A study recently came out suggesting that different forms of child mistreatment (eg, physical, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect) have equivalent psychiatric and behavioural effects, ranging from anxiety and depression to rule-breaking and aggression. The results were hailed in some quarters as ground-breaking – and they may be, if they come as a surprise to practitioners and policy-makers and result in changes in child protection. I found the premise somewhat confusing.
The way I look at it, the significant factor in this kind of situation is that your parents are inclined to harm you. The way in which they choose to harm you may have a huge impact on your life; for instance, it may leave you with particular dysfunctions or triggers. However, the very fact that those you are forced to rely upon are a source of potential harm to you seems to me to be the crux of the matter.
I’ve tried to talk about it to some people and completely failed to get my point across. The objection they raise is essentially about what’s adequate parenting. If the needs of a child are met, that’s what matter. The parents are behaving as parents by meeting those needs; the underlying psychology is immaterial. When those needs are not met, or when things are done that are unacceptable, that’s when the issues arise.
I’ve been mulling over it and I see it differently. There is a difference between being raised as a member of a family and as a farm animal, or even as a pet.
I’ve worked on farms, and we took splendid care of our animals. We made sure they had adequate food, water, and shelter. We kept them safe. We got them medical care when they were unwell. We met all the obligations created by our ethics and by law of the land. And then one day a truck would show up, and we’d pile the chosen ones in the back of it to be slaughtered. And we didn’t feel the least bad about it: we’d discharged our obligation to them by taking such good care of them. The use we got out of them was part of the order of things. And I’m not saying that’s right or wrong; that’s just how it worked for us, and we didn’t see anything wrong with it.
Particularly in the context of parenting, I think that distinction matters. I think it really matters whether your parents value you as an individual, or purely because of whatever benefits you can provide. I think it matters if they only take care of you because that’s the done thing, or if they don’t treat you badly just to avoid repercussions. And I think that most kids are sensitive enough to feel the distinction. I just wish more adults were capable of doing the same.