Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

M. Jane Letty

3500 words/8 minute read

The following is a copy of a presentation given by my (late) Great Aunt Floria, who was a school psychologist and later a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley during the 70s and 80s, retiring early/mid 90s. Current events with regard to the psychological effect on children, today, I thought this is the perfect time to offer a glimpse into how far we’ve come from where we were and how far this current issue has set us back.

The lockdowns have exposed many children to conversations fueled by frustration, confusion, and anger. Everything from the sudden upending of lives to hatred of police officers to the vitriol against our duly elected president. Add to it, the brutality of the politics involved as we drawn down on a very contentious election. The exposure and expectations placed on them before the lockdown and the one’s yet to come will have a profound effect on their impression of life’s fairness or unfairness. Some of us view the fairness of life that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, especially surviving drinking from the garden hose or discipline v abuse, but many of today’s children have the influence based on entitlement/no consequences, trophies for all, and drinking straw bans.

If I were to sit with my aunt, today, I would ask her where she was going with this and where it ended up. The first time I read it was 1992, when I first noticed the lines blurring between life’s fairness vs. unfairness for my own children imposed by school indoctrination and social interactions. I read it again for this publication, but found a different perspective witnessing the outrageous conduct of today’s (un)civil unrest. I also wonder if the apparent desensitizing of children in the 70s/80s might’ve contributed to the lack of empathy and viciousness we’re observing from top to bottom.

I’m GenX, so the riots and demands of the generation making them are remarkable to me. My generation didn’t have this level of rage or expectation of fairness. We had other issues, but we weren’t exploited by warring political parties. We had other prominent forces exploiting us, which is for another essay. I also find the generation pulling the strings–Baby Boomer and Millennial politicians–reprehensible. The former won’t be alive long enough to be held accountable for their destruction, while the latter will be. But for now, this “fairness” monster has a blood lust.

My aunt was as Liberal as I am Conservative, which made for some wonderful conversations and letter exchanges. With all that’s happening, now, I ache for those ideological debates. She invited me to come live with her in California and attend UC Berkeley. I often wish I had…and wonder what might’ve come of that experience.

It would seem my aunt was on to something with the assertion “Life is not fair or unfair. It is impersonal.” Somewhere along the way, someone took being challenged…personally.

The following was inside of a box I’d forgotten about. I found it interesting enough to share. I hope you’ll find it interesting, too.  





Indiana University * Purdue University at Indianapolis, Indiana


August 8, 1983:

This Conference has set for itself a difficult task – the defining of psychological abuse of the child. As this area of our discipline is examined in various groups, the unwieldy nature of the subject matter will, undoubtedly, frustrate many of us. The many ways in which psychological abuse might be exercised are infinite.

There is, however, a generally understood concept of abuse. It is the use of something or some person in a manner that is unnatural, used excessively; or, in a manner for which it was not intended. The psychological part is not so easy to handle. It means a great many things to many people. The discussion of the psyche involves philosophical questions of will, choice, etc. This author perceives of the psyche as a process; a resultant. It is an energy process which both affects and is affected; an actor and a reactor. It is a process that affects our perceptions, our receptions, our mode of operations, our thoughts, our interactions with others. It cannot be excised from our flesh; its existence cannot be denied. It is a pervasive and persistent force. Great literature is great because it focuses on this force. Earlier lawmakers were concerned about it. Romans believed, and stated, that no government could make a civil law which was contrary to natural law, or that government would fall. The Roman emperors forgot or ignored it. The psyche is the force that motivates us. Whether this force is constructive or destructive depends on whether the psyche has been nurtured or abused. Communication is the instrument by which the psyche is nurtured or abused.

The present conference is attended by individuals from many different countries. It is an acknowledgement of the universality of human needs the human psyche. It is an acknowledgement of psychologists’ concern, worldwide, to make life more fair for children – our golden threads to eternity. We have implicitly stated that we assume our responsibility as individuals and as members of society in this regard, i.e., to work toward an agreement among people not to hurt or be hurt. We cannot discuss child abuse without discussing abuse directed toward adults. The first source of abuse, if it occurs, comes from the adult responsible for the care and welfare of the child. If the adults are under stress and cannot cope, the society provides clichés that permit socially acceptable abuses through phrases, jokes, cartoons, etc.

