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Let’s end the culture that views children as less than fully human

Posted: August 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | 9 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther published two posts yesterday on the CNN investigation of the Pearls and that aspect of Christianity in America, here and here. If you haven’t read the posts or watched the segments, I urge you to do so. If you don’t, parts of what I say here may not have much context. They are also well worth read and watching in their own right. I do want to note that, like Elizabeth, I intend to moderate comments on this post pretty heavily. This is my space and I’m not interested in paying to host what passes for “Christian discourse” on this topic in most places. If you want to engage in the defense of the Pearls, Dobson, and others like them, go do so in those places where such defense is welcome. Don’t try it here.

In the comments on Elizabeth Esther’s first post, I had a brief exchange with another person commenting. In that thread, Elizabeth made the following comment. I woke up this morning with that comment still on my mind.

“I agree, Scott. I don’t think spanking is the best option and especially since it can be so easily become abuse. However, it should be noted that the kind of corporeal punishment most Americans think of (the rare slap on the bottom) is a WORLD AWAY from the systematic, repetitive method advocated by the Pearls.”

(I’ll note that it’s hardly just the Pearls. I was horrified early in my Christian experience (back in the 90s) when I happened to pick up and skim James Dobson’s book, The Strong-Willed Child. This runs much deeper than a fringe movement. It’s pervasive through a significant portion of the American Christian culture.)

Now, I don’t particularly disagree with Elizabeth’s statement. The occasional swat on the bottom is different from techniques designed specifically to attempt to break the will of the child (as Dobson, for instance, advocates). In most cases it’s not going to have any long-lasting negative consequences on the children, as I noted, especially if compensated by a loving, structured environment in which more appropriate discipline is generally used.

Nevertheless, there’s a deeper thread in this discussion that should not be overlooked. James wrote the following.

“I think the book of Wisdom (Proverbs) would contradict that spanking when done correctly is not wise…”

I responded over on Elizabeth’s blog and I’m not particularly interested in exploring the nature of that misinterpretation and misapplication of two verses in Proverbs here. Heck, even if they weren’t misinterpreted I would personally never base the way I raise my children on two solitary OT verses over against the whole of Jesus’ teaching and everything modern, controlled studies tell us about what “works” and what doesn’t. So that particular discussion is largely meaningless and uninteresting to me. (I do find it amusing to see Proverbs call the book of Wisdom when the Christian OT already has a Wisdom other than Proverbs, but that’s a different discussion.)

I want to look at what lies beneath James’ statement. Read it and think carefully here. Is this not what it says?

God says it is wise (and therefore necessary?) to strike your child — to deliberately and intentionally inflict violence on another human being.

Really?!?! I mean really? That’s not the God I see in the Holy Scriptures. That’s not the God I see in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s not the God I see in the witness of the saints. That’s not the God I encountered. That’s not even a God I’m willing to worship.

In light of that, I think I have to reconsider my statement on Elizabeth’s post that I wouldn’t consider what parents do “sin“. After all, what is sin? It’s much, much more than particular individual acts I do as an individual that violate some law. It’s that which flows from the bondage of our common mortality. It’s the ground that permeates and twists humanity. The wisest of saints have noted that we share a common responsibility for each other. When anyone sins, it’s not, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s “There go I.” Moreover that sin, whatever it may be, has effects that are farther-reaching than we are ever able to perceive. In many ways, sin is structural and systemic.

Therefore, I name this attitude toward children sin. And it’s long past time to change. Directly, it provides the cover for those who go way too far. (Heck, even the ones who teach such things are often protected and lauded.) And indirectly it contributes to a culture and an attitude that says that children are less than fully human. Women and children used to be considered property. In some cultures, they still are, but it used to be virtually universal across all cultures. Largely due to the influence of Christianity, though it took centuries, that has gradually changed. Women are no longer considered property at all in much of the West, though vestiges of that attitude remain. The way they were treated even a century ago would be considered intolerable today.

