How Misinformation about Children is Passed Down

The cycle of socialization provides us with misinformation about children as a social identity group that perpetuates their status as less than full human beings. We hear and learn while growing up that we cannot be trusted.

As adults, we are told that children are manipulative, even from birth. As parents we are expected to lay down the law and children should obey, “just because I said so.” It is believed that children have to be forced to learn, despite the fact that in the first three years of their lives they learn the very complex processes of walking and talking without being formally taught.

The message is clearly communicated through our institutions, medical professionals, and other adults that children must be controlled or they will not become productive members of society.

One example of misinformation about children that has been perpetuated through the socialization process, including the medical education system, is that babies either do not feel pain or they do not remember that pain.

Prior to the late 19th century, it was believed that newborns experienced more pain than adults.(1) This began to change in the late 1800s. Dr. Doris Cope, in her article on neonatal pain, describes the individual and societal forces that resulted in the belief that newborns are not capable of feeling pain.(2)

The process of shifting the prevailing belief to the idea that newborns experience no pain began in the work of Paul Flechsig in the late 19th century. He observed that the nerve fibers in newborn babies include myelinated and nonmyelinated fibers.

It was believed that only myelinated fibers were fully functionally and thus newborns were not completely wired and thus their sensory experience (such as feeling pain and pleasure) was not completely functional.(3)

In that same year (1872), Charles Darwin wrote that children’s facial expressions, tears, crying, movements and breathing did not reflect the experience of pain, but instead were reflex actions reinforced by habit.

He grouped together “animals, savages, children, and the insane” and concluded that under no circumstances could any have an awareness of pain, even though they may express pain response.(4)

These scientific discoveries and theories impacted for decades (almost a century) how children were treated during medical procedures. Operations and procedures on infants and children were often performed without anesthesia through the 1950s. And in the case of circumcision, are still performed today without anesthesia.(5)

It was not until 1987 that the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the use of anesthesia for newborn surgical procedures.(6) Nine years later, in a 1996 survey of over 3000 U.S. physicians, the Academy found that only 45% of doctors performing circumcisions used anesthesia or analgesia.(7)

The reasons given by physicians who circumcise but do not use any anesthesia were “concern about adverse effects” (54%) and “procedure does not warrant it” (44%).(8) The mistaken belief babies may not be capable of feeling pain when having the foreskin of their penises removed has persisted despite efforts to challenge this particular orthodoxy.

Another group of researchers discuss the issue of cognitive dissonance as one of the factors that may impact the ability of doctors and parents to change their ideas about the issue of circumcision.(9)

(B)eliefs may be adopted to conform with one’s decision to circumcise. An example of these beliefs involving the psychological defence mechanisms of denial and rationalisation is the myth that newborn infants do not feel or remember pain. Even though studies suggest long-lasting memory of circumcision pain–particularly when the circumcision occurred during post-infancy childhood years (Chamberlain, 1989; Hepper, 1996; Rhinehart, 1999), some doctors who circumcise normal healthy boys may simply ignore this information (Stang & Snellman, 1998). As well, a small proportion of doctors may proceed with the surgery on the basis of ill-informed beliefs. Others, by invoking psychological defences, may be perceptually blind to the pain associated with circumcision–perhaps as a result of their own circumcised status.(10)

When children are born, although they may know little of the outside world, they are in touch with their own bodies. Babies know when they are hungry and when they need to eliminate, though they may communicate in ways that parents do not understand. They fall asleep when they are tired.

This innate knowledge of their own bodies is quickly disregarded in our paradigm of control and domination. Parents are told that babies should be put on an eating and sleeping schedule. We believe and our society reinforces the need to control babies or they will control us.

We are told to ignore their cries or they will become spoiled. In essence, we replace the knowledge babies have of their own bodies through our power to control them as parents and adults.

We believe we know when an infant or child’s pain is real. We substitute our socialized “knowledge” (which may in fact be misinformation) for the connection that infants and children to their bodies.

Though we may believe otherwise, one of the most powerful lessons children are learning from us is that those who are bigger and stronger have the right to dominate them. Those who control them have the right to determine the reality of their experiences. The process of disempowerment begins.

(1)Doris Cope, “Neonatal Pain: The Evolution of an Idea” in American Society of Aneastheologists Newsletter, September 1998, Vol 62.
(6)Howard J. Stang and Leonard W. Snellman “Circumcision Practice Patterns in the United States” in Pediatrics, The Official Journal of the American Academic of Pediatrics, 1998;101; e5: 1.
(7)Stang, 2.
(9)Gregory Boyle, Ronald Goldman, J. Steven Svoboda, Ephrem Fernandez, “Male Circumcision: Pain, Trauma and Psychosexual Sequelae” in Journal of Health Psychology, An Interdisciplinary, International Journal, Volume 07 Issue 03, May 2002.

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