stop teachers and headmasters from hitting our children with rods and canes.

The school authorities also need your help. Some parents threaten to sue the teachers and headmasters, but this only adds more fear to their jobs. We need less fear in our schools and communities, not more. School authorities need to be offered a better way to teach your child and a better way to manage the teachers. They need to "unlearn" the old, fear-based ways of the past, then be trained in new ways -- ways which are based on love, caring and respect.

Many Asian countries are becoming more free. An essential part of true freedom is freedom from fear. It is impossible to be really be free and afraid at the same time. If we want our children to know true freedom, we must continue to reduce fear from the environment and replace it with safety, love, compassion, forgiveness and understanding.

To be happy and content, your child's emotional needs will have to be met as well as their academic needs. Schools can do a better job of meeting both if they rely less on instilling fear and more on earning respect and creating interesting classrooms. As your child's mother, you are the one nature has chosen to be the primary provider of your child's emotional nourishment. You have both the ability and the responsibility to help make sure your child's emotional needs are met. When your child was born you held it and provided milk. Now you are called upon to provide it with an emotionally safe and nurturing environment.

Please let your child know they did not deserve to be punished. Please teach them to stand up for themselves. Please teach them to tell someone when they are bored and ask if they can be excused so they can do something more interesting.

Please teach your child to trust their feelings. Teach them that their feelings come from a beautiful place, a source to be honored and respected. Teach them that their feelings have value. Show them that you value their feelings. Teach them to tell you when someone discounts or minimizes their feelings. Or tries to make them feel guilty for how they feel. Please tell them to always tell you when they are hurt by someone, even if that person tries to tell them that they deserved to be hurt.

I don't know you or your child, but I can be sure that your child has something of value to offer this world. And I know that the best way for the world to benefit from the gift which your child has to offer is for us to all work together to create a safe, stimulating place for your child to learn, grow and develop.

I am sorry I could not do anything to protect your child on this day. I was only a visitor to the school. And I could not speak the same language of the teacher and I did not have any authority. Unfortunately schools work on a system of authority and not on reason, feelings or care for the children. Perhaps I could have told someone it hurts me to see the children being hit. I feel guilty now that I did not at least do this much. I apologize and ask your forgiveness. I still am not sure what to do in these situations. Teachers and principals typically get very defensive if I question anything they do. But you have may have more influence and they may listen to you more because you are the parent. I hope you will do something to make your child's school a safe, stimulating place. I know it is not easy, but if you and your friends work together things can be changed. In many European countries, for example, not only is it illegal to hit a child at school, but it is illegal to hit them at home. This gives me some hope for the future. A future when children and teenagers can be educated in schools rather than frightened and punished.

Steve Hein
September 2003

Note - They also still regulary hit children with canes at school and at home in Singapore.