A few weeks ago I had a pretty crazy week at work. Of course I had the usual hilarious comments and stories, but unfortunately some sad things came up as well. In the older grades we talk about the difference between spanking and physical abuse. We tell them that getting a spanking is not physical abuse–it doesn’t hurt very bady or very long, and it mostly just makes a loud noise. Physical abuse, on the other hand, leaves “big ouches” like bruises, welts, or broken bones. As long as spanking doesn’t leave any marks and is done with a hand (opposed to a spoon or belt), it is completely legal in the state of Utah. Now, I really don’t like spanking as a form of discipline (I’ll explain my reasoning in another post sometime), but because it’s legal, it’s something I have to address in GTBT because it’s something that’s done in many families. The goal of GTBT isn’t to convince kids that they are being abused. The goal is to educate kids on what abuse is and what abuse is not so that they can get help if they are being abused.
At this point in the conversation in two separate classes I had two kids tell me things that made my heart sink. One child told me her friend’s father hits her friend with a belt and that it hurts really bad. Spanking a child with a belt or wooden spoon was pretty common 20 or 30 years ago, but not so much now. It’s against the law to hit a child with an object, and it actually does count as abuse. Another child timidly told me her friend’s dad threw a high heeled shoe at her friend. She also mentioned that this friend’s parents don’t give her friend very much food. Once again, it’s against the law to hit a child with an object. It also sounded a little bit like neglect.
With the first situation, I honestly think the child’s parents have no idea hitting a child with a belt is against the law. I highly doubt they are blatantly trying to abuse their child. Chances are, those parents were probably disciplined by their parents with a belt too, so they assume that’s the best way to discipline their own children. The second situation is a little more sticky with the neglect implications, but it very well might fall under the same category. Those parents were probably also raised with things being thrown at them, so they figure if their parents could do it to them, they can do it to their own kids.
While there are definitely parents out there who are deliberately cruel to their kids, it seems to me that the main culprit behind most abuse cases is ignorance. Parents have a lot of freedom to raise their children however they wish. However, this freedom has certain limits (the law, natural consequences, etc.). Some parents aren’t aware of these limits; others might be aware of the limits, but they have skewed ideas of where these limits lie. For example, a mother might hear of a child being severely beaten and scoff at that child’s parents for doing such a thing. She might think, “It’s so obvious! You just don’t do that to a child! Giving them a good hard swat on the butt with a wooden spoon is enough!” This mother can easily define severe abuse, but doesn’t think twice about her own illegal discipline strategies.
The limits of physical discipline are fairly well defined by the law–if an object is used, it is abuse; if it leaves a mark, it’s abuse. There are some slightly grey areas when it comes to slapping–it often leaves marks that are only temporary. If a child is slapped and immediately runs to a police officer before the hand print disappears, it can be documented as abuse. However, this hand print would last maybe only a half hour, so the chances of a police officer seeing it before it disappears is pretty slim. In that case, it’s not abuse because there is zero evidence.
Neglect is a little less clear cut because the law can’t really define these limits. Because parents do have a lot of freedom in raising their kids, there can’t be laws stating that children must be fed three times a day, bathed at least once a week, and wearing a coat November through March. The basic guideline the law gives is that children should be thriving. However, there are natural laws that parents must obey in order for their children to thrive. If parents fail to feed their children, the natural consequence is that the kids would eventually become malnourished. If parents fail to change a child’s diaper, the natural consequence is that the child would develop a diaper rash. These are the sort of laws that really can’t be evaded.
If all parents were better informed on these laws, whether they are laws of the land or laws of nature, I think abuse and neglect would happen less. I think there would be fewer parents putting their babies in ovens to keep them warm. I think there would be fewer parents expecting three-year-olds to prepare their own meals. Parents do stupid things to their kids because they don’t know it’s stupid. If they knew of a better way, most would probably go with the better way.
If I had it my way, this is how things would work: Parenting licenses. I’m not joking about this. Think about it this way. You need a license to drive a car. In order to obtain this license you are required to take a test. If you are under a certain age, you are required to take a class as well. This ensures (for the most part) that people on the roads know how to drive correctly and are aware of the laws. A license must be renewed periodically, and after a certain amount of traffic offences the license can be suspended. If licenses weren’t required, imagine how chaotic roads would be. Imagine how many more crashes would happen. Drivers licenses don’t eliminate bad driving or crashes, but they do prevent a lot of stupid mistakes.
I think it should work the same way with parenting. In order for a person to have custody of a child (whether it’s a biological parent, adopted parent, family member, foster parent, etc.), they would need a parenting license. Parenting licenses could be obtained at hospitals or courthouses by taking a basic parenting test at a low cost (enough to cover processing). An inexpensive study guide could also be purchased at the testing site prior to the test. The test wouldn’t need to be complicated or difficult–it would center around child abuse definitions, basic child development, and child health. Parents under the age of 18 would need to take a parenting ed class before the child is born in order to be eligible to get a parenting license. A parent would need to renew their license every 5 years or so until their youngest child is 18. In the event of abuse, neglect, drug use, incarceration, etc, a parenting license could be suspended or revoked, depending on the severity of the infraction. The children would then be placed in the care of a guardian who does have a current parenting license. This wouldn’t prevent all child abuse cases, but it would at least elevate the general public’s parenting knowledge.
It’s a slightly ridiculous idea, but if licensing works for regulating drivers, hunters, business owners, and professionals, why wouldn’t it work for parenting too? If ignorance is part of the problem, shouldn’t the solution be mandatory education?