We're supposed to be a child-centered society that heaps lavish material blessings on its pampered progeny, and allegedly the younger generation has never had it so good. But in many cases our kids are still getting the short end of the stick, and we've got a long way to go before we "turn the heart of the fathers to the children."
You've probably read a great deal lately about violence in the family, especially child abuse its various and sundry forms. You've seen the socking pictures and read about the hideous tortures some adults have inflicted on their children. You've been outraged by the unbelievable abuse of power and authority some troubled parents have displayed. Or maybe, like some people, you've been troubled more by the subject's having been brought up in the first place. While it's easy to evoke outrage at the sight of "kiddie" pornography, people like crusader Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber have found it difficult to get much of a reaction to pictures of maimed, beaten, or dead children. It's easy to condemn the producers of pedophiliac smut, but it's far harder to condemn parents who simply beat their children — to death or otherwise. Our society dictates that children are our property, which we have the right to damage if we so desire. And since nearly everybody "hauls off and hits his kid a good one" now and then, the stories of child beatings and murders strike a bit uncomfortably close to home. Blair and Rita Justice write in the book The Abusing Family that "there is good reason to believe that people would rather pretend that child abuse is none of their business, and they almost have to be forced to face the fact that it not only exists but is a major public health problem."
Unsparing the Rod
We live in a culture that cherishes such maxims as "spare the rod and spoil the child." But such taken-for-granted sanctions of corporal punishment can easily lead to tragic consequences. Violence in the home today rivals that found on a battle-field or the scene of a riot. A national study of violence in American families found "an astounding range and severity of violence toward children by their parents." Approximately 1.4 million children between the ages of 3 to 17 had been attacked by their parents with a lethal weapon at least once, and as many as 2.2 million children in the same age bracket had been beaten up by these same violent caretakers. And tragically, these parents probably received the same sort of treatment from their parents. But the root causes of such culturally sanctioned and ingrained patterns of child abuse are extremely complex. This is a problem which presents no easy answers, in spite of the simplistic "lock-the-parents-up-and-put-the-kids-in-foster-homes" solutions most judges, lawyers, and social workers seem to advocate. Studies show that kids arc generally better off with their own parents even in less-than-ideal situations. Temporary foster parents just can't provide what is needed, no matter how motivated they may be. And there is a dearth of good foster homes — an abused child may be taken from his own home and placed in a situation that's only slightly better (or maybe even worse) than the one he left.
Why Parents Do It
But what are the causes of child abuse? Experts offer several theories, all of them incomplete of and by themselves. Here are the main factors they implicate: 1) Lack of a "mothering imprint." In other words, the ability of a parent to nurture and "mother" is absent because the parent herself was not given this example as a child. Such a woman is usually isolated, has an unsupportive spouse, and expects to get the love and nurturing she missed when she was young from her own child. When it's not forthcoming, the frustration she feels sets the stage for abuse. 2) "Child abusers have negative character traits." This theory — which fails to consider other environmental factors — labels or categorizes abusers as immature, impulsive, self-centered, frustrated, hostile, suspicious, rigid, compulsive, etc. It does not take into account the many people with such negative traits who do not abuse their children. 3) Some abusive parents lack social skills, such as knowledge of child rearing. They don't know what to expect of children at various stages of development, and demand too much. When children don't perform, the parents go overboard on "punishment." 4) Faulty family structure is also blamed for child abuse. Homes where children are illegitimate and/or unwanted; a parent who is involved with a child lo the detriment of the relationship with the spouse; or families who use a particular child as a scapegoat for family problems are common examples. 5) Environmental stress also contributes. Families in which the father or mother is out of work; crowded or inadequate housing; lack of education; poverty — these all are factors. But this theory doesn't explain why some poor and environmentally stressed people beat their kids while others don't. 6) Others postulate that frustration and stress due to a great many reasons (a poor marriage, too many children, a difficult child, social isolation, etc.) combine with a person's social level and background to provide the breeding ground for child assault. 7) And finally, a small fraction of child abusers are actually mentally HI, mentally retarded, or brain damaged. But many otherwise "normal" people beat their children, and some mentally ill people don't, so this explains only a few cases.
