Many parents would be jailed if they treated other people the way they treat their own children. Here, a leading child psychologist argues that all of us share a duty to help separate children from parents who do them physical or mental harm



Many parents would be jailed if they treated other people the way they treat their own children. Here, a leading child psychologist argues that all of us share a duty to help separate children from parents who do them physical or mental harm



Many parents would be jailed if they treated other people the way they treat their own children. Here, a leading child psychologist argues that all of us share a duty to help separate children from parents who do them physical or mental harm


MOST PARENTS THINK they have an absolute right to control their own children, I am convinced that they are wrong. Unless a child’s natural parents can prove that they are the best persons to care for him — and sometimes they are not — they should be forced to give him up. The custody of one’s own children should be a privilege granted only to those fit for the responsibility.

As matters stand now', the law steps in and removes children from homes in which gross physical abuse is clearly present. This is not good enough. We are still allowing parents to inflict injuries that would be grounds for an assault conviction if the victim w'ere anyone but their own child. Any parent who disciplines his child by physical violence should forfeit his right to that child.

Today we screen childless couples who want to adopt, while allowing natural parents almost life-and-death powers over their offspring. Instead we must assess parents and take children aw'av from those who are incapable of providing them with the minimum essentials, emotional as well as material, for their healthy development. This should be a routine measure, not a last resort.

Our reluctance to interfere in family life and to separate children from their natural parents is understandable, but it must be overcome. We must abandon the traditional idea that family privacy is sacred. Individual freedom is one of our treasured rights, but when freedom violates the welfare of other people then the freedom of the individual must be restricted. This is one of the areas where both freedom and human welfare are involved and where human welfare must take precedence over individual freedom. The mere fact of biological relationship should not give anyone the right to inflict injury. We must protect children from physical and psychological maiming from any source including their own parents, before the harm is done. When we wait, as w'e do now', until there is evidence of neglect or abuse the damage may be irreparable.


How can w'e decide w'hich parents arc potentially dangerous? To begin with, we must discard certain long - established ideas about child management. We must recognize that corporal punishment is not onlv useless but w'rong. It is time we

abolished it entirely in our schools, courts and panel institutions and strongly advised all parents to follow suit. The use of fear, pain and torture to control children should be a thing of the past — but it isn’t. As long as corporal punishment is sanctioned as a method of discipline, cruelty to children will continue.

1 suggest, therefore, that evidence of the continued use of corporal punishment should constitute proof of neglect. In giving up this weapon parents would sacrifice nothing because it has never worked anyway. The violation of the dignity of human personality by the use of the infliction of pain is not only barbaric but ineffective. Anyone who has talked with hundreds of juvenile delinquents, as I have, would realize that no child becomes a delinquent because he hasn't been punished enough and that many of them arc delinquent because they have been punished too much.

Equally necessary, though much more difficult, is the discovery and prevention of emotional neglect. We already know how hard this is to establish. In 1954 Ontario’s Child Welfare Act added emotional neglect to the reasons that em-

power the law

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Ârs abused child may set fires, sulk, steal, or fight

to remove a child from an undesirable home, but this charge, which must be supported by the evidence of a psychiatrist, is so seldom proved that the amendment has not provided the help we once hoped for. Under cross-examination even a psychiatrist must occasionally admit that he has no facts, only a strong impression.

Emotional neglect has many faces, all of them ugly. It ranges from the mother who openly admits that she hates her child to prosperous parents who overindulge their child in material ways because they don't care enough about him to give him the guidance and affection he needs. Ignorance and indifference can be just as harmful as outright rejection.

Generally the child himself tells us, through his behavior, the extent of his suffering. He may retreat into himself, becoming sullen or vague and withdrawn, hiding from adults and other children. He may rebel by refusing to eat or stuffing himself, by bed-wetting or tantrums, by setting fires or stealing, by wild aggression far beyond ordinary rough and tumble. Most pathetic of all, he may cling to strangers in a desperate bid for affection.

One evening last summer a young camp counselor found a five-year-old camper crying wretchedly outside his cabin. The little boy said he knew mommy and daddy had sent him away because they didn’t like him. He had nightmares, and begged the counselor to hold his hand until he went to sleep. A week later, when camp ended, he cried again and made the counselor promise to visit him at home. Since his parents were cruising in Europe all summer, a maid and chauffeur met him at the station. Scores of children like this are shuffled back and forth between camp and boarding school by parents entirely preoccupied with their own affairs.

A family with severe and chronic problems is incapable of meeting a child’s needs, yet our current practice is to keep children in these inadequate homes unless gross neglect is evident. One couple, for instance, who drink heavily, fight violently and separate repeatedly, have two small children now in the temporary care of an Ontario agency. Often unemployed, they drift from town to town, sometimes abandoning their children in a private boarding home like parcels in a lost luggage room, sometimes leaving them dirty, hungry and entirely alone. Although two Children’s Aid societies that have worked with them contend they will never be stable enough

to take care of the children, no juvenile court has yet taken the final step of awarding the children to an agency. By the time this happens it will be years too late to give them a fighting chance for a normal life.

