What is Child Abuse?

When parents post a Facebook video of them slapping, and verbally berating an 11-year old boy, and showing someone hitting him with a belt 60 times is this child abuse? When a father ties his son to a tree so he can smoke marijuana is this child abuse? When a parent locks an 11-year old boy in a 4 X 4 space under the stairs and barely feeds him is this child abuse? When a parent makes a child run laps around a yard until the child falls dead is this child abuse—turned murder? When does discipline by a parent go too far?

You probably saw the video of the 11-year old being cursed, slapped and beat with a belt for posting something on his Facebook page about being in a gang. These three grown folks apparently were trying to teach this boy a lesson about not joining a gang (by ganging up on him) —in Flint, Michigan—a place with the highest crime rate in the world. The commentators weighing in were from one extreme to another. One man said that since the belt beating was done on a child fully clothed and the belt didn’t leave marks then it was not child abuse. Of course others disagreed saying not only did the video show child abuse but public humiliation, including an adult male literally mocking the boy as he twisted his body to absorb the pain. A few folks weighed in saying that these folks needed parenting skills.

Last year Melissa Harris Perry, the MSNBC commentator, got herself in hot water by making a statement to the effect that parents do not own their children but that children are collectively owned by society. The far right went nuts claiming that Perry was advocating some type of collective communism. To one degree, Ms. Perry was right because you can sell anything you own—but you cannot sell your own children—meaning they are not a parent’s property—as in chattel slavery. So how far can parents go to discipline their own children without engaging in child abuse?

Bill Cosby often made a joke about “I brought you in I can take you out,” in reference to child discipline. But we know that folks who have beaten, shaken, or otherwise brutalized their own children have been prosecuted for a wide range of criminal conduct. So right off the bat parents cannot do anything they want to their children to discipline them. What about parents who say that they got beatings when they were young so they can beat their own children? Does this pass muster? Is it okay for generational methods of beating children with sticks, ropes, paddles, and assorted cords to still be allowed today as forms of discipline? Is it ever okay for a parent to slap a child across the face or mouth? Can a parent wash a child’s mouth out with soap to stop a child from using “bad” words? Can a parent force a child to eat hot peppers to stop them from talking back? Can a parent refuse to feed a child for days for not taking out the trash? Can a parent lock a child in a room and feed them through the door to keep them from acting out? Can a father hit a son with a closed fist to teach him who’s the “man in the house?” The list could go on and on about what parents do and have done to their own children to discipline them. But what type of discipline crosses the line to child abuse?

Some of the comments to the 11-year old being hit 60 times said that the situation could have been handled better by not arresting the parents and not placing the boy in a foster home because worse things can happen to children at the hands of strangers. These people rightly point to plenty of situations where children placed in protective custody have been brutalized by “the system.” But, what we know from all these situations is that children are still children and they are at the mercy of adults, parents or otherwise. What we know is that children are in fact the de facto property of their parents and that parents have control over every aspect of their lives.

So what is to be done with parents who believe that if they were cursed and beat that that they can do the same to their own children? What type of parental education can change generational methods of disciplining children including slapping them in the mouth, cursing them as if they were less than an animal, or otherwise inflicting pain and humiliation? I have seen a few public service commercials that tried to address the issue of parents berating their children in public, but these commercials sanitized the worse of what is happening to children. Now compare the public service commercials about the mistreatment of dogs and cats. These commercials are graphic showing all sorts of injuries to these animals. Why not be just as graphic and show how children are being treated? Well the first hurdle is showing a child’s face in a commercial—which cannot be done except when some philanthropic organization is trying to raise money to feed the hungry children in South America and Africa. No problem showing these hungry, tear-streaked faces. But, why not take the lid of child abuse in America and stop trying to cover-up or sugar coat horrible abuses going on every day by parents who know that no one will ever find out—except for the occasional posting of a beating on Facebook? If Americans can stand to see what happens to a lung or a face from using drugs and tobacco, then Americans can stand to see the injuries being inflicted on its children at the hand of abusive parents.

Copyright 2014 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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