“Is there anything I can or should do when I see a neighbor spank her children severely?” Ensign, Sept. 1982, 31–32
Richard L. Hemrick, LDS Social Services, Las Vegas, Nevada; father of six. If the situation you describe is accurately perceived, and if the spankings are frequent and severe, then an investigation might reveal a case of child abuse. The immediate concern is for the physical safety of the child; sadly, there are situations where abusiveness has led to permanent physical disability or even the death of a child. It has also resulted in social and/or emotional damage with long-lasting effects.
There are some things you can do. In fact, in most states and in many countries you are legally required to report such an incident; anyone (including religious leaders) who is aware of or strongly suspects child abuse or neglect and fails to report it could be subject to prosecution, with the resulting penalty of a fine, incarceration, or both. Since the child cannot be his own advocate, the child often must rely on the judgment and responsibility of others to defend him.
Those who are uncomfortable in making a report to local child welfare agencies should contact their bishop, who can request the assistance of LDS Social Services in making the report.
One question generally asked by those filing the report is, “What happens if my neighbor finds out I made the report?” It has been my experience that child services workers are sensitive to protecting the confidentiality of those making the report. Protection of the child and correcting abuse, if it exists, becomes the priority. This may include helping parents learn alternative ways to cope with the pressures of parenthood. Agency workers can assist parents who lack skills, understanding, desire, or motivation to make appropriate distinctions between discipline, punishment, and abusiveness.
If, however, you feel the case is not one of legal child abuse or is less extreme than the cases associated with the above options, you may wish to take advantage of ‘teaching moments’ and offer non-critical suggestions like, “What do you think your child would do if … ?” and suggest an alternative way of discipline. Another might be, “Would it help if … ?” I know of one member who helped another begin the process of developing patience in parenting with a single, well-timed question. The sister in need had three children under school age and was feeling overwhelmed. During a visit, one of the children dropped an open-faced peanut-butter sandwich face-down on the carpet. The usual response would have been the mother’s fury and a spanking. But the visiting member asked, “Would it be helpful to put the child at the table?” It was a simple suggestion, but one the mother has since reported as a key in helping her to realize that she was neither helpless nor hopeless in controlling her frustrations.
Whenever the child’s behavior appears to be a provoking factor in the abusive response, there are really two concerns. The first is the problem of the child’s behavior; and the second (and often the more serious) is the parent’s over-reaction to the child’s problem. If severe punishments follow the smallest mistake, some considerations in assessing the situation might be:
1. What are the parent’s expectations of the child’s behavior?
2. Are those expectations realistic?
3. What are the stresses in the life of the parent?
4. Can the parent distinguish between the need for a gentle redirection of behavior and the need for more parental attention?
5. Are all behaviors that are not pleasing to the parent met with the same intense reaction by the parent?
6. How supportive and helpful is the spouse of the suspected abusive parent?
7. How sensitive is the parent to the opinions of others? In other words, how much of the parent’s self-esteem is based upon what he or she thinks others will think about him or her as a parent?
This last consideration has been witnessed in supermarkets, department stores, and even in church meetings, where a child is harshly reprimanded or spanked because the child has embarrassed or inconvenienced the parent. As a parent of six children, I am continually challenged to remember that it is more important to be an appropriate parent helping the child with his problems, rather than allowing my problem with his problem to become the major influencing factor.
There are numerous resources to help parents who experience frustration and anger with their children. Articles with “how-to” suggestions on parenthood appear regularly in the Ensign. Courses in family relations through the Sunday School and mother education through the Relief Society are available. I have seen local ecclesiastical leaders utilize the Mother Education instructor as a resource person to help mothers and fathers apply parenting principles on a one-to-one basis outside the classroom. “Becoming a Better Parent” is a course offered by trained and certified instructors under the supervision and direction of LDS Social Services; it is available through the bishop as part of the Church’s Storehouse Resource System. There are many similar classes available on the local community level.
The intent of public child abuse programs and the programs of the Church is not to punish parents, but to assist in the protection of children and to help those mothers and fathers who want to become better parents learn how to do so.
It is a most uncomfortable position to know of or even suspect child abuse or neglect. I would caution you not to ignore the problem, for a child’s health—or even his life—may be endangered. None of us would allow our small children to run uncontrolled through traffic, nor would we stand passively aside while our child put his hand on the hot element of an electric range. We would certainly love our children enough to prevent their getting burned or struck by an automobile. Should we love our neighbors’ children—or those who may be abusing them—any less?