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Are We Really Such Monsters? Everything today is ‘child abuse.’ By Lakis Polycarpou for Babble.com

In a recent letter to Salon.com’s advice columnist Cary Tennis, a reader wrote of a dilemma: he was considering ending a friendship with someone who began teaching creationism at a parochial school – something the reader and his wife considered “a form of child abuse.”

As the father of three young children and as someone raised in a religious (though by no means fundamentalist) family, I find it strange that teaching children a controversial religious doctrine could be called “abuse.” But judging from any number of recent news stories, blog posts and online message board discussions, this letter is only one example of a recent trend of using the term “child abuse” to castigate almost any parenting decision one disagrees with.

On a recent Yahoo Answers discussion board, parents argued over whether breastfeeding a child too long constitutes abuse, while one poster responded that giving a child formula is abuse. A few years ago in British Columbia, a local politician ignited controversy when he suggested that homeschooling was child abuse. Meanwhile, on the right wing Free Republic blog, any number of threads argue that public school is a form of child abuse. And on the “Schools Matter” blog, Jim Horn, a professor of education at Monmouth University, argues in a post titled “Refusing the Child Abuse of High Stakes Testing” that the testing regime in public schools has become abusive and compares compliant parents and educators with Nazis who said they were just following orders at the Nuremberg trials.

“Child abuse.” Not misguided, mistaken, or incorrect. Not insensitive, unfair, narcissistic or incompetent. Abusive.

The quickness with which some parents and others are willing to pull out all stops and accuse their ideological opponents of child abuse is all the stranger when we reflect on the many cases of real child abuse that we hear about in the media on an almost daily basis. But for some reason, rather than giving us some perspective on, say, sleep-training or breastfeeding, this barrage of terrible images and stories seems to sensitize many people to the point where, at least rhetorically, they are willing to call almost any diversion from their own idealized parenting norms “abusive.” To me, the sheer illogic of equating so-called “abuse” with real abuse suggests that something else is going on – something that has more to do with parents and their anxieties than with the actual welfare of children.

This is not to deny the importance or emotional weight of any of the parenting issues under contention. When my wife became pregnant with our first child in 2001, we – like all good parents in our demographic – sought out a book for advice. We settled on one written by Dr. William Sears, the pediatrician who coined the term “attachment parenting” – a philosophy of child rearing that emphasizes breast-feeding on demand, co-sleeping and, perhaps most importantly, never leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep in their cribs. Sears’ advice seemed refreshingly sane, humane and compassionate.

Our feelings were validated by the experience of a friend who had “sleep-trained” her baby by putting him in his own crib awake and letting him learn to “self-soothe” until he fell asleep. When, a month later, her doctor told her to stop nursing and switch to formula because her baby was failing to thrive, we all worried that the sleep training may have played a role.

But a year or so later, we had a five-month-old who had never slept for more than two hours at a stretch – usually less – and my wife and I hit a point of bleary-eyed despair. Our pediatrician told us what to do: put him in the crib and let him cry. Our efforts at sleep-training were sporadic, guilt-laden and complicated by other matters (it turned out my son had persistent reflux). To hear many attachment parenting advocates tell it, though, even trying sleep-training was a form of child abuse.

It would be tempting to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as a case of careless hyperbole. Surely these parents don’t really believe that anyone who lets an infant cry in his crib is doing something that differs only in degree from beating or shaking a child? If you look at what some experts actually say, though, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion. Our pediatrician told us what to do: put him in the crib and let him cry.In a recent episode of Nightline, Harvard researcher Michael Commons put it this way: “There’s nothing wrong with having them cry it out, if you want to risk brain damage.” He then suggested that crying it out could cause attachment or even borderline personality disorders. “Hitler was a borderline personality. And so was Saddam Hussein,” he calmly noted.

Many of Commons’ conclusions, however, are based on observations of children in Romanian orphanages, which he then extrapolates to the average, generally loving American home in which frazzled parents let kids cry in their cribs for a controlled period in order for everyone to get some more sleep. By contrast, there are other studies (such as one appearing in last April’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine) correlating certain typical attachment parenting behaviors (mother present at sleep onset, giving food or drink when child awakens) past age two with later occurrences of bad dreams, less sleep at night and difficulty falling asleep.

The idea of religion-as-child-abuse can be traced to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who has argued in his most recent book, The God Delusion, that the teaching of religion to children is a form of mental abuse. But however traumatic some religious indoctrination may be, there are also any number of studies showing a greater degree of psychological wellbeing among religious or spiritually minded people. That doesn’t make their beliefs necessarily true, nor does it validate any particular creed or theology. But maybe it should make us hesitate before labeling the teaching of religious belief systems “abusive.”

In the end, my son finally did sleep. He’s now a precocious six-year-old in a gifted and talented program. Our friend’s sleep-trained boy is equally bright.

Two more children later, my wife still fervently considers herself to be an attachment parent, by which she means nursing on demand, holding the baby as much as possible and co-sleeping – until it’s time to move on. Our youngest, now five months old, cries in his crib occasionally to fall sleep, but usually only when he’s overtired; otherwise he falls asleep by himself quickly. (As my wife puts it, “With this many people in the family, someone’s always crying; now it’s his turn.”)

The sheer number of choices we are confronted with could overwhelm anyone.One of the most frequent arguments attachment parents use to justify their philosophy is that the practice of making an infant go to sleep alone in his or her crib is a cultural and historical anomaly – something done only in the developed countries of the modern world. It seems to me, though, that there is also something uniquely modern about the anxiety, guilt and fear that goes along with child rearing by almost everyone in today’s society.

Long-gone are the days when parents could confidently raise their children just as their own parents and their parents’ parents had. Whether it’s the question of breastfeeding, sleep-training, television-watching or education (public, private or home schooled? religious or secular? highly structured or totally open?), the sheer number of choices we are confronted with could overwhelm anyone. When these choices are coupled with a culture-wide, psychotherapeutic assumption that anything less than perfect parenting could damage a child for life, is it any wonder that parents are quick to take sides – and quick to vilify anyone who does things differently? Maybe the obsession with finding child abuse everywhere is less about protecting children and more about our own anxieties.

Article photo: C.Y. Lee

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