Christian parenting and emotional abuse

The Guardian report that the government are seeking to implement a law that would see parents face jail for harming a child’s “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”. In a column in the same paper, Oliver James – author of Not in Your Genes: The Truth About the Findings of the Human Genome Project – has offered a comment here explaining why he believes this is a good move. In truth, this move strikes me as more than a little troubling.

There are some things to which most normal, sensible people who function as good citizens will assent. One such thing is that the physical and emotional abuse of children is a terrible thing. Good Christians should assent to this too since Paul tells parents to love, and not to provoke, our children (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21; Ti 2:4).

Whilst most people can spot the obvious extremes, the boundaries of that which constitutes physical child abuse are a little hazy and the cause of some debate (is smacking abusive? What level of force is acceptable? is any physical chastisement acceptable?). Across most of Europe, the answer to that last question comes in the form of a definite ‘no’. In Britain, the edges are a bit more fuzzy. Regardless of our personal opinions on such questions, if we are unclear on that which constitutes physical abuse, how on earth are we supposed to navigate that which constitutes “intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural” abuse?

Though these questions are tricky, as with physical abuse, legislation and case law will draw the line somewhere. In respect to the physical, the furthest the line may be drawn would be to say all forms of physical chastisement represent abuse. At worst, this would mean any use of force – no matter how minor – could be forbidden. In reality, this would simply amount to a ban on open-hand smacking which, at the risk of alienating some christian readers, is not an attack on scripture, christian parenting nor a major undermining of all discipline.

However, what concerns me most about these new proposals is precisely where does one draw the line in respect to emotional, intellectual, social and behavioural abuse? Of course, as with physical abuse, most of us could point out extreme examples. Of course, extreme behaviour being what it is, most people are not engaging in it. Where the issue lies is in the fuzzy edges – where exactly do the boundaries of intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural abuse begin?

If the writing and twitter ranting of Richard Dawkins is to be heeded, then all forms of religious upbringing are most definitely included. If the writing and twitter ranting of some adherents of religion are to be heeded, all beliefs apart from their own are included. Similarly, some ardent political activists are bound to shout indoctrination at any child brought up under the oppressive views of competing political theories. All of that is before we even get to those confused notions of tolerance that will tolerate anything but intolerance and would castigate all as abusive who do not assent to the acceptance of culturally approved views.

Nobody should want to see a child emotionally abused any more than they should want to see one physically abused. My concern is that, in a no doubt well meaning attempt to address particular noxious behaviours, we inadvertently (or, if one is to be cynical, actively) proscribe certain beliefs and views as abusive that are no such thing. Indeed, that which is abusive may well change in accordance with the cultural zeitgeist. 

If it is unpalatable for the church to speak negatively of homosexuality, one can only presume that to hold to the scriptural teaching on this issue in the family will be deemed emotionally abusive. To not allow your child to indulge all the sinful desires of their heart, no matter how deeply felt, could this in turn be deemed abusive? In truth, as potential parenting problems go, for Christians this is far bigger than any sort of ban on smacking.

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