Backpacks and School Furniture - Threats to Our Children’s Wellbeing

by Robert Rickover

About fifteen years ago I read a book by Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, a book that left a lasting impression on me. Miller was a psychoanalyst who, after twenty years of practicing psychoanalysis came to the realization that she could do more good by writing about the parent-child relationship for the general public. Her earlier work had led her to the conclusion that parents and teachers can harm children even when they believe they are acting in the best interest of the child.

I was particularly struck by her descriptions of child-rearing in Germany a century ago. Miller cited the work of Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, the inventor of the Schrebergärten (the German word for "small allotments") and whose widely read books had an enormous influence of the way parents treated their children.

One of Schreber's convictions was that when babies cry they should be stopped by the use of spanking, assuring his readers that "such a procedure is only necessary once, or at the most twice, and then one is master of the child for all time. From then on, one look, one single gesture will suffice."

In effect, the experts of that period were saying that children were essentially little savages who needed to be tamed for their own good. Moreover, the abuse required for this taming process would simply fade from their minds once they matured into “civilized” adulthood; childhood experiences mattered only as a means to that end.

As Miller writes, “Many people - motivated by what they thought to be the best of intentions - complied with the advice given them by Schreber and other authors about how best to raise their children. Today we would call it a systematic instruction in child persecution and maltreatment.” Indeed physical punishment of children was officially condemned the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998.

But there is absolutely no reason to think that German parents a hundred years ago loved their children any less that parents do now. They certainly did not set out to harm their children. They were simply using “approved” methods in much the same way that parents today rely on the advice available to them.

Intellectual honesty requires that we be open to the possibility that a century from now, some of our own parenting practices will be seen as having been as harmful as we today view those of 19th century Germany.

My own personal candidate for such a negative “look back” lies in field of posture - specifically the factors influencing postural development in our children and the ways in which parents and our schools attempt to promote good posture.

Most parents of school-aged children have become aware in recent years of the increasing weights their children are expected to carry to and from school in their backpacks. There has even been some discussion in the popular press about the harmful effects these packs have on the development of childrens' posture.

Nonetheless at the same time, some middle and high schools are now being built without storage lockers - presumably to prevent students from storing drugs - thereby forcing them to carry these overweight packs from class to class. All the while their packs get heavier and heavier.

As I write this, I can picture a small child I recently noticed on his way to school. He was probably nine or ten years old. I suppose he would be about four feet tall if he were standing normally. But he wasn’t, thanks to his immense backpack. It was so heavy that his whole body curved sharply forward as he trudged along the sidewalk. He looked a little like an undersized and overloaded Sherpa on his way to Mt. Everest!

What makes me particularly upset is that I know what’s in store for kids like him once they reach school. They will be forced to use standardized chairs and desks that make no allowance for the natural variation in childrens'’ shapes and sizes - furniture chosen to save a few dollars and make them easier for the custodial staff to stack and move.

To add insult to injury, they may well be required - while sitting in those horrible chairs - to watch a video on the importance of good posture!

The conditions found in most schools today would never be tolerated in a workplace thanks to government regulations, union pressure, and the threat of lawsuits. But they are widely accepted for our kids in school, even though their young bodies are far more at risk of developing harmful posture patterns that can lead to pain and poor physical functioning in later life.

How can loving parents allow this to happen? How could the parents of the boy I saw possibly allow him to to leave their home carrying such a heavy pack? How could they fail to raise a fuss about the furniture in his classroom?

I believe the answer flows from the same sort of blindness that allowed parents of earlier generations to beat their children. In part this blindness is caused by genuine ignorance of the effects of heavy backpacks and poor school furniture design. But I believe the main reason is a pervasive tendency on the part of adults to discount the importance of childrens' experience - the same sort of discounting that Alice Miller describes so eloquently in her books.

I would strongly advice parents to read one or more of Alice Miller’s books - they present compelling and well-documented evidence of the psychological harm caused by methods once thought to be good and proper. And then I would urge them to ask themselves if perhaps they aren’t inadvertently allowing a harm of a different kind to come to their own children.


A final note: Of course sometimes a child’s posture gets so bad that parents and teachers take notice and try to do something about it. More often than not, their advice is to “stand up straight”, “pull your shoulders back” or something else of this sort. These admonitions are generally ignored by kids - and this is just as well since the advice is at best useless. For more on this subject, see “ABCs of Good Posture by the Father of American Education” and “The New Physical Education” Other useful resources can be found at The Posture Page.


A number of articles by Alice Miller can be found at The Natural Child Project Website


Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Website