Astrid Lindgren is an outstanding figure. It turns out that she was not only a talented storyteller but also a true fighter for justice. She wasn’t afraid to speak, and people listened when she did. In the 1970s, physical punishment was a part of children’s upbringing. But Astrid was thoroughly convinced that it was harmful to healthy psychological development. In 1978, at a ceremony during which she was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize in Germany, she gave a speech that became known all around the world. Using simple words, she told how the roots of the aggression that blights our world are to be found in the early stages of our lives — that is, in childhood. A child that receives his first lesson about violence from his parents will end up believing that all problems can be resolved using the same method. We at Bright Side couldn’t agree more with Astrid’s assessment, and we would like to share some extracts from her speech which ultimately helped Sweden become the first country to ban corporal punishment.
For as long as we humans have lived on this planet, we have been indulging in violence and war, and the fragile peace that sometimes exists is constantly under threat. Is it not time for us to ask ourselves if there is some inherent fault in the human condition that continually drives us to violence? We all desire peace. So is there any possibility at all of our changing fundamentally, before it’s too late? I believe that we should start from the bottom. With the children. The children of today will eventually take over the running of our world, if there is anything left of it. They are the ones who will make decisions concerning war and peace and the kind of society they want to have — if they want a society in which violence continues to grow, or if they prefer one in which people live in peace and brotherhood. I recall how shocked I was when it dawned on me at an early age that the people governing the fate of our countries and the world at large were by no means gods with superior capabilities and divine perspicacity. They were human beings, with the same human weaknesses as I had. But they had power, and at any given moment could make the most momentous decisions on the basis of whatever whim inspired them at the time. There could only be one possible conclusion to draw: the fate of the world was decided by individual people. So why were they not all good and sensible? Why were there so many who wanted nothing but violence and power? Was evil congenital in some people? I couldn’t believe that, and I still don’t think it is the case. Intelligence and intellectual powers are congenital, but children are not born with a seed that automatically sprouts to develop into good or evil. What decides if a child is going to become a warm, open, trusting person with a propensity for communal feelings or a callous, destructive lone wolf is up to those who bring the child into the world and teach it the meaning of love — or fail to bring home to it what love entails. One only learns from the people one loves. A child that is surrounded by love and loves its parents learns from them a loving attitude towards the whole of its environment and retains that attitude for the whole of its life. I should like to tell all those clamoring for a more rigorous approach and tighter reins what an old lady once told me. She was a young mother in the days when people still believed in the idea of “Spare the rod and spoil the child“ — or rather, she didn’t really believe in it, but one day when her little boy did something naughty, she decided he had to have a good hiding, the first one of his life. She told him to go out and find a suitably supple stick or rod for her to use. The little boy was away for a long time. He eventually came back in tears and announced, ”I can’t find a rod, but here’s a stone you can throw at me.“ At which point his mother also burst into tears because it had suddenly dawned on her how her little boy must have regarded what was about to happen. He must have thought, “My mom wants to hurt me, and she can do that just as well by throwing a stone at me.” She threw her arms round him, and they spent some time crying together. Then she placed the stone on a shelf in the kitchen, and it stayed there as a permanent reminder of the promise she had made to herself at that moment: never violence! However, if we bring up our children without violence and on a loose rein, will we produce a new kind of human being who will live in a state of eternal peace? Only authors of books for children could be simple enough to believe such a thing! I know full well that would be a Utopia. And, of course, there are so many more things in our poor, ailing world that must also be changed if we are going to achieve peace. But at this point in time, even though no war is currently raging, there is so incredibly much cruelty and violence and oppression going on in the world; and our children are most certainly not blind to it. They see and hear and read about it every day, and will no doubt end up by believing that violence is the natural state of affairs. Is not the least we can do to show by example in our own homes that there is another way of living our lives? Perhaps it would be a good idea for us all to have a little stone on a shelf in our kitchens as a permanent reminder for ourselves and our children: never violence! A. Lindgren
Astrid’s speech produced a fierce discussion in Sweden and Germany about physical punishment. In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to completely ban corporal punishment for children in schools and at home.