Frequently these clichés, or mechanisms, are administered in thoughtless ways. “Cruelties are often nonintentional”. The phrases, jokes, words, are absorbed by people and used in indiscriminate ways. If one presses for clearer explanations of the verbal messages, the lack of clarity of concept is soon revealed. I am reminded of the quote I read in the San Francisco Chronicle in the series covering EST. The reporter was told that EST improved communication. When asked how it did this, the disciple said, “that is hard to explain”. We have all experienced verbal “put offs”. The one that nettles me the most these days is “So, who said life was fair?” This retort is a way of avoiding the responsibility for making life more fair. Who said it was unfair? It is neither. It needs to be a matter of deep concern to all of us how language is used. The use of language affects our thoughts and affects our actions.

How nurturant can it be to have individuals referred to asunits?” To be called so, relegates these humans to objects. How nurturant can it be to refer to the unemployed as “redundant?” These terms are abusive. We feel the abuse most strongly when we are one of the  units” or a “redundant”. However, we must learn to feel the abusive power when it applies to others and to examine the psychological abuse done both to those who apply it and to those toward whom it is applied. The labels of “boy”, “gook”, “brat”, “chink”, “broad”, Polish jokes, and other ethnic jokes, are psychologically abusive. Now, there is a term! “Ethnic”. It has become the polite way of saying you are a hyphenated American or not American. Canadians or Mexicans are not Americans? U.S.A. is American? Labels, words are used to disenfranchise individuals – to dehumanize them.

What does it do to people not to be listened to? It makes the individual nonexistent. It makes the individual feel powerless. Phrases which emerged from some valid concepts have since become distorted to cut off individuals’ expressions. “l hear where you are coming from. ” I can see your point.” “It’s not personal.” “Those are the regulations.” “There is no provision in the law for that.” of these take on the same status as being placed on hold. There is a whole collection of ways of being not nice nicely. Smile at someone and ignore the request. Keep a bland face. Do not reveal emotions. These techniques are taught to adults and send confusing double messages to children. The recipients are subjected to a cancellation of their feelings, of their worth, of their realities. Not responding, or cutting off a response, is a powerful communication technique and often is devastatingly destructive.

Adults have acquired these techniques in defense of their own feelings of helplessness. It is easier to spout a statement without regard for its impact than it is to think about what one is saying or doing to someone else. Recently, checking the effect of this distortion of the human thought process, I quoted an officials’ statement “Unconditional surrender often means compromise.” My sharing it as a sloppy use of the language turned out to be a surprise for me. Many individuals did not see it as a contradiction in terms. The psychological abuse of children is this kind of “crazy making” communications and then demanding that children be accurate and precise as well as sanely, constructively productive. Broad scale acceptance of this kind of confusing use of the language is scary. Mostly, because it is deliberately done.

This is a complex society. We have achieved great technological advances. We have concerned ourselves little with the psychic needs of the individual; in particular, children’s needs. Children are perceived as a burden. We read and hear about this all the time. So do children. We read and hear how costly they are. So do children. Expedience is the key word.      In this society we must get things done – by the book quickly. Fill out a form, follow the U regs”.          If the child does not fit into the legislative category, the child is “lost in the cracks”. Another glib explanation.

One of the school rules I have always found distasteful is: Anyone fighting will be punished. This applies to the victim as well as the victimizer. What does this teach the victim – especially a child? No protectors. It also teaches that one could just as well be a victimizer. When efforts have been made to examine the effect of this rule, the explanation has been that there is no time to do otherwise, or that it is the rule. The horror wrought upon humanity during World War Il by the inflexible application of rules, the unquestioning acceptance of authority, seems to have been forgotten.

What happens when a little girl complains of excessive teasing, hitting, taunting by a boy in the school yard? “Learn to handle it. ” “Little boys are like that. ” “He likes you. ” What is being done here? Are little boys being taught it is okay to hit girls? Are girls being asked to accept hitting as an act of love? To handle it otherwise would take time, yes? Or, are those explanations thoughtlessly offered and the consequences are not felt?

