Fright Free Children

and the Effects of Low-Level Violence

By Merina Balten


Chapter 2: The history of childhood

If as a new parent you were today to decide that you wanted to raise you child free of violence of all kinds: free of being hurt physically or emotionally, free of fear, free of being deliberately, randomly frightened for other people's amusement, you would be going against a long tradition of violence against children.

How big a problem is violence against children? The recent UN study on Violence Against Children, the most comprehensive such examination ever undertaken, paints a grim picture of the state of all violence world wide. The violence we do to our children cuts across social, cultural, religious and ethnic lines. "Widespread, under-reported violence against children casts a lasting shadow over young lives in ways that the world was only just beginning to understand.... children suffering from depression, anxiety and sleeping disorders..." and, one might add, in danger of passing on the pattern of violence that was done to them. The frightening of children is just an extension of the widespread unrecognized, under-reported violence done to children generally.

Violence against children and the frightening of children has been commonplace for a long time. The book The History of Childhood (note...) is a difficult read for just this reason. It's stomach-turning to read how children have been treated over the centuries. To treat children badly for your own amusement is one thing, but worse yet are those who do so for teaching purposes, "for their own good" of course. Alice Miller, one of the foremost experts in child abuse, calls this poisonous pedagogy, where children are deliberately frightened and manipulated in order to teach them something. As the title of her book "For Your Own Good" (note..) implies, children have always been controlled and disciplined and taught to the tune of the hickory stick in order for them to be better people, or so the thinking went.

This was a common pattern in all levels of society wherever children were "educated". It's even evident in many patterns of paternalistic initiations as with college freshmen or military academies: patterns of abuse have been a common, time-honoured tradition. These have only recently been flagged after some fatal incidents occurred.

This pattern is still evident very obviously in third world countries - where for example, Stephen Lewis laments that African wives feel powerless to refuse their husbands even when they are certain to get AIDS as a result. Women's position in the world has usually been similar to that of the child, both were considered as low in status and having little value, and consequently how they were treated was of little consequence. Even the Declaration of Independence, that much lauded American document, actually only applied to white, adult males. Women, children and slaves were all excluded from the freedoms offered to "all".

Though more evident in developing countries, in the developed world it is still common to find patriarchy alive and well virtually everywhere. Old patterns die hard. Authority figures still have the right to treat those under them with impunity - if they can get away with it. The teacher in her classroom or the parent at home both have endless possibilities for educating or abusing, helping or denigrating.

How we treat our children is really a sign of the health of the society. Children's rights have just recently been awarded to the most vulnerable of our population by the UN charter, recognizing children as human beings in their own right, and not just as an extension of their parents. Children have been sorely abused all through the history of the human race, and they are the ones least able to defend themselves. Slaves can run away, women can raise their hand against their abuser, but children, especially very small children have little recourse except to accept whatever befalls them.

What little progress we've made in the treatment of children is due in part to the general movement in society towards more egalitarian thinking, more compassion, more humanity. Stan Shapiro, a parenting expert, in Practical Parenting underlines this concept with a section on empathy - how to develop the empathetic child, in order to develop more empathetic people.

Studies in violence and how children develop into violent adults, have shown that these children can already be identified in kindergarten. It is the child in kindergarten who lacks empathy as well as the one who acts aggressively. Both are likely to grow up into violent adults. (The Dalai Lama speaks of the lack of compassion, when speaking of violence and its causes.) These situations have also been shown to be reversible with the right kinds of interference, treating both the child and the parents.

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