Unfortunately, children are still viewed to some extent culturally as property. They are the only segment of our population that can still be legally struck by those with nearly absolute power over them. It used to be both legal and socially acceptable to strike your wife within limits. That wouldn’t fly today. (That’s not to say that spousal abuse doesn’t remain a widespread problem. It does. But we have turned the corner. It’s neither legal nor broadly acceptable.)

Why is it still socially acceptable to hit our children?

As long as that remains true, we share the responsibility for every Lydia Schatz.

Lord have mercy.

9 Comments on “Let’s end the culture that views children as less than fully human”

  1. 1 Young Mom said at 8:23 am on August 18th, 2011:

    The lengths people go to, to try and defend treatment of children as less than adults, baffles me. And I was in their shoes just a few years ago. I don’t understand why anyone, with the wealth of research and resources would continue to try and make spanking sound “OK” or even useful-helpful-nessacary despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. And I’m tried of hearing that because my childhood was religiously extreme, my views on this don’t count. I did not experience the same level of abuse as children in past centuries, I did not experience as much abuse as my brothers, and I was the goody-goody who would do or say anything they wanted to get out of a spanking, so I was not as abused as some of my sisters either. And I still see it all as a very harmful and archaic idea that harms children. Anything that leaves a human being with less respect should be abandoned, regardless of the age of that person.
    Anyways, thanks for writing.

  2. 2 Elizabeth Esther said at 12:31 pm on August 18th, 2011:

    I love this post, Scott. You teach me so much. You’ve helped me re-examine many times how I view children. Did you ever read the post I wrote for Rachel Held Evans about how even God does not break our will? The Orthodox understanding of how God deals with us is totally foreign to the James Dobson-type of Protestant. It really helped me repent of the ways I’ve seen my children and how I was taught. It helps me see them as human beings with their own rights and to love them unconditionally. Thank you for writing this, Scott.

  3. 3 Even God Does Not Break Our Will–and why “breaking a child’s will” is NOT Biblical | Elizabeth Esther said at 12:54 pm on August 18th, 2011:

    […] [NOTE ON COMMENTS: if you have pro-Pearl comments to make, there are plenty of place on Internet for that. But I will not allow those comments on my blog. Comments ARE open for discussion and safe sharing. It is my goal in writing these pieces to bring awareness to the errant "Christian" parenting methods that have hurt many children in the hope that when Christians know better, they do better. Together, we can build a culture of love where children are treated as fully human.] […]

  4. 4 Scott said at 8:02 pm on August 18th, 2011:

    Thanks, both of you. Young Mom, I have a post, What Abuse is Worst?, I think you might appreciate. Or not. It’s hard to say. You have to dehumanize someone to inflict violence on them. That was always one aspect I remember from military training — thinking in terms of targets and trying to make reactions automatic. When you believe you have the right to use violence against another to control them (or try to do so), you cannot simultaneously consider them fully human, or even as human as you are. We have rights over our property. That’s the subtler thread underlying all of this — even among those who do not engage in outright abuse. There is a pervasive sense that because parents are responsible for their children, the children belong to them. Most people don’t think it through in those terms, but if you pay attention there is always that undertone.

    One thing I’ve learned over the years is that such control is also largely illusory. Whether we admit it or not, our children were created free eikons of God, with all that implies. We can guide them. We can provide structure. We can teach them the things they need to know to navigate the culture in which they were born. We can love them. But we cannot truly control them. As they grow, they will make wise decisions and poor decisions (hopefully more of the former than the latter). And we will largely be unable to stop them from making the poor decisions, though if we have established the necessary relationship, we can help them recover. That’s one of the lies the Pearls, Dobson, and others tell that often goes unnoticed — that by employing their methods you can determine outcomes for your children. You can’t. God does not determine outcomes for us and we are not greater than God.

