David L. Goetsch
Child Abuse: How You Can Help Prevent It
Christ makes clear in Matthew 19:14 the special place little children hold in His heart. According to Jesus, children belong “…to the kingdom of heaven.” If children are this important to our Lord and Savior, they should be equally important to us. Consequently, it is difficult to believe anyone would abuse or neglect a defenseless little child. Unfortunately, children are abused and neglected. This happens frequently and in large numbers. Close to 700,000 children are abused or neglected in the United States every year. I go into great detail about child abuse and neglect in my new book (co-authored by Oliver North) TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES: THE PRICE AMERICA IS PAYING FOR REJECTING GOD AND HOW WE CAN RECLAIM OUR CULUTRE FOR CHRIST (available from all major book sellers and at Faithfultext.com)
Scriptural teaching concerning children leaves no doubt about how important children are in the eyes of Christ. Child abuse and neglect are an abomination to the Lord. Psalm 127:3-5 declares: “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward…Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” One of the main take-aways from these verses is that children are a blessing from God. This being the case, it’s not difficult to imagine what God thinks of those who abuse or neglect them.
CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT DEFINED
It is important for Christians to understand what child abuse and neglect are and what they are not. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA: U.S.C.A. 5106g) as amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, defines child abuse and neglect as follows:
Child abuse/neglect is an act or failure to act on the part of a parent or responsible caretaker that results in the death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation of a child; or
Any specific act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child.
CAPTA defines the term “child” as any person who has not yet reached 18 years of age or who is not an emancipated minor. An emancipated minor is a person under the age of 18 who has assumed adult responsibilities and is not under the care and control of parents or a guardian. The most common forms of child abuse are neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse.
CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT IN AMERICA
More than 1,500 children die every year from abuse or neglect in the United States. Children one year old or less have the highest rate of abuse and neglect. The most common form of child abuse is neglect; failure to act in the best interests of a child. Neglect puts children in imminent danger of serious harm or, worse yet, it can result in death, physical harm, emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation. A subset of child abuse is sexual abuse of children, a major problem in the United States. More than 200,000 cases per year of alleged sexual abuse of children are investigated by child advocacy professionals.
More than 75 percent of abused and neglected children are victimized by their own parents. More than 20 percent of child abusers are minors themselves. The most common form of abuse for this group is sexual abuse. Children in families of lower-socioeconomic status are five times more likely to be abused than those from families of higher-socioeconomic status. In addition to neglect and sexual abuse, common forms of child abuse include physical abuse, engaging in violence in front of children, and drug endangerment.
The emotional and psychological damage suffered by the victims of child abuse and neglect can be lifelong. Adults who are survivors of child abuse are more likely than the general population to experience depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and/or bipolar disorder, often for the rest of their lives. In addition, they are less likely than the general population to finish high school. Subjecting children to violent behavior such as their parents fighting can also be considered child abuse. Children who are subjected to the violent behavior of adults often suffer the same kinds of emotional and psychological damage as children who are abused or neglected.
DISCIPLINE VERSUS ABUSE
In order to speak the truth in love to people about child abuse, Christians must be able to distinguish between discipline and abuse. The Bible is clear in its expectations concerning discipline. Proverbs 22:6 states: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Because children—like all human beings—have a fallen nature, disciplining them is part of training them up in the way they should go.
Failing to properly and appropriately discipline children is itself a form of neglect because it amounts to failing to prepare them for the world they will live in as adults. Proverbs 13:24 states: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” This verse suggests that applying corporeal punishment might need to be part of disciplining a child, a controversial assertion when it comes to the convoluted rules of contemporary child rearing. In some states, spanking a child is considered child abuse and can lead to the intervention of child-protective services personnel.
If corporeal punishment is a Biblically-sound practice, the obvious question is this: How does one distinguish between discipline and abuse? Answering this question requires you to understand the definition of discipline. Discipline as applied to children consists of actions taken to ensure they behave properly and obey the rules. Biblical discipline is distinguished from abuse in why it is applied, how it is applied, and the long-term result it brings.
First, let’s consider the “why” of Biblical discipline as compared with that of abuse. Biblical discipline is applied for the purpose of correcting behavior that if ignored might leave the child unprepared to live independently as a responsible member of society. Consequently, Biblical discipline is an act of love that is administered in the child’s best interest, an act intended to teach the child a better way. Abuse, on the other hand, is an act of anger, frustration, vengeance, or perversity that results from either a loss of control or the need to satisfy a nefarious desire on the part of the abuser.
Second, let’s consider the “how” of Biblical discipline as compared with that of abuse. Biblical discipline is applied in a timely manner—as close to the behavioral infraction as possible. It is also applied in a way that is appropriate to the infraction in question. Although the Bible certainly accepts properly applied corporeal punishment as a form of discipline (Proverbs 13:24), this approach is not necessarily appropriate for every infraction.
