FASlink Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society

Alternatives to Violence by Dr. Renée Fuller

From the November 2005 issue of Family Times - http://www.homeeducator.com/FamilyTimes/current.htm

When Marmaduke, the Great Dane, was brought for rescue adoption to my house he was sixteen months old with a history of having bitten three times. He had had his reasons. Violence usually has its reasons. But violence also has a heavy price tag. In the case of Marmaduke it almost cost him his life, and it did cost him his original home. Everyone had told the original owner that the Long Island dog would legally have to be put to sleep (executed). The owner, however, was certain there had to be an alternative. I was that alternative. Which is how and why, to avoid having to be executed, Marmaduke was brought to me in Connecticut.

Marmaduke’s desperate cries when his owner left after delivering him to my house was evidence of the price the dog was paying for his past violence. Had the dog learned his lesson? Do any of us learn that fast? Not usually; and neither did Marmaduke; something which became apparent later that same day.

It was in the afternoon of that first day that Marmaduke, after having successfully bullied Juliette my other Great Dane, turned on me, growling and baring his teeth. Years of working with acting-out adolescent human youngsters had taught me to recognize such gambits. Seeing a surprisingly similar gambit in an adolescent dog struck me as hilarious. I burst out laughing. The effect was instantaneous and astonishingly like that of the acting-out adolescent humans I had worked with. Marmaduke’s face fell. No more showing of canines. No more growling, The sagging shoulders reflected a doggie version of disappointment. Had Marmaduke learned his lesson?

Not so fast: as became evident some weeks later when a visitor knocked on the house door. As I went to answer the knock Marmaduke rushed up behind me and in his excitement bit my fanny. It was not a hard bite, just a warning for me to get out of his way. No blood was drawn. I turned around in disgust indicating that such behavior just wouldn’t do. Had Marmaduke finally learned his lesson of no violence? Not so fast. Several more weeks later he repeated the same performance when there was a knock on our front door. Except this time the bite in the fanny drew blood.

My response lasted three hours. No, I didn’t hit him. That is what the original owner had done on the advice of his vet. Obviously hitting the dog on his nose had not worked. Violence in response to violence has a history of being doomed to failure. What I did instead was to tell the dog in hissing tones exactly what I thought of his behavior. For the next three hours whenever Marmaduke came close I repeated my message of disgust and rejection. My body language as well as my hissing voice and probably my smell conveyed to the dog what he lacked in the understanding of sophisticated human vocabulary that expressed contempt and rejection. By the end of three hours Marmaduke’s swagger had left him. Instead he was slinking around looking so reduced in size that he had the appearance of a small very upset dog. He never bit me again and became a great and loving companion. The alternative to violence had been a success.

Surprisingly similar to my interaction with Marmaduke was Evelyn and Roger’s experience with their adopted son Edward. He was ten when the Blairs decided to give this problem youngster “another chance at life;” by which they meant a real home. The school had labeled Edward a “destructive little monster.” After seeing what he had done to his classroom I had to agree.

Edward’s dysfunctional family did not want him and had frequently beaten him for sometimes nebulous reasons. Not surprisingly the frequent beatings encouraged the child’s destructiveness. After receiving repeated calls from neighbors and the school the local social service finally made a series of home visits. Following a number of lengthy meetings they concluded that the badly beaten youngster needed to go into foster care. The social workers were certain that no one would be willing to adopt Edward and give him a permanent and stable home. But they were wrong: for at that point the Blairs stepped in, prepared to adopt the little monster. His dysfunctional family members, unable to hold jobs or function with each other had openly expressed hatred for the child. They eagerly signed the forms that rid them of Edward.

Shortly after arriving at his new home Edward, like Marmaduke, instead of being grateful for another chance at life, told the Blairs “I hate you.” The reaction of the would-be parents was surprisingly similar to my reaction to Marmaduke’s gambit of growling and showing his canines. Both Blairs burst out laughing and Roger said, “You don’t even know us. You gotta wait and maybe then you’ll find some real good reasons to hate us.” Then they both grinned at the child and said, “Let’s have some lunch.”

This scene was described to me when I saw the Blairs some days later and how “The child’s face looked so disappointed when he saw our reaction to his expression of hatred was laughter. He had expected and wanted us to be upset about being hated. We weren’t living up to expectation.”

Had Edward learned from this experience? Not so fast. By the second day he accidentally-on-purpose dropped his mug of almost finished hot chocolate on the stone patio with enough force that it smashed. Both Blairs simultaneously gave the child a look of disgust. That was all. They didn’t think a reaction beyond that would be effective. But when several days later Edward started to go on a wrecking spree of their house they put into words their disgust and rejection of what they called “violent out-of-control behavior.” As they told me later they carefully avoided language that could be interpreted as cursing or obscene. Instead, for the next few hours they periodically expressed their disgust and rejection of Edward’s violent behavior with advanced and literate vocabulary. Even though some of the advanced vocabulary was presumably new to the child, he understood. Like Marmaduke, gone was his strut. Perhaps for the first time in his young life Edward was genuinely shocked. He had expected a beating and may even have looked forward to what had become a sick, exciting game. Instead, rather than sick game-playing he had received an erudite talking to. And perhaps for the first time in his life he faced a genuine alternative to violence.

Had Edward learned the lesson of no violence? Yes and no. He never again went on a wrecking spree in his new home. But it was different in school. A frantic call from the school principal told the Blairs that there was big trouble. Something or someone had set the child off and so he had smashed up his classroom. The adoptive parents immediately told the principal that they would pay to repair the damage.

Back at home they proceeded to give Edward another erudite talking to. But this time the child interrupted them. Sputteringly he told them he had an explanation for what he had done. “Joe said that my parents tossed me out of the house ‘cause I’m garbage. I’m not garbage. So I showed them. I was sooo mad!”

