Mind Matters — Put Children First

In 1873, animals had legal protection, children did not. And so, when a church worker, Mrs. Etta Wheeler visited a home and found a horribly abused child, she sought recourse. However, the justice system did nothing. She then petitioned the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for help. She declared to the ASPCA that if there were laws and organizations to protect animals, then children, as members of the animal kingdom, should be protected also. The ASPCA agreed.

Later, children had their own forum when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded. Despite societies, foundations, and laws for the protection of children, physical and sexual abuse continues.

Ironically, the very same reasons our hearts melt when we see pictures of sweet innocent faces of children or we open our wallets to donate to Operation Smile or Children’s Hospital, are the very same reasons children are mistreated. We respond to how children are helpless and subordinate: they have no power, no say about their fate. The dark side of the coin of our largesse is our ability to abuse those who are our subordinates. The issues why adults sexually or physically abuse children are complex. The abusers themselves may have been victims of abuse, and they are continuing the pattern of oppressed becoming oppressor.

However, psychological renderings of the whys don’t suffice. We must put the child first—the one who has no control of the money, has no voice, has no power.

It would have been an easy call if Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier said to themselves “The child comes first,” not the money, not the prestige, not the power.

Despite their disconnect from the world below their ivory perch, Paterno and Spanier are not alone in their forgetting “the child comes first.”

There are teachers who are sadistic bullies; there are fathers who rape their daughters; and there are mothers who are vicious and cruel to their own children. The dark side doesn’t discriminate: it looms in Amish families (yes, Amish families) as well as alcoholic families, in rich homes and poor homes; in the best schools and the worst schools.

Our denial of the dark side does us in. We get shocked when we hear yet another pedestal crash to the ground. Awareness of the problem and educating ourselves about what we can do is a start. We also need not to have the pendulum swing in the direction of fear either. To answer the problem of child abuse with sweeping laws (agreed, we do need strong legislation) that would create an atmosphere of recrimination is not the solution. If we keep in mind the mantras, “the best interests of the child” or the “child first,” in legislation, then perhaps we won’t slip into situations that use the law to manipulate and retaliate, e.g., in divorce cases, where one parent can be wrongly accused by the other parent for child abuse. This obviously is not putting the child first.

I would like to see us put the child first everywhere. And don’t confuse this with permissiveness. Putting the child first means allowing our children to feel safe to grow and develop into adults that will carry on the lessons they have learned: to be respectful of others as they were respected; to be caring of others as they were cared for.

The following items have been taken from online material of the APA (American Psychological Association), Child Sexual Abuse:

Who are the victims of child sexual abuse?

Who are the perpetrators of child sexual abuse?

How prevalent is child sexual abuse?

What steps can parents/caregivers take to prevent and minimize risk for sexual abuse?

Teach your children

What should parents/caregivers do if they suspect abuse?

APA resources