Child abuse is not a recent phenomena. The nature of it and the degree of it may change from one time to another. Generally, it is the socially sanctioned abuse that makes it so difficult for the child. Let us take a look at one of these socially sanctioned forms. Note the attacks upon the public-school systems in our country. Newspapers repeatedly report on the statements of politicians and parent groups about the school systems’ failures. There are reports of schools being staffed by incompetent, ill-trained, non-committed or unconcerned individuals. One would think our schools were snake pits staffed by monsters. It is easy to attack schools. School personnel have been assigned all of the responsibilities and have been given no authoritative voice. Schools have been referred to as “low security prisons”. I am not denying that there is much to be corrected in the school systems. I maintain that the methods which I have observed thus far have nothing to do with the social-emotional-physiological needs of the children. Surely, children wonder why their parents insist on their attending these hostile, unfriendly places; these battlegrounds for displaced frustrations. Schools should be calm and nurturant places.

In the effort to improve the educational institutions, the advice of learning theorists, child developmentalists have generally been ignored by legislators, top level educational planners and programmers. Pre-set budget limitations, personal “hobby horses” (self-interests), vested interest pressures and political pressures have determined what shall or shall not be permitted. It is a rare event to find a program designed humanely and scientifically. Ignored also in the requirements, is the fact that knowledge has expanded exponentially in these past twenty years. Children are being asked to learn more in a shorter period of time and at younger and younger ages. We would not put this kind of pressure on our vegetables and flowers.

Physiologically, most of our children cannot accomplish the demands placed upon them. Consequently, there is chronic failure, chronic assaults on self-esteem, and a burgeoning feeling of powerlessness. Powerlessness evokes many defensive behaviors: Frustration, reduced motivation, depression, rage. When powerlessness is almost total, we ultimately see violence. In an earlier paper, I wrote of violence as the expression of powerlessness. The violence can be turned toward the self or can be directed outward. Thus far I have spoken of the demands which exceed what can be done by the the child.

There is also another group upon whom pressure (demand) of an unreasonable nature is placed. The independent, creative thinker has been ridiculed. This society is an anti-intellectual society. Anti-intellectualism has been fostered. Facts and long-range views have been ignored. Most of us have heard “Don’t confuse me with the facts”. Supposedly in jest, but in actuality, a practice. Mediocrity and mystical “best guesses” have been fostered in the interest of cost-effective, instant “solutions”.

Once, while making the request for a few additional days to complete a program design because I wanted it to be good (meaning correct) , I received the response:  “l don’t want it good, I want it Friday!” Many well-informed individuals have had valid materials rejected in the schools as “too technical” “too idealistic”, “too many polysyllabic words”, “premature”. Thinkers concerned with human processes have suffered “put downs” because there is not a concrete product to exhibit.

Forgotten, is the essence of education and the reasons why an enlightened society has chosen to provide educational institutions. There is a natural need to think, to contemplate, to problem solve. Written history shows this natural drive to comprehend the universe and the relationship of man to his universe. 

In our neglect of the psychic needs, we have overlooked this “given”. Education is many things. It is a process by which a society, or parts of a society, disseminates information. It is a socializing instrument: for improving the human condition, for improving the quality of the lives of its citizens, for allowing individuals to actualize their individual potentials. 

Education provides a sense of continuum which validates our sense of existence. It is difficult to survive without this feeling. It unites us with the past, makes the present more understandable and it propels us into the future with the hope of leaving our signature for future generations; providing a sense of immortality. Knowledge (education) gives us courage; it is the most complete concept of freedom. Educational institutions are, if properly perceived and organized, repositories for the accumulated knowledge of mankind and provide for the expansion of this knowledge. I could write endlessly about the potentially awesome quality of educational institutions which (unfortunately) have become so distorted in purpose and essence; and, upon which the very hope of all species and the future of the universe rests. I cannot conclude this section without voicing that I think the attacks on our schools are acts of violence toward the psyche of our children, all segments of society; and, most certainly those who serve in these institutions. It is painful that the instruments of conveying information, communication, are the weapons used to psychologically abuse children. It is remarkable that so many children continue to happily attend. It attests to that particular drive of the reality contact mechanism to make sense out of what we call the universe.

Lest I not be clear about my point, I want to repeat it in a simple fashion. Words, verbalized or not, are what is used to commit the act of psychological abuse.