When discipline is called for, make sure the punishment fits the crime. You don’t want to metaphorically prescribe jail time for a parking ticket. Spanking a child for a minor offense may not be the best approach. On the other hand, giving a child a time-out for a major offense is not likely to be effective either. Applying discipline appropriately requires discernment. Never administer discipline to a child in any form when you are in a state of anger or frustration or when your emotions are running high for any reason. Children are not punching bags to be used for releasing pent-up anger. Proper discipline is an act of love not of anger, vengeance, or emotional instability.
To get the best results from discipline, it is important to know your children well enough to understand what forms of discipline work best with them. Children in the same family—even twins—can be quite different when it comes to how they respond to various forms of discipline. For some children, spanking works well; for others it’s a waste of time. For some children, isolation for a period of time with no smart phone, computer, television, radio, books, or any other form of amusement works well; for others it doesn’t. For some children, just knowing they have disappointed their parents is enough to get them back on the straight and narrow path. With these, a raised eyebrow or a few well-chosen words can be all that is needed.
When it comes to discipline, using the same approach for all of your children is like using the same tool for every repair job. It doesn’t work. Sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes a screw driver, and sometimes a wrench. When making repairs to your home, it is important to choose the right tool. The same rule of thumb applies when making repairs to your children’s behavior. The one-size-fits-all philosophy works about as well for disciplining children as it does for buying their clothing.
Biblical discipline also involves explaining to the child why he or she is being disciplined and the desired outcome of the discipline. For example, a child who sasses his mother might be given this explanation: “You are going to be disciplined for being disrespectful to your mother. The Bible says children are to honor their mother and father. It is important for you to learn to follow the admonitions set forth in the Bible. When you disobey them, you are disobeying God.” Words of correction such as these are similar to the “exhortation” referred to in Hebrews 12:5: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.”
Children will be better off in life—where they will be subjected to many rules and regulations—if they learn to obey the rules and the admonitions contained in God’s Word. Your words of rebuke should make this clear to them. Abuse on the other hand is not about correction, nor is it accompanied by a positive explanation. Rather, abuse is carried out in ways that are harmful to the child physically, emotionally, and/or sexually. It is not for the child’s good. Rather it is the result of the inappropriate desires of the abuser. Discipline is a positive act that will be appreciated by the child when he or she matures. Abuse is a destructive act that might be resented for a lifetime.
Finally, let’s consider the outcome of Biblical discipline versus that of abuse. With Biblical discipline there may be pain in the short-term, but there is gain in the long term. This is the message in Hebrews 12: 11 where we read: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
The child who is properly disciplined will be better off in the future for having endured it and, in all likelihood will realize this at some point down the road. Not so with abuse. With abuse there is pain in the short term and pain in the long term. The negative effects of abuse can last a lifetime and cause unceasing emotional distress that leads to depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and other problems.
AT WHAT POINT DOES DISCIPLINE CROSS A LINE AND BECOMES ABUSE
It is important for Christians who want to speak the truth in love to others about child abuse to understand at what point discipline crosses a line and becomes abuse. What follows are several factors to watch for in this regard:
Discipline becomes abuse when the person administering the discipline loses control of his or her temper and acts out of anger, bitterness, or vengeance rather than love.
Discipline becomes abuse when it is applied to instill fear or establish superiority rather than to edify.
Discipline becomes abuse when it is applied to satisfy some perverse need of the abuser.
Discipline becomes abuse when the child being disciplined is physically injured (e.g. there are bruises, blood, welts, or places where the skin is broken or there is swelling).
Discipline becomes abuse when the person administering the discipline is doing so because the child failed to meet demands or expectations that are impossible for a child of the age in question to meet.
Discipline becomes abuse when it is inappropriate for the age of the child.
Discipline becomes abuse when it is out of proportion to the infraction.
An important part of a parent’s responsibility in raising a child is the appropriate application of discipline. But how does a parent or guardian know if the discipline administered is appropriate? What follows is a brief self-test you can encourage parents and guardians to use to ensure their disciplinary methods don’t cross a line and become abuse:
Does the child understand why he or she is being disciplined?
Does the child understand what behavior is being corrected and what the proper behavior would have been in the situation in question?
Does the child understand that the discipline is being applied out of love rather than anger, frustration or perversity?
Farther down the road when the child has matured, will he or she appreciate the discipline or resent it?
Would you take the same approach to discipline if another adult were present to observe it?
When they grow up, is this how you want your children to discipline their children?
After administering the discipline, do you feel good about it or regretful of your actions?
This self-test will help you speak the truth in love to an adult, parent, or guardian who may be bordering on child abuse in the name of discipline.