Not only parents but all of us must share the responsibility for these ruined lives. Whenever we see a child in trouble and look the other way we ourselves are guilty of neglect. At present neighbors and friends are usually reluctant to inform authority and still more unwilling to testify in court. An eight-year-old girl, for instance. referred by a school to a Children’s Aid Society because she was timid and friendless, turned out to be the child of a widower who had passed on to her his own distorted fantasies, gruesome accounts of her mother’s death and warnings against imaginary danger in ordinary activities. The Society, convinced that her father’s influence was unhealthy, applied for guardianship but lost their case in court because the man’s neighbors, misguidedly sympthetic, gave kind but false reports of his character.

If we are going to rescue children before they are warped for life, we must learn

to recognize potentially damaging family situations and tighten our laws to the point where we can pull the children out in time. The various agencies that offer family counseling see these situations daily, but are often powerless to do anything about them if the parents are unwilling or unable to accept advice. Some couples are so tangled in their own problems that they have no energy or feeling left to give their children, while others use a child as the rope in their marital tug-of-war. Sometimes one or both parents single out one child for rejection. A man may detest his wife’s child by a previous marriage, and a woman may resent a baby who represents her reason for forced marriage to a husband she doesn’t love. As the unwanted child gradually becomes defiant-or unresponsive, the parents excuse themselves by pointing out that he isn’t as good as their other children.

The most obviously rejected children are those whose parents openly attempt To give them up, yet instead of welcoming the chance to save these children we react with horror and disapproval. Married couples who offer a child for adoption may say they can’t support him, but usually

have other reasons. They may be on the verge of separation, or unwilling to give up their freedom, or ashamed to reveal to their relatives a premaritally conceived baby, or simply too young and incompetent to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. Social workers, recognizing that suitable adopting parents can give the child much more love than biological parents forced to keep him against their will, often arrange placements for these unwanted babies, yet society continues to condemn the parents as unnatural and to put considerable pressure on them to keep their child. If they are willing to put him in a more satisfactory home why should we stop them?

What I am calling for is a reappraisal of our attitudes, our values, our whole climate of opinion. We must change not only the laws and the mechanics of providing a suitable environment for children, but our way of looking at the relationship between parents and children. Parents, neighbors, teachers, social agencies and the law must recognize that the right of the child to grow up normally should take precedence over all others, and throw their combined weight behind the effort to safeguard this right. A child who is young enough to be saved is too young to save himself.

Most of us have strong faith in education as a method of dealing with social problems. Legislation, controls and interference by the state may be needed but behind these methods is the basic necessity for individual education and in some cases re-education. I believe that an adequate plan of family life education would go a long way toward bringing some improvement of the depressing picture of child neglect and abuse. Anyone who has seen the endless parade of misguided children through our juvenile courts, behavior clinics and social agencies would be convinced that any effort and expense required to reduce this parade would pay enormous dividends in human happiness and welfare.

A program of preparental education in our secondary schools could be a part of the plan. This would mean finding teachers with the knowledge and understanding to give leadership. It would mean working out the content and the methods so that the courses would be appealing to young people. But above all it would mean that the educational authorities and the public generally would have to be convinced that such education is both feasible and urgently needed.

Another part of the plan could be courses in parent education readily available to all young parents or prospective parents who felt they needed or wanted them. These courses could be provided in the schools, community centres and churches. Are the people who need such education precisely those who wouldn't take the courses? This is only partly true, but true enough for us to try to meet the challenge. A combined effort of social workers, teachers and community organizations would help meet this difficulty.

Still another feature of the plan would be expanded counseling services. Facilities for family and marriage and parental counseling are now woefully inadequate. What a world of difference it would make to some young, confused parents if they could have the moral support, advice and help an experienced counselor could provide.

Along with more guidance and control of parenthood, there should be more active support of parents. We’ve made them fair game for complaints about children’s delinquency, lack of respect for authority, declining moral standards, irresponsibility and indeed most social ills. But blame doesn’t solve anything; it only demonstrates how intense and chronic and all-pervasive

the emotional neglect of children really is. The return to the bad old days of "back to the woodshed” is not the answer.

I believe that we should undertake a prompt and vigorous program of control combined with education. We must realize that what happens to each child in our community affects us all. and insist that cruelty, neglect and mismanagement of children be abolished. When any evidence of cruelty is brought to light the children should be immediately taken from their parents. At the same time we should discard the idea that punishment solves any-

Tbwxg, Punishment breeds resentment and hosti lit yvVhkh in turn produce aggression and revenge in an èntHfös chain. Punishing parents for being cruel to tiréis...children is as misguided as punishing children for misbehavior.

Simultaneously we should provide information and advice about marriage and parenthood for everyone who needs it. whether they want it or not. We should reduce the supply of unwanted babies by convincing young people that it is wrong to bring a new life into the world unless the warmest possible welcome has been

prepared for it. We should the multimillion-dollar bill we pa,, products of poor homes into preven,, and positive programs to provide a more healthy environment for children.

What is everyone's business is often left to a few. The welfare of our children is the concern of all of us. Most delinquency, crime, misery and unhappiness could be prevented if we could make sure that every child is living in a home where he is wanted. cherished and subjected to reasonable, nonpunitive discipline. Is this a utopian dream? Only if we think so. ★