It is often difficult to perceive. The abundance of words tossed at children—sometimes under the guise of “for their good”—makes one think that it could be easily classified as one of the most potent mind altering drugs.

Children are now being barraged by verbiage on how much more is going to be expected before graduation is possible. One does not hear how they are going to be assisted in getting to that requirement. I for one am not convinced that the young are as illiterate as is portrayed. In this barrage of words for better performance so as to get good jobs, what is overlooked is that promises are being made in a time of job scarcity. What does it do to the human psyche if more is promised than can be delivered?

The literature on delinquency is replete with the results. What does it do to the child who is being asked to study harder to see his father/mother are without employment? What is being said to that believing child? A child who believed his parents, teachers, society when they taught work hard, be loyal and you will make it? Does it mean all those words were a lie? Does it mean his parents didn’t work hard enough or were not loyal enough? What happens to his developing sense of identity? Establishment of trust? His motivation? What happens to hope?

Hope, that which moves us in a positive direction toward new adventures, moves me to what is really the most crucial of psychologically abusive factors in our society today. I urge everyone to read the thoughtful papers in the Amer. Journal of Orthopsychiatry (1982 v5(4)) on the effects of the threat of nuclear war upon our children. Also, I recommend “Hope and Despair, Keys to Socio- Psychodynamics of Youth” by M. Brewster Smith in the July 1983 issue.

Without hope there is no purpose to life, to functioning constructively in a society. Our children are growing up in an hostile environment. It has damaged our children in a number of ways. The most critical one being the blunting of affect; a profound demonstration of psychological abuse. The writings in the Journal support what I have been learning from the young of all ages over the past two years. Sudden death seems quite likely to many. Adults are perceived as the responsible (irresponsible?) individuals.  It is difficult for the young to believe that there is anyone who will protect them. There are teenagers who find that the anxiety is too great for them. There are statements of “I don’t want to keep waiting”, and other similar statements from those who are unaware of the source of their fears. Others find themselves suddenly crying uncontrollably and do not know why. Many feel immobilized, unable to make choices or commitments. Life seems purposeless. There is the feeling of rage, depression, violence – sometimes turned toward the self and sometimes outward.

Words. Words. Words. Used to make great promises of the future. Used to evade fulfilling those promises. In the midst of great promises for the future (tentative, of course), words are used to obscure the very real threat of extinction and to make this threat acceptable. Consciously and unconsciously the threat is perceived. I believe it was Rollo May who said, “Truth does not care what you call it. It goes on being just what it is.” How do some “adapt” to these assaults upon the psyche? Some create the desired world, talents, self-image through substance abuse. Some join cults and feel secure within a tight group that projects other great promises also conveyed by words. Some adopt the “me first” or “what’s in it for me”? philosophy. Some withdraw in other ways. Most alter their level of sensitivity. A large number do not want to feel. NOT feeling is the epitome of the process of dehumanization. It permits for brutalization. In not feeling, one has become an object and others become perceived as objects. We cannot separate the human tragedies of psychological abuse into age groups, although I agree we must be most protective of our young.

In the effort not to become too lengthy and at the same time cover what I perceive as the most important facets of psychological abuse, giving a few examples , I was reminded of the main characters in Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers“. A marvelous allegorical tale. Becky and Miles try desperately to warn the people of what is happening. Some promoter of the book wrote for the jacket: “The people of Santa Mira didn’t feel any different when it happened–in fact, they didn’t feel at all. One by one, they were being transformed into men and women totally devoid of human emotion. Men and women who looked like themselves, acted like themselves, but were not themselves.” The change happened when the people were sleeping (unaware).

Becky and Miles resistance achieved success. May our conference achieve success in making people alert to the results of psychological abuse. In particular, may we sensitize people to the process of dehumanization through the misuse and distortion of language; demonstrate our commitment to make life more fair!

This an abbreviated longer version of a longer paper in process. It is hoped that conference participants will contribute other expressions, jokes, phrases, etc. in the discussions or mailed to the address below, (removed). Contributions will be acknowledged in the final publication. If you do not wish to have your name included, please indicate that, but I would like to be able to state the area in the U.S.A. or the country where it is used.

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