Abusing the term “child abuse” is dangerous
If you took the kids to McDonald’s on the weekend then brace yourself: you may just have landed yourself in hot water with child welfare. While you might claim you were engaging in an entirely innocent and harmless activity that has been going on for decades, you were in fact abusing your kids.
That is if you take the word of UK Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell who recently labelled parents who feed their overweight kids junk food child abusers. Platell was particularly incensed by the failure of a healthy eating plan sponsored by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, due, in her opinion, to parents who insisted on feeding their kids junk food at home.
Platell’s branding such behaviour child abuse is part of a growing trend in which the definition of child abuse has been radically expanded to include pretty well any behaviour or point of view to which someone, somewhere objects. Platell isn’t the only one who subscribes to this view.
Richard Dawkins claims that religion is a form of child abuse. And Dawkins isn’t talking about pedophile priests. As he writes on his website: ‘Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place’.
Child abuse isn’t just confined to parents of fat kids and bible bashers either. In July this year, for example, even childcare has been tagged as child abuse. According to children’s book author Mem Fox, the practice of putting babies into childcare is a form of abuse. Fox claimed that future generations will look back on this practice as barbaric.
While these charges of child abuse might appears as no-nonsense-call-a-spade-a-spade contributions to public debate, they are in fact the complete opposite. They’re lazy and counter-productive examples of name-calling which simultaneously trivialise real instances of child abuse, overly-simplify complex social phenomena and, ultimately, stifle public discussion.
For instance, while Richard Dawkins and others are free to pursue the case against religion and, are surely right to prosecute christian churches for their systematic efforts to conceal and protect abusers, lumping together activities like singing hymns and taking communion with the abuse perpetrated by sexual predators downplays the trauma of the victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
On this staggeringly loose definition of child abuse you could reasonably claim that any strongly-held belief system without any grounding in reason or logic is a form of child abuse. Why stop at religion? Why not include people who raise their children as Collingwood supporters? Or, why not label parents who bring their kids up as rabid nationalists or fervent monarchists?
What’s more, labelling behaviour that you object to child abuse is utterly counterproductive to solving problems that are the target in the first place. Granted, giving fat kids a bucket of KFC isn’t in their long term health interests. But how calling their parents perpetrators of child abuse is meant to help matters is anybody’s guess.
It makes child obesity seem like a simple matter of poor parenting, which flies in the face of advice from nutritionists and health experts who have repeatedly noted that factors such as education, where you live and accessibility all have enormous influences on how fat people are.
This isn’t the thumb-twiddling cop out that ‘society is to blame’, and therefore there’s nothing that can be done. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that there is more to obesity than evil parents.
The decision to put babies in childcare is similarly complex and can be motivated by economic necessity and the desire by women to avoid the discrimination that almost inevitably accompanies time spent out of the workforce.
Perhaps the most insidious part of the willful abuse of the term child abuse, however, is that it stifles public discussion and debate. Demonising people and behaviours with which one person happens to disagree, exempts critics from having to have anything more to do with those they criticise. After all, who argues the point with some monster who’s just punched or molested a kid?
In short, using charge of child abuse is, in terms of public discussion, the equivalent of shutting your fingers in your ears and shouting LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA.
Let’s stop abusing the use of the term child abuse and confine it to actual instances where children are harmed, rather than expanding it to include beliefs and behaviours with which we don’t happen to agree.
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