    In my comments on Elizabeth’s post, I made my disclaimer. I didn’t think to add it here, though I probably should have. I did not even vaguely grow up with the sort of abusive “religious” childhood described in the CNN report. My childhood was such that those who know a lot about it are often amazed that I’m not more … damaged, but I came through relatively unscathed (at least according to all the evaluations I’ve had in the past). But my childhood fits no mold and I’m not inclined to share much about it publicly. I will say that there are periods which can be divided with broad strokes.

    There are the early years with an abusive biological father. I’ve shared my earliest memories elsewhere and don’t care to repeat them. I do remember standing, all dressed up, as he drove away with his lover and moved from Louisiana to Virginia. I remember that I didn’t really know how I felt or how I should feel (not an uncommon theme for me in childhood). Perhaps relief. I was four years old.

    Then there was the time when Mom was a single English teacher. I remember sometimes going to her class with her. I guess we were pretty poor, but that matters less to kids than some think.

    Then there were the years of Daddy John, the older man (a successful medical doctor/psychiatrist) my Mom married. Those were probably the most stable years. We weren’t poor anymore. I have a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant memories from that time. But then he died suddenly of a heart attack.

    And that began the year of many moves (across four states) and strange occurrences. It wasn’t a boring year and change, at least.

    Then began the years in Houston after Mom married Dad. Not exactly normal years and not necessarily easy years, but on whole I enjoyed them — which always sounds strange to those who know me well enough to know some of the details of those years. But it’s true. I wouldn’t trade those years or my experiences during them.

    Then came the years of rural mountain life in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Another set of … interesting years and definitely a big adjustment for me.

    And finally there were the years of two teen pregnancies and two failed teen marriages.

    All of those cycles together formed the adult I became. It was many things, but fundamentalist Christian wasn’t really on my radar.

    Well, I’ve rambled in my own comments now. Go figure.

  5. 5 James said at 9:57 pm on August 18th, 2011:


    As I begin, I must stress that what happened to this child is horrible and the sickening way in which these people have taken something and abused it (because that’s what all sin is, something which God has created and ordained and sinful man has twisted and perverted it) I am also deeply saddened and heartbroken by your story (thank you for sharing) I would appreciate it if you would read my whole post thoroughly and know that it is written out of a sincere desire to all build one another up in truth as the scripture exhorts us to do.

    It would appear that you have taken 1 or 2 things I have said and made assumptions about who I am and what I believe and how I treat my children. You have also made several statements (some that I don’t understand and you haven’t explained) so I am seeking clarification.

    First of all you have made this statement twice… “I do find it amusing to see Proverbs call the book of Wisdom when the Christian OT already has a book of Wisdom other than Proverbs) Proverbs is one of the 5 or 7 (depending on which Canon you use) books of wisdom. I am not saying it is the only book of Wisdom but it is one of the Books of Wisdom… If you want to be literal just to pick apart my phrasing I suppose that’s okay but my point was that it is widely accepted to be one of the divinely inspired books of wisdom.

    Second of all you keep referring to these 2 verses in Proverbs that are “misinterpreted or misapplied” What 2 verses are you referring to in particular… there are more than 2 that deal with the subject. The verses that deal with this subject are pretty straight forward. I don’t know how you really “interpret” them in any other way. Also Jesus speaks plenty of justice and punishment and discipline.

    Finally, when you make statements like “that’s not a God I’m willing to worship” that’s a very dangerous statement to make. God is who he is and we have to accept him and worship him for who he is regardless of whether He fits into our concepts of what is right or wrong… there are many things the Bible says about the nature and character of God that I struggle with heavily…. His love is an amazing attribute but so are his justice, holiness. Hebrews chapter 12 talks about a loving God who DISCIPLINES and CHASTENS his children and how it is not pleasant and is painful at the time and how we should SUBMIT to him. The definition of submit is “Accept or yield to a superior force or to the authority or will of another person”

  6. 6 Scott said at 10:15 pm on August 18th, 2011:

    Ah, I apparently misinterpreted your usage of “book of Wisdom”. I apologize for that. Obviously I had in mind the book named Wisdom, but there are other wisdom books in the Christian OT, such as Sirach. And Proverbs is certainly part of the wisdom literature. I would say I would try to make fewer assumptions, but as is often the case, I didn’t realize I was making an assumption until you pointed it out.

