Fundies and child abuse
Lynn Harris has a bone-chilling article up at Salon about yet another incident of fundamentalist Christians taking their beliefs to an extreme and getting someone hurt or killed, usually and inevitably someone in a vulnerable position. In this case, the story is that of 7-year-old Lydia Schatz, whose parents beat her to death using a tool—a quarter inch plumbing supply line—recommended by the wildly popular authors Michael and Debi Pearl, who have an entire series about “child training” for evangelical Christians. Like James Dobson of Focus on Family, the Pearls are big on spanking kids, and not just small pats on the butt. In both cases, the idea is to beat the kid into submission. Dobson wrote about his preferred technique like so:
[T]he spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely. After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms.
Light, swatting spankings, done in anger without courtroom dignity will make children mad because they sense that they have been bullied by an antagonists. A proper spanking leaves children without breath to complain.
Naturally, some children will complain until they’re beaten to death, a situation the Pearls apparently didn’t account for. Now they’re scrambling to avoid any moral responsibility for the death of this little girl, the severe beating of two other children. (The ones who got it the hardest were adopted children from Liberia.)
Lynn describes the debate going on inside the evangelical community about the Pearls, and what is considered “too far”. It’s all very interesting, and I suggest you read her article. But I’m going to argue that the continued debating over the line between forcing someone to submit and overt abuse that goes on in this world completely misses the point. When you define entire classes of people, whether children or women, as existing to submit and suggest that willfulness is an evil brought upon your family by the devil, then abuse is inevitable. The idea itself is abusive and dehumanizing. Everything else that follows from it is simply logical.
I’m struck, when reading right wing Christian child-rearing advice, on how much the advice resembles the tactics that wife beaters use against their victims.
With grown women, of course, phase 3 gets a little complicated, but phase 3 is explicit stated by these spanking proponents—once you’ve broken down your victim, everything is hugs and tears. The Pearls highlight stage 4 as the goal of their techniques, it appears.
“The focus when their teachings are promoted isn’t on the spanking, but on the ‘tying heartstrings’ and enjoying your kids,” says Alexandra Bush. “It is easy to filter out the harsher teachings, the extremism, when surrounded by word pictures of peaceful, loving, fun families. The Pearls seem to tell parents that they just have to ‘win’ once and make sure their children know who is in charge, and then they will never have to spank again. That’s how parents get sucked in — promises of a fun, peaceful home, minimal confrontation, doing the ‘right thing’ for their children. Basically, the BS detectors are turned off by the pretty promises that are made.”
Well, yeah. Everyone enjoys phase 4, but then the person beaten into submission starts to act like a human being again, seeking to control their own life and express their individuality, and things get tense again, and then there’s a beating. Abuse exists because abusers desire complete control over their victims. I fail to see how Christian child rearing manuals that replace terms like “rearing” or “nurturing” with their preferred term “training” can be considered anything but abuse. The very idea that another human being should be trained, that their will should be completely subject to yours, is abuse by definition. The Pearls aren’t exactly wrong when they argue that you can only completely control a person by beating them until “crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper“. The problem is the premise, accepted even by many of their critics, that children should be so thoroughly controlled. (And that wives should be obedient.)
Not to say that this issue isn’t confusing, even for liberal or secular parents. Kids don’t know how to behave, and they need their parents to guide them. I’m the last person who thinks that a child should never be controlled, particularly when your 4-year-old that you’ve brought to a fancy Italian restaurant keeps running into my table and splashing wine and sending the bottle tipping into precarious positions that cause me to completely drop the pleasant adult conversation I’m having to rescue myself, my companion and your 4-year-old from having wine spilled all over us. I have zero issue with picking the child up, putting them in their seat and telling them they either stop running around or privileges will immediately start to disappear, or whatever other non-abusive form of discipline is the thing now. In fact, I beg you to do it. Sometimes the little ones, be they pets or people, in our care need to have decisions made for them, as well. But that’s a far different cry from the fundamentalist Christian view, where children exist to glorify you and your belief system, and their beings are subject to that. I imagine that parents who give their children the right to be individuals and whose goal is to move their children towards being able to make more and more of their own decisions end up being frustrated a lot less than fundamentalist parents, who are encouraged to see every bit of non-submissive behavior as the devil’s work. And who see every attraction to pop culture as a threat, whereas most parents tend to feel neutral about large swaths of that.
I’m just blown away by how much the wife beater’s M.O. is actually taught as the moral pathway when it comes to child rearing in the fundamentalist culture. Wife beaters use various tactics to separate their victims from outside influences that might keep their victims from submitting completely to their control; fundies are openly concerned with outside influences and create entire industries to shield their children from them, as well as embrace home schooling. Wife beaters are paranoid, seeing threats to their control even when they aren’t there, and escalating the amount of time they spend monitoring their victims. Again, this is treated as the best way to raise your children in fundie circles, which is another reason home schooling is such a big deal. And of course, the cycle of abuse is glorified as the right way to get children to submit in fundie circles. Which is why I’m never surprised when something like this murder happens.