Equally mad were the Blairs, although they didn’t let Edward see their anger. How could the other children in this new school have known that Edward came from a dysfunctional family that didn’t want him and that he was being adopted? The Blairs had told the principal of their local school about Edward’s past, expecting that the information would be held in confidence.

They knew they would have to have a serious talk with the principal. But before that, and right away, they would have to make clear to Edward that no matter what the cause, no matter how justified it feels, violence of any sort was out of the question. As they described to me later, the gist of what they said to Edward went something like this: “We humans have the gift of language. Therefore we don’t have to go on rampages to express our feelings - that’s what words are for. Only the stupid who don’t know how to use words go on a smashing spree.” Did Edward understand? The Blairs thought so. “He looked downright thoughtful. We wondered whether he was remembering how we had used sophisticated language with him when he knew we had every reason to be angry.”

By the next day the Blairs felt they were ready for an appointment with the school principal. At that meeting Roger immediately went straight to the point and asked: “How come Edward’s classmates know about his recent adoption from an abusive home?” The principle’s answer was that he had felt compelled to warn Edward’s teachers about the child’s past.

Trying to keep cool Roger’s response was: “And the teachers told the other children?!”

Evelyn later described to me how the principle wrinkled a puzzled forehead and said, “Maybe the kids overheard the teachers talking.”

That was when Evelyn said she lost her cool. Glaring at the principal she hissed: “How is the child going to have another chance at life if the adult teachers act this irresponsibly. You are supposed to be educators who help children grow up into responsible citizens ? not act like irresponsible stigmatize to rescue the situation with “O.K. How are you going to fix this?”
The principal’s lame, “I’ll talk to the teachers.” was not exactly confidence restoring.

Evelyn recounted how on the way home Roger had declared; “This isn’t going to work. That principal and those teachers don’t know how to fix the mess they’ve created. And there’s no way we can expect Edward to handle the situation with his classmates. How many adults would be able to cope with being known as ‘garbage’? So how can a child be expected to feel at home in a school that’s allowed this to happen?”

The next day the Blairs withdrew Edward from their local school. Being in a fortunate financial position they were able to hire extra help making it possible for Evelyn to homeschool Edward. As they explained to me, “That way he’ll establish a secure base from which he can later go out into the world.” The explanation to Edward was, “We’ll help you achieve expertise in handling difficult situations. So for a bit we’ll teach you at home.” Note: here again “sophisticated” language was used by the parents, which Edward before long began to use on his own.

My response to the Blairs was the question: “But will Edward understand the dangers that the emotions of anger, rage, and hatred create for all of us? He’ll have to face where these emotions can lead and that they cannot serve as excuses or explanations for physical or subtler forms of violence. Most important, he’ll have to learn how to become the emotional master of these feelings even when the anger, rage and hatred appear ever so justified. Most important: he’ll have to face that there is a turn-on quality to acting out in response to the ugly emotions. It is because of this turn-on aspect of violence that justifications for anger, rage and hatred serve as the excuse for the satisfaction, and alas the frequent pleasure, that violence gives its perpetrators.”

Roger’s response was, “That may be true, but aren’t such psychological concepts a bit difficult for a ten-year-old to understand?”

My response was based on personal experience and went something like this: “To the contrary. It is easier for children to understand that there is a turn-on quality to violence having experienced it; and being children they haven’t gotten to the stage of denying this experience. By the time we’ve reached adulthood we’ve pushed the truth out of our minds. We deny the ugliness that’s in our souls. And so the pervasiveness of violence that’s in our world lives on. It is essential that Edward admit and understand the attractiveness of violence and that indulgence in it is out of the question.”

Evelyn agreed. But then she asked: “How do you actually go about telling a child of ten that he must become the master of rage and even justified anger. And that he must gain control of his hatreds?”

My response to Evelyn was: “Tell him the truth. Tell him that for all of us the feelings of rage, anger and hatred that lead to violence are like a curse that is eagerly available to us. Our laws and religions represent ways of seeking control over this curse that seeks excuses for violence. A fun way of leading Edward into a discussion of the problem would be by reading Isaac Asimov’s THE FOUNDATION series with him. It has highly entertaining discourses on how ‘violence is the last resort of the incompetent’ - although some of us have come to wonder whether in our real world violence is more often the first resort of the incompetent.”

Several weeks ago London experienced a series of subway bombings: a prime example of out-of-control violence. The day after the bombings Thomas Friedman in his New York Times editorial wrote, “. . . the greatest restraint on human behavior is never a policeman or a border guard. The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful. It is what the village and its religious and political elders say is wrong and not allowed.”

The Blairs represented the restraint for Edward that was effective the way no policeman could be. They were the elders who made clear what was wrong, what could not be allowed. They were successful in teaching Edward that there are no justifications for indulging yourself in the pleasures of violence: further that there are alternatives to violence. And just as for Marmaduke the dog, alternatives to violence ushered in the release from the curse that hangs over all of us.

Years have passed since Edward’s adoption by the Blairs was finalized. After a lengthy period of homeschooling, Edward entered a high school where no one knew about his past. Homeschooling had been a happy and effective experience for both parents and child. It had brought them close together, making them a genuine family. In high school the youngster was a success both as a student and an athlete. Evelyn was especially proud of his essay on “Controlling the Curse of Violence.”

Edward had indeed learned that there are alternatives to violence.

About the author:
Dr. Renée Fuller is a developmental psychologist and author of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading program. Read her many articles about child development, reading instruction and educational methods on her web site: http://www.ballstickbird.com .
Do you have a question or comment for Dr. Fuller? Contact her: (413) 664-0002