The Abusing Family System
Blair and Rita Justice see all of these factors as part of an overall pattern or system. They believe that the problem of child abuse must be attacked by a "systems" approach. In other words, the abusing parent does not stand alone in a vacuum. He or she is part of an abusing family, which in turn is influenced for good or evil by a physical and social environment. This environment includes a series of "cultural scripts" or patterns of behavior that are generally accepted by the society as permissible, such as corporal punishment and the viewing of kids as parental property. In order to deal with the overall problem, society itself will need to be remodeled along healthier lines. The Justices did find a common pattern in abusing families. In such a marriage, both husband and wife usually received inadequate parenting themselves, and both are looking for someone to "take care of them." They compete with each other for nurturing and attention, with neither one willing to take the giving or parenting or supporting role. They don't really have a mature adult identity of their own, and they try to merge with their spouses to form a sort of common identity. (Understandably such people are drawn to each other, and this is why both partners are always involved in the abusing family system, even though only one may actually beat the children) When two people who don't know how to be whole persons and meet their own needs have a child, the situation is explosive. A mother may expect her baby to provide the missing elements in her life; a father may feel deprived of the attention his wife formerly focused on him. However, such a situation may not produce child abuse all by itself. The Justices also found that abusing families are usually in the middle of a life crisis brought on by too many changes occurring too fast. The authors feel that the abusive parents' personalities actually bring on a lot of these changes. For example, since the father is searching for someone to "parent" him, he will have constant trouble acting like an adult — making his own decisions or assuming responsibility for his life. He may get into trouble financially, engage in sexual warfare with his wife, have trouble with his in-laws- and difficulties relating to his boss and holding down a job. All of these factors contribute to the family's moving often, and this also tends to alienate the family from the rest of the world. With no family or friends to act as stabilizing influences, the situation is even more volatile. Such messed-up family patterns tend to repeat themselves generation after generation — those who don't know how to parent can't pass the information on to their kids. And the poisonous pattern of family over-dependency — the inability to mature into whole, independent persons who can meet their own needs — is repeated over and over again. It has been demonstrated that violence begets violence. Many violent criminals and assassins were abused as children. Arthur Bremer, would-be assassin of Governor George Wallace, is a dramatic case in point.
Non-violent Child Rearing
A society that begets violence must be changed. A system that accords no rights to abused children is absolutely criminal. Of course children should "honor their parents." But inherent in that principle is the responsibility of those parents to behave honorably, in a kind and nurturing manner. And though corporal punishment may be necessary under certain circumstances, there are often more effective ways of settling parent-child disputes and training children to behave. If these alternative methods were habitually exhausted before corporal punishment was turned to as a last resort, there would probably be very little need for "the board." Authority in the home should mean loving teaching and guidance, tempered with wisdom, kindness, and a willingness to sacrifice one's comfort and convenience for the sake of those young individuals one took the responsibility of bringing into the world, rather than authoritarian giving of orders followed by stern punishment for the slightest infraction. Where the emphasis is primarily on mere obedience rather than communication and cooperation, the situation is ripe for violence. In Germany, for example, "a national poll conducted by the Bielefelder Emnid Institute in Bonn showed that 72 percent of Germans interviewed felt obedience and respect for order to be the most important principles for child rearing. This emphasis on strict obedience to authority is considered by some to be the reason for Germany's having the highest rate of child abuse in Europe" (George M. Anderson, "Child Abuse," America, May 28, 1977, p.481). Knowledgeable child rearing experts suggest that many if not most family conflicts can be solved through effective communication rather than authoritarian intervention- One highly effective and proven approach is summarized in the book Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon.
Changing Our Ways
Our entire society must be changed to get at some of the factors contributing to child abuse such as poverty, joblessness, and lack of adequate housing. Family patterns that foster dependency and immaturity must be changed through education and therapy. And societal approval of the unfairness, cruelty and actual violence that pass for "parental prerogatives" has got to go. A society that tacitly approves such abuse is sick to the core and desperately in need of self-awareness, reeducation, and healing. More than that, individuals themselves must recognize the ugliness of child abuse in their own lives. Out-and-out child beaters who recognize their problem can be helped. There is an organization patterned along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous designed to meet their needs. Called Parents Anonymous, it was begun in 1970 by a woman in California who had abused her own child and was unable to find help. There are branches all across the United States. At Parents Anonymous meetings, parents are able to discuss their problems in a supportive, understanding, confidential atmosphere with others who have been through the same struggle. Child abusers don't need punishing; they have had enough in their own lives already. What they do need is the help and support such an organization can provide. But there are other more subtle forms of child abuse that take place in so-called happy, loving homes. Parents who think they couldn't possibly be abusing their children need to ponder the fact that physical violence isn't the only way to cause damage. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" is a rhyme children use to cover up the fact that words can hurt very deeply. Verbal abuse, or even a lack of nurturing, support, cuddling, and physically expressed affection can be just as damaging as an outright beating. Kids can be programmed to fail, even to die, by exposure to emotional neglect. A lack of affection, touching and eye contact can be deadly. Emotional uninvolvement on the part of even one parent can scar a child for life. "Workaholic" fathers who don't interact with their children, mothers who have their own emotional problems and can't give their kids what they need, selfish parents with a "send-'em-off-to-boarding-school" attitude — all contribute to stunted growth, not just emotionally but physically. Everybody needs love. A classic study showed that babies in an orphanage who were given optimum physical care but no love, cuddling, and positive human interaction all invariably lost weight, sickened, and died. This "failure-to-thrive" syndrome is seen in varying degrees in families where love and affection are missing. By withholding love and affection from our children, we are teaching them to grow up ignoring their hunger for the care and concern of others. We are programming them not to fulfill their basic human needs; to grow up partially twisted and unable to reach their full human potential. It will lake all of us to conquer child abuse, especially in its more subtle forms. It must begin in our homes, right now, before it's too late to program the next generation to love. But if we can build a safe, healthy, fear-free atmosphere into our family lives — if we as parents can really turn our hearts toward our children — we can have a part in building the kind of society in which child abuse no longer exists.