July 6, 2009
By Glynn Cardy
Children throughout most of recorded history have been seen as the property of their fathers, similar to women and slaves. It was the father in the ancient Roman world who determined whether a child would live or die. It is estimated that 20-40% of children were either killed or abandoned, with some of the latter surviving as slaves. A child was a nobody unless the father accepted him or her within the family. It was girls who were more often the victims of this rejection.
This is the context for the story of Jesus overriding the objections of his disciples and blessing children. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes the children in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them. These are the bodily actions of a father designating a newborn infant for life rather than death, for acceptance not rejection. Scholars think there was a debate going on in the early Christian community about whether to adopt abandoned children, with some leaders staunchly opposed. Mark aligns Jesus with adoption. Jesus was good news for children.
Children in the ancient world were generally viewed negatively. They were physically weak, understood to lack moral competence and mental capability. The Christian notion of original sin as developed by Augustine underlined this negativity and provided the imperative to beat the child in order that it grows up aright. Further, Augustine saw no distinction between a child and a slave. The discipline of slaves had always been more severe than for freeborn, even to the extent of the availability of professional torturers to do such physically demanding work. The doctrine of original sin was bad news for children.
History generally has been bad news for children. In ancient times children in many cultures were victims of ritual sacrifice, mutilation practices, sold as slaves or prostitutes, and were sexually and physically abused. In the Middle Ages abandonment and infanticide were common. It was common too for children as young as seven to be sent away as apprentices or to a monastery. Severe corporal punishment was normative. The apprentice system continued into the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw changes in how society viewed children, abuse was still common. The Industrial Revolution was also bad news for children. They were made to work in mines, mills, and up chimneys for 14 hours per day – and of course punished if they didn’t work hard enough.
Slowly though changes came. The Enlightenment of the 18th century drew heavily on writers such as Locke and Rousseau. It was an age that challenged the orthodoxy of religion, seeing a child as morally neutral or pure rather than tainted. In response to the wider economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution there arose a philanthropic concern to save children in order that they could enjoy their childhood. The 20th century understanding of child development evolved in the context of falling infant mortality rates and mass schooling. With these changes also came an emphasis on children’s rights culminating in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989.
The Bible generally has been bad news for children too. In the Book of Proverbs we read “He who spares the rod hates his son” (13:24) and again “You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell” (23:14). For the most part the Bible is unsupportive of non-violence and children’s rights, or for that matter the rights of women and servants.
Throughout history it has been considered self-evident that all people were not created equal. Only men, particularly those of wealth and high-class, were considered fully human. Women, slaves, servants, and children weren’t. Being less than fully human they belonged to a man. They also needed to be corrected and disciplined by that man or his surrogates. Physically punishing and beating children, women, and servants has been normative for centuries.
Men administering such punishment were not considered to be errant or criminal. From time to time there would be those who acted brutally and cruelly and most societies and religions admonished them for it. In 13th century England, for example, the law read, “If one beats a child until it bleeds it will remember, but if one beats it to death the law applies”. [Albrecht Peiper, Chronik der Kinderheilkunde, Georg Thieme, 1966.]
In this context it is helpful to understand the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 as deleting an escape clause for the brutal and cruel. The question in the upcoming referendum, whether a smack should be a part of good parental discipline, however raises the broader issue of the acceptability of New Zealand’s culture of physical punishment of children.
Those who administered the violent correction in times past were usually thought to be well-meaning and understood their actions to be a necessary part of their responsibilities. In times past supposedly well-meaning men thought they were entitled to physically discipline their strong-willed wife. Likewise in times past many masters thought beating an uppity servant was necessary. When the laws changed preventing such things the husbands and masters decried the loss of their rights. Likewise this upcoming referendum is a cry from those well-meaning adults who see their right to use violence on their children being eroded. in New Zealand we are in the midst of a cultural change. It is similar to the change regarding the rights of women and the rights of slaves and servants. We have ample evidence from paediatricians, child psychologists, and educationalists about the detrimental effects of any violence meted out upon a child by an authority figure. Although society has sought to restrain and punish adults who are brutal and cruel it has also condoned a culture of medium to low level violence towards children.
Christianity has been complicit in this, citing selective texts from the ancient past, and giving them a divine imprimatur. With an adult male God it has implicitly supported all the human male ‘gods’ in their homes and workplaces to the detriment of others. With the destructive doctrine of original sin the Church has harshly dealt to children and other supposed inferiors. Yet the only texts Christianity has regarding children and Jesus show its founder to be unfailingly kind, compassionate, and non-violent. He never smacked anyone.
From the practice of spirituality many Christians have learnt that what they do to others in effect they do to themselves. The kindness offered to others does something to one’s own soul. Similarly hitting or hurting others is detrimental to one’s own spiritual well-being. It harms one’s capacity to love.
We know from psychology that one method we humans adopt to minimise the self-harm of being violent towards others is to categorise the recipient of the violence as in some way deserving of it. There are numerous examples of women, gays, and people of non-European races being categorised as intellectually and morally inferior in order to justify the physical or institutional violence meted out upon them.
In recent decades science has discovered the impact of childhood experiences on brain development. Whether an adult is generous and loving is determined not only by their genes, but also by how they have been treated as an infant and young child. When a baby is cuddled, treated kindly, played and laughed with, their brain produces certain hormones. On the other hand when young children live with fear, violence, and insecurity their brain produces excessive levels of different hormones such as cortisol. These hormones influence which pathways develop in their brain – its architecture and the adult’s ability to be kind and considerate or angry, sad and distressed.
Cultural change is always hard work. The evidence for the need to change may be there but we adults like the certainty of what we’ve known. There is a sense of security in replicating the past we know, even when we have been harmed by it. There is also a sense of fear that the unknown future may be detrimental to our family and us. Will our children prosper, respect and love us when we raise them without the threat of physical harm?
There is overwhelming evidence that violence has the capacity to change relationships and individuals for the worse. All violence produces fear, and fear is the antithesis of love. We have stopped sanctioned beatings in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, workplaces, and schools, and towards wives and partners. History is changing. Children, maybe the most vulnerable of all the vulnerable, are last. The real question with the upcoming referendum is do we have the courage to create a violence free society?
- Archdeacon Glynn Cardy is vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland