Tuesday, August 8, 2017
So hard to tell why people do the things they do—and when it comes to child abuse, their actions can be especially hard to explain. Everyone who has brought up children knows that there are risk factors for mistreatment. A bad day, an argument with another adults, a child who suddenly acts up, more stress than usual, a headache—these can all add up to at least the impulse to hurt a child. Fortunately for children, most of us, most of the time, have enough self-control to resist that impulse. And, having experienced the impulse, we recognize what might happen when an adult is overwhelmed by life and the intense desire to lash out at a child.
What’s much harder to understand is the systematic abuse and neglect that in some cases go on for years, and in other cases end with the child’s death. These situations are very different from the impulsive smack to the head or the rear. They would seem to require strong motivation and intentions to mistreat a child on a daily, even hourly, basis. Rather than from a momentary lapse in impulse control, these surely stem from a lack of empathy or concern, from a belief that children are property with no rights as human beings, and/or from a conviction that only a stern and painful upbringing can create “character” and insure a productive adulthood. The latter two points may result from the adults’ own childhood experiences and their unexamined acceptance of the views of their own families, sometimes expressed in phrases like “I was always brought up to…” or “My daddy always [fill in blank] and I turned out all right , didn’t I?” (by the way, it is never advisable to point out to that person that he did not actually turn out all right!).
When people who mistreat children point proudly to their family history as justification for their actions, we should be reminded of the fact that historically, children have been punished, or simply brought up, in ways that we now regard as abusive. Locking children in dark closets, washing out their mouths with blistering lye soap, making bed-wetters wash their sheets in icy cold water, withholding food—all of these are part of traditions that go back hundreds of years (although not every family or culture did any or all of these things). People alive today may have experienced such treatment, and if they did not, they probably heard of it from grandparents or other older relatives who passed along their own narratives. These mistreatments may be recognized as “old-fashioned”, but that may or may not make parents avoid them. They may decide that using “old-fashioned” methods is the socially conservative thing to do and therefore admire those practices, which are basically methods of power assertion.
But there are other possibilities too. Whether or not parents have heard of abusive methods through their own family history, they may be instructed to use such methods by other people. For example, as some readers know, the self-appointed foster parent educator Nancy Thomas has for years recommended power assertion techniques such as limiting the amount and variety of food given to a child, removing most furniture and decorations from the child’s bedroom, and requiring that the child ask permission for the simplest self-care actions like drinking water or using the toilet. Thomas is a persuasive speaker, to the point where a licensed psychologist listened to her suggestions and subsequently had her license revoked after a 12-year-old patient attempted suicide ( see https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2015/03/psychology-license-revoked-become.html). And Thomas is apparently not the only one with a taste for power assertion as a child psychotherapy (see https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2010/12/federici-v-mercer-story-behind-lawsuit.html), as another psychologist’s suggestions seem to have jibed with a couple’s decision to treat their adopted son by limiting his diet, keeping him isolated in his room, and painting his windows black.
There are cases that crop up weekly in which authorities have found children harmed as a result of being treated by “old-fashioned” or Nancy Thomas methods of power assertion. Here are two recent ones:
stories/roy-couple-accused-of- holding-children-captive-in- squalid-home-accepts-plea- deal/
In this case, the adoptive parents of three boys ages 7-11were said to have kept them isolated for as much as thirteen hours a day in a locked room, to have tied or bound them with zip ties and to have duct-taped their mouths, and to have limited their diet. The windows in the room were screwed closed and painted black, and the room had no lights, There were no toilet facilities available to the children while they were locked in the room, and they used a furnace vent for sanitary purposes. (A point to be kept in mind when children are described as intentionally urinating in inappropriate places.) The children were further punished at times by having to eat heavily-salted and cayenne-peppered rice; they were not permitted to drink water after 2 P.M. in spite of this.
If these parents had gone to trial, it might have been possible to find out why they thought these methods were appropriate, but a plea bargain means that we will probably never know any more of the background of this case. My own speculation is that these parents went beyond the “old-fashioned” approach by combining so many elements of power assertion, and adding some nontraditional punishments, for example, painting the windows black. I would guess that this behavior pattern was learned either through some formal instruction or in imitation of others who had been instructed.
In this case, adoptive parents kept a boy, then 5 years old, in an unlighted basement room for 12 hours a day for some months. He had a mattress and a blanket to sleep with. There were no toilet facilities, and if he had to defecate he would put the stool into a hole in the wall. The boy’s diet consisted primarily of carrots, which he had to eat before getting any other food, and if he did not finish the carrots within a time limit he was not allowed other food. The mother stated that she did not know it was against the law to lock a child in a room.
In this somewhat similar case, most of the elements seem to be “old-fashioned” ones , and it is possible that the parents had heard about such treatment of children and imitated it in an informal way. The carrot part is highly unusual, however, and suggests some belief about nutrition derived from an “alternative medicine” source, perhaps on the Internet or through some community or word of mouth communication. The mother’s comment about the legality or otherwise of locking the child in a room suggests a belief that anything that is legal is acceptable in parenting-- or perhaps simply a good deal of confusion about life in general.
Are these cases evidence of Nancy Thomas parenting, or just the “trailing edge” of some old practices? Is Nancy Thomas’s success (and she has had some!) due to her ability to ride the coattails of “the way my granddaddy did it”? Plea bargains and the failure of investigators to follow up on these issues has made it impossible to answer these questions with any certainty. If we knew the answers, though, it might be a great help in preventing these cases.