Violence Against Children

Violence against children went unnoticed for centuries in Western society. Prior to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, as historians have suggested, the age of a child constituted no guarantee and little protection against a variety of now commonly unacceptable actions, including castration, seduction, sodomy, forced sex, battering, physical beating, labor exploitation, CHILD PROSTITUTION, ABANDONMENT, adult bullying, or even infanticide. Prior to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was no defined concept of childhood vulnerability or childhood innocence. According to historians, a belief in child protection and child nurture were accidental by-products, rather than a central purpose, of family life and child rearing. There was no body of law that defined children as a special class of people and adults as criminally libel when they employed life-threatening forms of DISCIPLINE or punishment against the young. Children and adults were everywhere joined. Children did not attend school for extended periods of time, and as artists and writers portrayed them, children were everywhere visible and underfoot in the full array of social spaces where adult men and women worked, played, slept, bathed, prayed, and consorted. In short, children had few if any protected spaces in which to avoid physical assault and injuries to body, mind, or soul.

Perspectives on Child Violence in the United States

This entry focuses on perspectives on child violence as they evolved in the United States over a three-hundred-year period. Historically, a recognition of violence against children has proceeded simultaneously with other related social discoveries: of children as essentially innocent and vulnerable; of childhood as a distinct and special stage of life; of the family as a protective enclave for the child; of schools as specialized, age-graded, developmentally calibrated institutions for the young; of government as an important vehicle for the protection and elaboration of CHILDREN'S RIGHTS. These new-found notions developed simultaneously with a view of children as a visible class of innocent and vulnerable people in need of LOVE, protection, education, and patient understanding rather than physical battering, sexual assault, or emotional neglect. Each of these evolving social developments catalyzed a continuing series of controversies centered on the relative morality, utility, and legitimacy of corporal punishment and physical restraint; moral persuasion and psychological manipulation; and behavior management, nonviolence, and individual praise as relationship-shaping modes in families, schools, and communities.

Corporal punishment. Among the more persistent controversies were those centering on the appropriate use of physical force and corporal restraint. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when children typically worked alongside their parents, went to school only on occasion, if at all, and learned a trade through contractual master–apprentice relationships or informally at home and church, controversy centered less on the relative utility of corporal punishment to secure obedience, morality, and good conduct from children than it did on the circumstances which justified its uses and the instruments deemed most appropriate. By statute and by custom, "stubborn and rebellious," physically abusive, disrespectful young people who failed to honor their parents might legally be put to death, but were more likely to become subject to severe beatings for their bad conduct. The concept of "muscular Christianity" was well accepted and so too were applications of the rod, the ferule, the whip, and the belt by parents, churchmen, masters, and school teachers.

Notwithstanding the popularity of severe corporal punishment for disobedient children, reformers such as JOHN LOCKE, Samuel Willard, and Anne Bradstreet viewed childhood as a vulnerable and malleable life stage and enjoined parents, educators, ministers, and masters to attend to the age and condition of the children, to assess the relative gravity of child offenses, and to calculate the potential moral effects of particular forms of discipline before they administered punishment. As one of them suggested, "No parent has a right to put oppression on a child, in the name of authority.… Children are not to be treated either as Brutes or Slaves." (quoted in Greven 1990, p. 161). The recognition of inhumane and dangerous forms of child beating in families and in schools led moral and social reformers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to register their distaste for the traditions of muscular Christianity and to identify parents and teachers as major sources of inhumanity and miseducation. Many mounted an all-out assault on any form of corporal punishment as inimical to the well-being of children.

Child labor. In the nineteenth century, massive numbers of poverty-stricken immigrant children lived and worked in the cities and factories. Urban reformers, privy to public displays of children begging, child prostitution, injuries, and ungovernable street children, discovered child neglect and abusive families. They saw children awash in what they believed to be the corrupting influence of dependent, irreligious families and unscrupulous urban entrepreneurs, and identified CHILD LABOR as a form of physical abuse, a symptom of family failure, and an unacceptable violation of children's needs. They articulated a concept of child neglect and condemned the child-rearing practices of families who were unable or unwilling to provide moral oversight or secure the formal education of their children. They invented a legal notion of child abandonment, and condemned the consequences of premature SEXUALITY, sodomy, and sexual exploitation by peers and employers.

In the view of middle-class urban reformers, boarding schools, urban charity schools, and juvenile reformatories were more humane and educative environments for exploited and ungovernable children than the factory, the street, or the laboring household. They could not have known that these institutions would become incubators for the cultivation of new classes of child abusers and sexual exploiters (who would themselves fuel the outrage of a new generation of Progressive reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Ironically, these nineteenth-century reformers–so passionate in their zeal to eliminate harsh punishments, labor exploitation, premature sexuality, and the like–did not notice the abuse and neglect among enslaved boys and girls in the South or of Native American children in missionary schools, despite the prevalence of rape, harsh beatings, and deadly assaults in these communities.

The Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Like their predecessors in the early nineteenth century, a new generation of social reformers grew up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a sometimes turbulent, rapidly changing society. They were confronted with ever larger numbers of non-English speaking immigrants and migrant workers who crowded city streets and city schools and, in the view of the reformers, contributed to a series of social practices that were in need of fundamental transformation. Reformers saw a society where juvenile crime was on the rise, where children and youth had slipped the regulatory ties that bound them to their families and churches, and where increasingly large numbers of boys and girls worked as street entrepreneurs, frequented dance halls and movie theaters, and formed juvenile gangs. Within this environment, reformers discovered ADOLESCENCE as a vulnerable and bombastic period of youth development, juvenile DELINQUENCY as a specialized category of curable criminality, and boys as potential perpetrators as well as victims of crime. They identified battered children as a special class in need of shelter and created child and youth advocacy groups. They codified the concept of "the best interest of the child," and established children's rights as a rationale for public investigation. Ultimately, they criminalized child-beating and identified infanticide as a jailable offense.

Over the course of the twentieth century, attempts have emerged to root out violence against children and to expand its meaning to include emotional, social, and psychological abuse as scholars, theologians, journalists, and educators have continued to expose instances of child beating, INCEST, and sexual abuse in families, institutions, and communities across the social spectrum. With the public spotlight on date rape, CHILD PORNOGRAPHY, prostitution, PEDOPHILIA, and homophobia, once silenced realities have become part of the public discussion. The emergence of statistics documenting the existence of forced sex and incest within families, usually by fathers against daughters, has elevated incest to public visibility. Multiple instances of school-based violence: physical beatings, sexual assaults, bullying, and murder by knife, GUN, and bomb, have drawn public attention to the problem of violence by the young against the young. Taken together, these highly visible acts of violence of the young against the young have led society to redefine young men as criminals and perpetrators rather than adolescents and delinquents, and have intensified a new public debate about the relative utility of zero-tolerance laws, incarceration in adult facilities, and capital punishment.

The conception of violence as a form of injury toward children and youth emerged only gradually, after their status as human beings had acquired definition and respect. The definition of children as a specialized class in need of protection and restraint, has altered the nature of acceptable child-rearing practices, family authority, and the legitimacy of particular forms of punishment and discipline. Like all revolutions, the revolution in childhood status has transformed the parameters of what counts as violence against children.

See also: Child Abuse; Law, Children and the; Theories of Childhood.


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