Treating Children As Less than Human

NFL running back Adrian Peterson hit his four-year-old son, Nelson, with a belt in front of 20 of Nelson’s classmates; his son needed to go to the hospital for treatment of his wounds. Adrian Peterson justifies his abusive behavior with the same circular logic child abusers throughout history have used: “It’s how I was raised; I was beaten as a child and I turned out OK.” So being okay means becoming a grown man of great physical strength who whips a 4 year old? Peterson actually said:

"I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. ... I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man."

Perhaps Peterson’s behavior is an extreme example, but I’ve heard and read this same justification for harming children physically, mentally, and spiritually too many times in my life to believe it is an insignificant thing. For instance, John Holt wrote in Growing Without Schooling 40:

The 9/5/83 issue of Time has a long cover story about violence within the family, of husbands against wives (and, occasionally, the reverse), and both of them against children. This tragic and horrifying problem is growing worse, as it always does in bad times, when people worry themselves sick about their jobs, their bills, their future.

At any rate, this habitual verbal and/or physical violence by adults against children is surely one of the root causes of violence by children in school, and one for which the schools themselves bear no responsibility at all. Children who have been cruelly treated tend to treat others cruelly, for three reasons; they have learned the habit, they want revenge, and they have so little sense of their own worth that they can only make themselves feel a little better, briefly, by making others feel even worse.

John’s understanding of the problem was a minority view then as it is today, which is quite sad because I think that today’s economy is even more desperate and difficult for families than 1983 was. Fear trumps empathy in our lives all too frequently, and violence against children exists and is justified as a necessary action at all levels of authority in modern society—perpetrators usually say it is done “for the child’s own good." For example, a high school football coach of Adrian Peterson is quite open about his practice of paddling his players:

Booker Bowie, who was Peterson's defensive coordinator at Palestine High School in Texas, told the Daily Mail that he used to smack Peterson with an 18-inch long wooden paddle. Bowie called that "tough love" and afterward, Bowie said Peterson would respond by saying, "Coach, thank you." For the record, corporal punishment is legal in Texas. Bowie said he would give his students up to three licks with his paddle, but he also said he explained to the students before and after he hit them why he was doing so. "It wasn't my intention to abuse the kids, the kids loved me for it. I wanted them to do right. They said, 'Coach, thank you.'" Bowie told the newspaper. "Adrian understands corporal's not intended to hurt anybody, it's to get them going in the right direction. I have never had a problem with parents calling anyone complaining. The way Adrian came up, his parents, his mother was disciplining him. He understands it. It helped his teammates, his classmates. I think that's what he was doing [to his son]."

Trying to break the cycle of abuse seems like a gargantuan task, not just because all sorts of experts, institutions, laws, and religious beliefs encourage and support corporal punishment but also because the majority of adults don’t think children are capable of having deep thoughts and feelings. These recent comments by a popular British artist reflect this:

. . . Taking children to art galleries is a "total waste of time", according to one of Britain's top artists. Jake Chapman, half of the revered Chapman brothers duo, called parents "arrogant" for thinking children could understand such complex artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He says that standing a child in front of a Pollock is an "insult" to the American who pioneered the abstract expressionism. "It's like saying... it's as moronic as a child? Children are not human yet," the father-of-three declared.

Children are not human yet? If that statement was made about any adult of any race or gender it would be seen as the demeaning insult it is. Some recognize this, but their emphasis on giving children access to art rather than on children’s right to choose what they want to learn and think about confuses the issue. Adults’ suspicions and fears that unsupervised children will do something bad or stupid has led to the situation that if someone sees an unsupervised child outdoors they call the police. A widespread ban of unsupervised children from public spaces is not apparent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one proposed and it gains widespread support. Americans just don’t like to see kids on their own anymore—and we’re not talking about childhood adventures such as those had by Ben Franklin, Annie Oakley, and Mark Twain; we’re talking about playing on a jungle gym or sitting on a park bench in your neighborhood. Today, if a child isn’t in an adult-supervised program when they are not in school their parents can be cited for child neglect or worse, as these two stories prove.

CPS Visited an Austin Woman Whose Kids Were Playing Outside Unsupervised

Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Alone at Park

What are we to do with our children? Keep them inside our homes, shadow them whenever they venture outdoors, and only send them to school and after-school programs where adults control them? This is a bleak future to me, but probably not to our professional child watchers and parent evaluators. I think to avoid this future we need much more action and empathy to start treating children like real people and not as something less than human. The only way I see this happening is by us treating children as full human beings in our own lives and communities; there is no need to wait for research studies, religious leaders, educators, government policies, rules, and regulations to make this happen. Will you do so in your life?