The 20th century brought a radical change to the way we view and treat children. In his book of essays, The History of Childhood, an American scholar and a social thinker, Lloyd de Mause, wrote, “The history of childhood is the nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken.”
Mause did not mean that in the past, parents did not love their children. Both historical and archeological data provide multiple examples to the contrary. For example, when Medieval parents gave their young child away to join a convent at the tender age of six, it was not because they were trying to get rid of the child. It was because in the Middle Ages, people were deeply, almost fanatically religious, and they were making a sacrifice by giving God what they considered most precious. At the same time, they were providing the child with perhaps the only 2 Recycled Childhood opportunity to get educated and have a relatively safe future.
Similarly, history’s tendency of having marriages between very young children had nothing to do with sexual abuse, which was actually more common among nobles than commoners. The purpose was to strengthen and increase the wealth and the prestige of both families. The marriage would usually not be consummated until both children were ready.
However, for centuries and perhaps millennia indulgence toward children was viewed as something much worse than harsh discipline. People quoted the Bible, saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24). If you were not using corporal punishment with your kids, you were considered a bad parent. All children were required to exhibit unquestionable obedience toward parents, other adult relatives, and all grownups with whom they interacted. Any sign of insubordination would be punished swiftly and violently. Giving a severe beating to a child was universally accepted and encouraged.
Children were loved but also viewed as property. Parents owned them and could do whatever they wanted with them without being judged. In many cultures, parents had the right to give away or even kill their children. By no means was it frequent, but there are historical cases of such events. Even infanticide - the killing of a newborn child - was, to some extent, acceptable, especially among the lower classes. Contraception did not exist, and for a woman, infanticide was safer than J.C. Pater 3 abortion. If the mother knew that her child would be starving, she might choose to kill it, and the death of a bastard child might have been preferable to a life of shame for both the mother and the newborn. Infant mortality was rampant, and according to current estimates, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, between thirty and fifty percent of children died before reaching the age of eighteen. People were used to losing children. With medical knowledge practically nonexistent, they were more focused on ensuring that a child would have a proper afterlife than if the child actually would have a life of its own. A baby would be baptized immediately after being born, and if it died afterward, so be it.
The children who survived the first hours and days of their lives could die in the upcoming months due to an accident, disease, or as a result of some bizarre practice. For example, in Medieval Europe, babies were routinely swaddled, or tightly wrapped in strips of linen and immobilized, unable to move any part of their body, including their arms and legs. Newborns looked like Egyptian mummies because people believed that babies were too fragile to be allowed to move.
The age of sexual maturity was usually twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, but criminal liability started at the age of ten. There are records of a ten-year-old boy sentenced to death by hanging and a thirteen-year-old girl executed by burning. Children, who were thrown to dungeons for such crimes as stealing bread, usually did not survive.
Additionally, the rapid expansion of industry resulted in an exponential increase in child labor. As recently as the 1900s, around eighteen percent of American workers were under the age of sixteen. Since labor laws did not yet exist, many children were worked to death.
And now, let’s fast forward to 2020. A female art teacher in a public school in Illinois was suspended because, while walking around the classroom and checking students’ work, she would sometimes put her hand on their shoulders. Somebody complained, and the school district agreed that touching a child was unacceptable, regardless of the intentions.
In another school, parents yelled at a teacher because their teenage son would not do homework, would not pay attention in class, would get an F on most tests and quizzes, and, consequently, was failing the class. Parents, however, blamed the teacher. Somewhere else, an eleven-year-old threw a tantrum and smashed his mother’s cherished china set after she told him to stop playing a video game at one in the morning on a school night. A fifteen-year-old female walked into the classroom ten minutes late and talking loudly on her cell phone. When the teachers politely asked her to put away the phone and sit down, she yelled, “Shut up! Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” Another fifteen-year-old female shared her sexually explicit photos on social media. When deeply concerned school administrators contacted her parents, the mom said, “Oh, leave her alone. They are young, and they have to explore!” And finally, have you ever been on a plane and had to sit next to a screaming toddler whose J.C. Pater 5 parents did not believe in disciplining or even redirecting their child? After a couple of hours, you might convince yourself that jumping off the plane without a parachute would be a perfectly reasonable solution.
How, on Earth, did we go from one extreme to the other? When did our children switch from being abused to becoming abusers?
Partial blame can be put on society, which has drastically re-evaluated norms of conduct concerning family relations. Nowadays, parents do not spend enough time with their children because parents are notoriously busy. Even the term “parents” has been redefined since we are now practicing serial monogamy. It is not uncommon for a child to say, “I have just spent a weekend with my dad and his third wife. I really like Robby, my dad’s third wife’s son from her first marriage, but I cannot stand Debbie, my father’s daughter from his first marriage. Unfortunately, I cannot see Robby next weekend because I have to babysit my little half-sister from my mom’s current marriage.” After hearing this, any decent person from the Middle Ages would promptly perform an exorcism.