RECOGNIZING VICTIMS OF CHILD ABUSE
Child abuse is so common you may know a child who has been abused, although you may not know about the abuse. Adults, parents, and guardians who abuse children become adept at covering up the evidence, and children are often afraid to raise the issue or don’t know how to go about it. For this reason, it is important that you be able to recognize the signs of child abuse. Here are some physical signs that might be evidence of child abuse:
Bruises, welts, or lacerations that have no explanation or a questionable explanation. Also, bruises, welts, or lacerations in shapes that suggest the use of a whip, belt, or other device.
Cigarette, rope, or utensil burns.
Broken or fractured bones, particularly on the face.
Broken or missing teeth.
Broken ear drums.
Missing patches of hair (i.e. as if the hair has been pulled out).
In addition to these physical signs of possible child abuse, victims will often display recognizable emotional signs. Emotional evidence of child abuse includes the following:
Embarrassment over physical injuries and a reluctance to explain what caused the injuries
Obvious fear of a parent or guardian
Fear of going home
Fear of physical contact with an adult
Fear of being left alone with a parent, guardian, or other adult.
Onset of substance abuse.
It is important to be careful about jumping to the conclusion that a child is being abused. Children often get bumps, bruises, lacerations, broken bones, and other physical injuries as part of growing up. Children can injure themselves even when under the care of the most attentive and loving parents. Toddlers just learning to walk are accidents waiting to happen. Further, there are reasons other than abuse children develop emotional problems. However, if you notice a pattern of physical injuries such as those listed herein accompanied by the types of emotional responses listed, there is reason for concern.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT
To play a positive role in preventing child abuse, begin by studying what the Bible has to say about this topic. Helpful verses for providing wise counsel to people about child abuse and neglect include the following:
Matthew 18:10: “See that you do not despise one of the little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” This verse may help you make the point that children hold a special place in the heart of God. If God loves little children, so should their parents, guardians, and siblings. Therefore, to abuse a little child is to risk feeling the wrath of God.
Luke 17:2: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” This verse may be helpful should you find yourself dealing with an adult who sexually abuses a child or someone who knows of such a person and isn’t sure what to do. From this verse, it is clear that God’s judgment in such cases is to be feared.
Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This verse may be helpful when you are called upon to provide wise counsel to parents who are concerned about disciplining their children or, worse yet, are afraid to discipline them. This verse will help you make the point that proper discipline is not just essential to the growth and development of children, it is Biblical.
Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This verse may be helpful when you are trying to assist parents in distinguishing between discipline and abuse. Commonly referred to as the “Golden Rule,” Matthew 7:12 is often stated this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You may want to advise parents who are not sure about how to distinguish between discipline and abuse to apply the Golden Rule in this manner: Don’t use any discipline methods with your children you don’t want them to use with their children when they grow up or that you wouldn’t want used on you.
To speak the truth in love about child abuse and neglect as part of the wise counsel you provide family members, friends, fellow church members, or people in general, you must first know the truth, and God’s Word is the truth. Knowing what the Bible says about this issue will equip you to guide people who are struggling with it to Holy Scripture. This is always the best place for them to find the answers they seek. The verses recommended herein are just to get you started. The Bible has much more to say about child abuse and neglect.
Once you have studied what Scripture says about child abuse and neglect, pray that God will enter the hearts of those who abuse children and replace the anger, bitterness, frustration, and depravity that reside there with the love, patience, and caring of Christ. Also pray that God will free children from abusive situations, protect them, and restore them. Pray that God will comfort the victims and relieve them of the negative effects of child abuse and neglect.
Having studied the Bible, prayed, and made sure your children and grandchildren are learning from your example how discipline should be dispensed, here are some other things you can do to help prevent child abuse:
Educate yourself about this scourge (learn the information presented in this chapter). Do not take this issue lightly or sweep it under the carpet.
Encourage your pastor to require child abuse-prevention training for anyone in your church who supervises children (e.g. nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, Deacons, youth pastors, etc.). The number of instances of child abuse in churches would shock you.
Be prepared to speak the truth in love to neighbors, friends, relatives, and fellow church members about suspected child abuse. To overcome any reluctance you may feel about doing this, remember that God expects us to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us. Not only do we have a legal duty to confront this issue, we have a moral and Biblical duty.
Encourage your church to engage on this issue by: 1) Providing counseling for victims and perpetrators of child abuse including those who do not attend your church, 2) Making sure your church is a place of healing for victims and perpetrators of child abuse, and 3) Providing open-to-the-public classes for expecting parents and ensure child abuse is part of the curriculum.
Remember that Christ forgives repentant sinners, even child abusers. Make restoration your goal when dealing with perpetrators of child abuse.
Make healing and restoration your goal when dealing with victims of child abuse. Let them know God loves them and can give them a new life no matter what they have been forced to endure in the past.
There is less chance of child abuse in a Christ-centered culture. Be prepared to make this point when you talk with others about this critical subject, particularly unbelievers. Help unbelievers understand that rejecting God leads to such tragedies as child abuse and that child abuse is one more example of what happens in a Godless culture. Let them know that a step toward Christ is a step away from child abuse.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com