From The Toronto Star, July 19, 1997. Reprinted by permission of the author.
The news was so disturbing that it should have stopped us in our tracks. If we were a sane society, all other public undertakings would have been suspended temporarily. The legislature would have been called back to work, party ideologies set aside and dramatic action taken at once to confront the findings of the major Ontario child abuse study reported last week.
One of every three boys and one of every five girls is being grabbed and shoved, kicked, bitten, punched, beaten. The violence is rated as severe (burning, battering) for 11 per cent of boys and 9 per cent of girls.
Spanking and slapping weren't included in the massive study of 10,000 Ontario adults, led by McMaster University associate professor and child psychiatrist Harriet MacMillan, a member of the Centre for Studies of Children at Risk.
That one out of every three boys is being assaulted - natural fathers are the most frequent assailants - is a blood-chilling fact. Think of the consequences: the hurt to a small boy's self-esteem, the rage, resentment and humiliation he must feel, the destructive lessons he learns about what it means to be a man.
This level of violence against children goes a long way to explaining some of our society's open wounds: the frequency of drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, domestic violence. Here could be the answer to some persistent puzzles: why are so many women conditioned to accept verbal and physical domestic assault? Why are so many men fixated on power in relationships? Could the fact that three times as many women as men suffer depression be directly linked to the fact that three times as many girls as boys are sexually abused?
The costs of these blows and violations is truly incalculable. We can't even begin to estimate the chronic emotional and physical ailments, the hospital bills, the crippling of creativity and joy - and the endlessly repeated cycles of hurt and harm. "I was beaten all my life," said notorious criminal Mike Tyson. And sure enough, he intends to hit his own children. "I think kids should learn discipline."
Such sentiments are too familiar to Dr. MacMillan. "People often say that 'I was spanked and it didn't hurt me', which is one reason we excluded spanking from the survey. Too many people see it as just normal discipline. But I do say to these people, 'If you smoked cigarettes and didn't get cancer, does that mean you want your children to smoke?' As a clinician and child psychiatrist, I have very strong beliefs that we should avoid any form of physical discipline," she said in an interview. "There is a demonstrated relationship between corporal punishment and detrimental outcomes."
If we had a government committed to the well-being of all, its first priority would be - not to detect abuse or punish offenders - but to prevent harm by offering the kind of help to parents that would transform our world.
"Yes, there is one form of prevention that works," said Dr. MacMillan. "Serious studies in the U.S. shows that intensive home visiting by public health nurses to disadvantaged families dramatically reduces the incidence of abuse."
Intensive home visiting means regular weekly visits, building an "alliance" with the family, until the child is two years old. It's the public health nurse (how often do we have to say this?) who can offer the practical, unthreatening kind of help a stressed or inexperienced parent can accept and use.
We're talking about human health and happiness. I just don't know why tax cuts or business profits are thought to be more important.
What's more, it seems to me that this information ought to stop some of the more destructive fads now current, among them the so-called "father's rights" movement and the increasingly popular insistence that fathers are essential for a child's well-being.
If so many fathers are kicking and punching their sons, shouldn't we re-phrase the equation and focus on what children need, not what fathers want?
Mothers are the second most likely physical abusers. That stands to reason: anyone with total power over another being may abuse that power.
What these figures should tell us is that many parents need help and support to do their best, and that we all have obligations, not "rights", to our children. At this moment, we are disastrously failing that duty.