The View from Hell

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The Mundane Horrors of Childhood

with 12 comments

It is an understatement to say that parents are shocked when their child commits suicide. To the extent that parents think about it at all, they generally assume that they do some good to their children when they bring them into the world. Everyone wants to live – right? What could possibly possess a child to take his own life?

But many children do take their own lives. In recent news cycles, the suicides of Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, and Phoebe Prince have received a great deal of attention, especially because they were complicated by bullying of the victims in their schools. News reports tend to feature the parents claiming they reported the bullying to school officials, but school officials didn’t do anything, or didn’t do enough, to stop it.

I think that the suffering of even a normal childhood is much more serious than is generally acknowledged. I do not think child suicides are particularly surprising; what is surprising is their relative rarity. The question is not why some children commit suicide, but why most children are able to endure the mundane horrors of childhood.

The blame the parents of suicides place on those who “caused” the suicide of the child belies the parents’ own responsibility for bringing a child into the world who suffered so much that he could not bear it anymore. The parents took a gamble with an innocent child’s life, and it did not pay. It is too bad that the children, and not just the parents, are the ones who must suffer for the parents’ mistakes.

It is not that I think the parents of suicides deserve the pain of loss; parents, just like non-parents, were forcibly brought into the world through no choice of their own, and deserve suffering no more than any one of us. It is that their own pain and the pain of their children is a plainly foreseeable consequence of reproduction. And we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions.


Written by Sister Y

September 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Hey,

    just thought I'd say; I don't think this (=child suicide) has ever happened in Norway (to my knowledge).


    September 29, 2010 at 7:15 pm

  2. Here's an article from 1932(!) claiming that “the wish never to have been born” occurred to about 30% of adolescent boys and girls in a “widely scattered” sample. In the abstract (the article is gated) this wish is written off as an “evasive attempt at adjustment” rather than a sincerely felt desire born of grievance or preference. No surprise there, but I'd like to know if there have been subsequent studies. My hunch is that things haven't changed much. Childhood is so often terrifying and painful, and in a way that we are habituated (constituted?) to forget as we grow older.


    September 30, 2010 at 12:28 am

  3. Erratum: The link didn't work. Try:


    September 30, 2010 at 12:29 am

  4. This is probably just another example of optimism bias in action. Pretty much all of these parents would have either bullied someone at school or been victims of bullying themselves. Perhaps they are hoping their children will be the ones doing the bullying, which is sickening in itself.

    Or they just think that they can teach their children a martial art and all their problems will evaporate. And if their childhood is still hell? Who cares. The parents can vicariously relive their own high school days, except this time they will get to kick that bully's ass, goddammit! Here's a post by the computer scientist Mark Chu-Carroll who was a victim of (some really terrible) bullying. Look at his exchange with a voice of reason from the comments (#177). The fact that someone who has gone through all this hell (per his own characterization) would want to inflict it on his children highlights everything that is wrong with breeding.


    September 30, 2010 at 4:02 am

  5. Off-topic, but David Benatar has a new editorial on suicide in Current Ontology.


    September 30, 2010 at 4:03 am

  6. CM,
    Thanks for reminding me about that Mark Chu-Carroll thread; I read that thing years ago; it's really crazy to have children when you have been bullied yourself.

    As a similar case, I would like to bring up Paul Graham, who was bullied in high school, and writes “Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. […]
    When I was in school, suicide was a constant topic among the smarter kids. No one I knew did it, but several planned to, and some may have tried.

    Then comed the amusing bit:

    “I wrote [this essay] because my friends are now all starting to have kids, and we found ourselves wondering how we could save them from the horrors we endured in school.”

    I.e., “How can we save children from horrors? How? I just don't see it! Where is the sun? I can't see it: that big white ball of light in the sky is blocking my view!”

    Arrggg… *headdesk*

    The Plague Doctor

    September 30, 2010 at 5:34 am

  7. And Paul Graham has recently had a child himself.

    The Plague Doctor

    September 30, 2010 at 5:35 am

  8. This was actually inspired, in part, by this incredibly sad story by Joyce Maynard on the Moth podcast. She talks about having had a sad childhood, and wanting to give her children the happy childhood she never had. She talks about (essentially) bullying her husband into having a second and third child, and staging elaborate holiday celebrations that would cause fights between her and her husband.

    She ends up divorcing the husband. She relates the story of telling her children about the divorce, and earlier about telling them their grandmother would die (and their mother, and they, would eventually die), and clearly feels the pain they feel.