Grandparents, who in the past were often an anchor, binding the family and helping with the kids, are now absent. Have you noticed that, compared to all other mammals – or, in fact, all other animals – humans live for a long time beyond their age of procreation? It is a nice adaptation developed by our species. Since human children require an exceptionally long time before they mature, and must be taken care of until it happens, grandparents would historically perform the role of care- 6 Recycled Childhood taker while parents were out hunting, gathering food, or performing other essential functions to ensure that the family survives. Unfortunately, that tradition has ended because today, grandma and grandpa are enjoying their golden years in Florida.
Another common feature of our advanced society is a single mom performing all duties traditionally assigned to a male and a female. Mom is working a full-time and a part-time job. She comes home exhausted to cook, clean, and do laundry. Late at night, she still has to fix a broken faucet and check the angry-sounding sump pump in the basement. When she finally goes to bed to get her five hours of sleep, the last thought that crosses her mind is, “I have finally become the man I always wanted to marry!”
That overworked mom may leave her ten-year-old daughter home alone. The girl has a running nose and a fever, and mom must make a quick trip to Walgreens to get over-the-counter cold medication. She does not want to drag the sick child with her. Another mom has her two-year-old finally asleep in his car seat after he was screaming for an hour. Mom has to pull over at the gas station to get milk and would hate to wake him, so she leaves the child alone in the car. Both moms are breaking the law, and both may face serious consequences. Both may lose their kids to Child Protective Services, at least temporarily.
Disciplining your child is now restricted, regulated, and in many cases, illegal. A Medieval peasant wife did not have more time to spend with her kids than a J.C. Pater 7 contemporary hard-working mother, but when her child misbehaved, she spanked him. Today, when an exhausted mom cannot handle her son, spanking is out of the question. Instead, she runs to the store to buy him something he wants and bribe him into obedience. In the process, she teaches her child to misbehave whenever he wants to get something new.
Severe child abuse and neglect did not end in some bygone era. They are still very much alive. Because children are small, weak, and trusting, they are easy targets, and this is why we have laws to protect them. If a child is starved, tortured, or sexually abused, everyone agrees that a state agency designated for this role should step in and take the child to safety.
However, there are gray areas where moral and ethical problems abound, and not so many people agree: where exactly is the end of parental rights and the beginning of child abuse? When a child is throwing a tantrum because a parent dares to say “No” to his or her unreasonable demand, do parents have the right to spank him? What is the definition of spanking? One slap at the child’s bottom with a palm of a hand and within specific parameters defining the impulse-momentum relationship, and measured in Newtons?
Allowable discipline is ambiguous. A parent could face legal repercussions for spanking a child in California, but not in Texas. Or vice versa. Leaving a child home alone for an hour may be considered perfectly reasonable in one jurisdiction but not in another. So, what is the 8 Recycled Childhood definition of neglect, and how much does it differ among states?
In 1993, soon after the release of Home Alone 2, David and Sharon Shoo, affluent parents who lived in a suburb of Chicago, took a lovely vacation in Mexico, leaving their four- and nine-year-old daughters home alone for Christmas. Two days after they left, a fire alarm went off in the house, and the terrified girls ran to the neighbors. The neighbors called the police, and the parents were contacted and ordered to return. They were arrested upon arriving at the airport but ended up with just a two-year probation following a misdemeanor plea deal. At the time, nobody really knew how to deal with the case because laws defining child abandonment and tying it to neglect either did not exist or were vague.
Today, we are faring better in this respect, but existing regulations are still far from perfect. Some states dictate a minimum age for leaving a kid home alone, while some have only loose recommendations. For example, in Oregon, it applies to children younger than ten, but in Maryland, the law only includes kids below the age of eight. There is also an unclear interpretation of what is considered abandoning a child. Is it leaving the kid home alone overnight? Or maybe for an hour?
Finally, there is the issue of parents’ intentions. There is a significant difference between a mom who left a seven-year-old home alone and went to a bar for a drink, and a mom who did not make it home on time when her seven-year-old came from school because her supervisor demanded that she stayed at work after hours. Clearly, J.C. Pater 9 the supervisor could not care less about her young child or her family obligations, but is that enough to make the mother legally in the wrong?
Laws may be biased against the poor by not taking into consideration that some single mothers, trying desperately to provide for their children, may have limited options with arranging proper supervision. From time to time, the media would report horror stories about overzealous bureaucrats who placed someone’s kids in a foster home to punish a mother who was just trying to make ends meet.
While this discussion continues and deserves more attention than it is currently getting, the purpose of this book is to focus on issues related to unquestionable abuse and neglect. It is about children who were truly tormented, about monster parents, about amazing or horrible foster homes, and about cases in which Child Protective Services came too late or did not do enough to save a child.