They Batter Little Children—Why?
“IT READS like a primer for concentration camp torturers or experts in the practice of human degradation.” To what was the newspaper writer who penned these words referring?
Child abuse. Recent reports state that it has now reached “epidemic” proportions in the United States and other parts of the world.
How serious is this epidemic? “CHILD ABUSE—‘DISEASE’ KILLS TWO CHILDREN DAILY” declared a headline in American Medical News of April 21, 1975. A month later The Journal of Legal Medicine reported: “The most common cause of childhood death today may be child abuse. According to one commentator, the incidence of deaths due to child abuse, or battering, is greater than the total of those due to accidents and infectious diseases combined.”
Toward the end of 1975, a news release by United Press International stated: “More than a million American children suffer physical abuse or neglect each year.” Reporting on information obtained from Douglas Besharov, an official of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the news item continued: “By the narrowest definitions, he said, 2,000 children a year die from circumstances associated with abuse or neglect.’’ Data indicates that children who suffer such abuse are usually less than five years of age and frequently under a year.
Appalling Cruelty to Children
Accounts of child abuse are heartrending. According to a police report, a Bronx, New York, man subjected four young children to the following episodes of horror:
● Coating their knees with pancake syrup and forcing them to scurry on their knees back and forth across a floor sprinkled with rice.
● Removing the children’s clothes and placing them on shelves inside a metal cabinet seven feet (2.1 meters) tall; then pouring hot candle wax upon their buttocks and locking them in the cabinet for an hour or more.
● When because of noisemaking the seven-year-old boy awakened him, the man stuffed the lad into the oven, closed the door and lit it. The child escaped a fiendish death only because his mother rushed into the room and released him.
In another instance an eighteen-month-old baby boy was found dangling from a plant at the edge of a cliff 300 feet (91 meters) above a raging surf. He had been abandoned. In her book Children Are People Too, Virginia Coigney states: “Parents have chopped off small hands, burned, mutilated, beaten, starved, chained, imprisoned and murdered their young.” Besides physical abuse, infants and toddlers frequently experience verbal, emotional and sexual mistreatment.
What type of parents or other adults would subject children to such cruelties? Is it mainly the mentally depraved, economically impoverished or some other unfortunate category of persons?
Actually child abuse cuts across racial, economic and social lines. “There should . . . be no stereotype of the abusing parent,” notes Virginia Coigney. “If the problem is studied in Baltimore, more parents will be black; if studied in Salt Lake City, they will be white. Racial factors depend on the composition of the group studied.” The same author goes on to point out:
“Child abuse itself is seldom the result of even a dislike of children, much less hatred. Experts, with few exceptions, agree that the battering parent loves the child he batters. If not that particular child, then other children. There is ample evidence that the child abuser wants to act differently, and in the vast majority of cases it is the abuser who brings his actions to the attention of the appropriate authorities, apparently in the hopes of protecting the child from his [the parent’s] illness. And illness it is. Child abuse has been described as a chronic illness with acute traumatic recurrent episodes.”
What causes this “illness”? How can a person prevent it from getting a hold on him?
Much research has been done to lay bare the causes of child abuse. In nearly every case one element is present. What is that? According to an interview with Dr. C. Henry Kempe, an expert on child abuse, more than 90 percent of parents who abuse children do so out of uncontrolled anger. What incites this?
Often anger results when circumstances arise for which one or both parents are not prepared. Sadly the new circumstance is often a couple’s first baby. “Many young girls have no idea of what it means to take care of a child,” explains Dr. Jane Gray, a co-worker with Dr. Kempe. “No one tells them about changing diapers, fighting down a fever, cleaning up spilled food, getting up in the night.” Some parents who are delighted to care for a helpless infant succumb to despair and rage when the little one starts walking about, climbing out of its crib or playpen and ‘getting into everything.’ Others do well with older children, but cannot cope with infants.
A major factor in child abuse is urban living. Overcrowded cities with air, water and noise pollution create tension that many adults cannot handle. All too often helpless children become the victims when such adults ‘blow their top.’
Pointing to another factor in child abuse, an article in the Detroit News remarked: “Experts are concerned that a sharp rise in child abuse cases may be a by-product of rising unemployment in the metropolitan Detroit area.” Not only do unemployed fathers suffer from a feeling of uselessness, but they find themselves in the presence of their children for greater parts of each day, rather than the hour or two they used to spend with them when employed. Men are seldom equipped to cope with the squeals, wiggles and incessant movement of very young children.
The roots of child abuse, however, usually stem from deeper, more personal levels. How so?
Parents Feel “Not OK”
Persons concerned with eliminating child abuse urge parents to look at themselves. These parents often harbor unrealistic expectations of their children. Why? Carole Bowdry, head of a child-abuse project in Dallas, Texas, pointed out: “Many abusive parents have low self-esteem and have been made to feel ‘not OK,’ that there was no way they could meet their own parents’ expectations. As a result, when they moved into maturity and had their own children, they began to play act being OK by telling their children, ‘You’re not, but I am.’”
Starved for love, these parents who were abused as children often expect impossible things from their offspring. Commenting on a study headed by Dr. Kempe, writer Edward Edelson explains:
“Obviously, every case is different. But the one constant factor in almost every case, Dr. Kempe’s group discovered, is that a battered child grows up to be a battering parent. Rejected by their own parents, convinced of their own inadequacy, they have difficulties in establishing normal relationships with other people and expect a great deal of their children. Those expectations never are fulfilled, because no normal child could be the perfect being that these parents want. And so the child is beaten, to start the cycle again.”
Similar were the results of a study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This group investigated child-abuse cases in 115 families with 180 children. The results showed that in nine out of ten cases child abusers have “serious social problems.” They are mostly loners, with little or no group association. Many of such parents seek satisfaction of nearly all their needs for companionship and affection from a child (or children). They view the youngsters as “miniature adults” and require them to display affection, motivation and self-control characteristic of grown-ups. Of course, no infant or toddler can meet such expectations. Yet their failure is viewed as willful disobedience and they are punished accordingly.
Effect of the “New Morality”
Attitudes toward sexual morality have changed radically in recent years. Today it is popular for men and women to swap sexual partners at their whim. Whatever your view of this may be, did you realize that it has contributed to the increase in child abuse? In what way?
Dr. Peggy Ferry, a children’s neurologist at the University of Oregon’s Medical School, observes: “The new boy friend is frequently enraged at the small, irritable child. The child may remind him of the mother’s previous lover, or it may interfere with the recreational plans of the couple.” It was such a “boy friend” who thought up the tortures mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Tragic indeed are the multiplying reports of the battering, torturing and murdering of helpless children. We have considered some principal causes of child abuse. How can adults come to grips with the causes and overcome the inclination to batter little children?