    There are only two verses in Proverbs that refer to a “rod” in the context of child-rearing and which can even vaguely be taken to refer to using some sort of instrument to inflict physical violence on children. To the best of my knowledge, there are no other verses in the Holy Scriptures which can be taken to advocate inflicting physical pain on children absent some pretty extensive interpretation.

    You are misinterpreting Hebrews 12. God does not inflict physical violence on us to “chasten” us. Most of the time, he simply allows us to suffer the consequences of our own free choices. Sometimes, when those might be too much for us to bear, he introduces consequences intended to stop us short of full destruction. In parenting terms, those are called natural and logical consequences and neither involvement inflicting physical pain in the form of punishment. Scripture and the things we have learned about the way the human psyche work actually coincide a great deal. Hebrews 12 says absolutely nothing about spanking your children.

    As far as my statement about what God I would or wouldn’t worship goes, I was raised in radical pluralism and though Christianity was not excluded came late to Christianity in many ways. That left me able to see the radical pluralism within modern Christianity. There are lots of version of the Christian God in modern Christianity I would never worship. The one that seems to come closest to the God I actually encountered is the Orthodox God. And yet I am not Orthodox. I’m a wellspring of contradiction.

    But your interpretation of the Bible is almost irrelevant. For anything you might claim is the proper interpretation, I can almost certainly find many across the centuries who disagree with you.

  7. 7 Sandra said at 5:58 pm on August 20th, 2011:

    Children as property.

    I think this is perhaps the crux of the matter. We still see children as something we own, which thereby can raise or lower our status depending on what that possession reflects about us to the community. Much in the same way a Trophy Wife or in a past generation (and still today but unspoken) the Executive Wife raises or lowers a man’s standing in the professional world, we think that our children are extensions of our own ego. This is true regardless of religious affiliation or discipline theories.

    We cannot make quite the same “children are not chattel” arguments as were/are made to raise consciousness about the full independent humanity of women because, after all, women ARE capable of being fully autonomous and independent human beings just like men. Children cannot be autonomous and must be dependent for a very long time but that shouldn’t negate their full humanity.

    Instead of possessions, we should regard children as a sacred trust–we are responsible for keeping them as safe, nourished, and educated as it is within our means to do so but only for the purpose of handing that responsibility over to the child himself as he grows up (note: I didn’t say WHEN he grows up but as part of the growing up). They are not our treasures (or blessings) to hoard or to show off. They are their own treasure, their own gift of Life from God to themselves and the world, not to us; we parents and teachers are merely the stewards charged with protecting and increasing that gift.

  8. 8 Scott said at 6:45 pm on August 20th, 2011:

    Indeed. That attitude almost always shows up if you dig deeper with those who advocate hitting children as discipline. If it’s good discipline and a positive practice, then when I see a child (any child) behaving inappropriately, then I should be able to “swat” them, no?

    But no, that would be completely unacceptable and would be considered (rightly) criminal. Yet there’s no way you can defend an exception for parents that does not involve the language of property and “rights” over that property.

  9. 9 Lac said at 11:11 pm on September 18th, 2011:

    In the churches I was in, Ted Tripp’s books were very popular. The largest churches and christian schools in my area all endorse his methods. It is very alienating to me as a non-spanker. I also see alot of condemnation of parents for their children’s poor behavior (and this applies to non-christian circles as well). It can be overwhelming for a new parent to know that everything might eventually put on your shoulders. I’ve learned to grow a tough skin as a parent.