    But she ends up congratulating herself, because although she couldn't protect them from pain, she raised them to be strong people who could withstand pain.

    It made me sick to my stomach.

    Sister Y

    September 30, 2010 at 3:10 pm

  9. And here's some data on child suicides in Norway. Yes, they do happen. First google result for “child suicides norway.”

    Sister Y

    September 30, 2010 at 3:14 pm

  10. Sorry I might be a bit late in commenting on this thread but I just don't see the obvious logic about saving kids the horrors of bullying by not having kids at all. Yes I can follow the logic, but I can not understand that you find it *trivially* obvious that everyone should think childlessness is the obvious (and obviously only) way to address painful childhoods.

    One may have had a difficult time in childhood but that doesn't mean ALL your experiences were negative, or even that most of them were negative. While my sister was bullied at school and she had a terrible time, she also had a family that loved her and she has good memories about those times as well. If you'd ask her now (or then) she'd definitly be happy that my parents decided to have her.

    A friend of mine also had a bullied childhood and always remembered it negatively. Then she fell pregnant (unplanned). To her surprise watching her own daughter playing as a little girl, triggered long-lost memories of her own childhood – happy memories, to her surprise. She had forgotten that she actually also had many happy times *as well as* terrible times. It's changed her whole outlook on her own childhood.

    I'm not trying to trivialise the pain of childhood. I live in a country where children have a tough time; not because they are bullied at school, but because most of them don't have three guaranteed meals daily, most of them don't have any access to modern medicine, 30% of them have parents without a job (yes, 30% unemployment rate) and about 20% are born with AIDS.

    Sure I'd say a baby bound to her mom's back, in sun and rain and wind, begging at a street corner, would have been better off not born in the first place. My mind screams 'abortion!' ever time I see this. I also have a close friend that's struggled with major depression for years and years and years. If tomorrow I'd hear that he's committed suicide, I'd very much respect his decision.

    But comparing that to the pain of bullying or existential crises… not quite the same.

    For those of us that have health and food and shelter in abundance: yes life is sometimes hard and it is often beautiful. Being sentient enough to know that is what makes us human. You equip your children as well as possible to cope with the pain life brings and you create as much beauty for them as possible. I don't see any trivially obvious case against that.


    October 13, 2010 at 11:09 am

  11. Anonymous, as I am reading you, it seems you believe that some lives are not worth beginning (i.e., some parents are morally wrong to bring their children into existence), but that most lives are worth beginning (i.e., most parents are morally innocent). You give the example of extreme poverty as a case where you can see that it is wrong to procreate. I think most people share your intuitions – most reproduction is fine, except those poor people with starving children whose suffering we can see so clearly.

    Your position (the most common position I've encountered) necessarily draws a line between permissible reproduction and impermissible reproduction. But it does so from a particular existing-human perspective, and not from the “perspective of eternity.” You think the ordinary suffering of childhood is alright to inflict on innocent children, because by doing so one also inflicts things like “beauty” and “happy memories” on them, and these supposedly make up for the pain.

    I have two main objections:

    1. The proper perspective for judging whether it's okay to bring new beings into existence is now our particular human perspective, but the perspective of eternity. We must not just think of ourselves and what we are willing to tolerate. We must be a bit more universal and abstract in drawing our line between permissible and impermissible reproduction. We must ask the question: is human life itself a good thing? Is it a good thing that the universe happened? We cannot ask this question if we remain grounded in our particular human biases. We must try to get outside them.

    2. It seems to be a fairly universal ethical principal that's it's always wrong to harm people without their consent, except to avoid a greater harm. It is wrong for me to punch someone, or to give him cancer, or to bully him, even if (a) I also benefit him in some way (give him a million dollars, for instance) or (b) he enjoys good experiences as a result of my harm (e.g., meets a pretty oncology nurse and falls in love).

    Reproduction is the only case of which I am aware where proponents want to justify knowingly inflicted, unconsented harm by asking the victim to look on the bright side.

    Sister Y

    October 13, 2010 at 4:09 pm

  12. Another thing I'm trying to motivate in the article is that people differ as to how much pain they feel it is worthwhile to endure. Isn't it just as wrong to bring an emotionally fragile child into a middle-class existence as to bring a strong child into a miserably poor existence? They may both suffer comparably. Parents assume that their own experiences are valid indicators of whether it is good to force existence on another. But I might just as well assume that my own experiences with drugs (positive) are a good reason to force drugs on others. Look on the bright side – there is a great deal of beauty available from drugs.

    Sister Y

    October 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm

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