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Radical Religious Belief and Child Abuse, "Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child"

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child” has become the theme of a number of extremely fundamentalist religious groups around the nation and world. The rationality for the practices followed by this philosophy is that it is necessary to use spanking and the belt to discipline children who, otherwise, would become wayward later in life. A lot of controversy centered around a fundamentalist couple, the Pearls, who wrote a book that encouraged these corporal behaviors. In point of fact, several families who adhered to the teachings in the book, succeeded in killing their children. The Pearls asserted that unstable and pressured or stressed parents should never use these methods and that their book is not to blame for the deaths.

Over the years, I have come across quite a number of patients who reported being abused when they were children. the major and outstanding characteristic of these cases was that religious convictions were the driving force behind the behavior of the abusive parent. In my experience, women were the victims of parental abuse, although this happened to males as well. The most common scenario was of a daughter being prohibited from wearing make up, dating boys, going to the prom except with their father and dressing in the most modest way possible. These kids were severely beaten and cursed if they did not comply.

None of this is meant to imply that religious belief leads to child abuse. In fact, that is an absurd opinion to hold. Rather, the problem is that, in all the major religions, there are groups of people who see themselves as doing God’s work as commanded by the bible. They advocate using the harshest punishments possible. What is particularly disturbing about this issue is that religious belief is used as an excuse or rationalization for beating children. For some people, corporal punishment is given a legitimacy that is rapped in faith. The parents who do this are convinced they are doing God’s work as prescribed in the bible.

There are other forms of child abuse that are not violent in nature. For example, there is a reality program on the National Geographic channel the follows a deeply religious community of people called the “Hutterites.” Following a very literal interpretation of the bible, they live outside the influence of the modern world. This would not be a problem except for the fact that the elders use the community to pressure parents to not send their children to school beyond the elementary level. Any child who wants to attend High School and beyond is subjected to rejection and social isolation from members of the group. These people are not in any way violent. However, the question must be asked if this is neglect and deprivation in an age where education is profoundly important.

Recently, the Russian government discovered a fundamental group of Muslims who raise their children in caves so as to shield them against the influence of the modern world. It was discovered that many of these kids had never seen the light of day. It is true that faith drove them to live this way but, if this isn’t child abuse and neglect then what is?

There are even people who teach their children that the end of the world is coming and to prepare for that eventuality. In some cases, families have resigned from their jobs, sold their houses and, in one of the most bizarre of these cases, killed their kids so that they will be safe from Armageddon.

While some of these people may insist that they refuse to “spare the rod and spoil the child,” the results are devastating for these kids later in their lives. Study after study have consistently shown that all forms of neglect and abuse cause children to grow up feeling extremely insecure, angry, depressed and overwhelmed with anxiety. Many of them are so distrustful of people as a result of what happened to them that they do not form intimate relationships. In effect, the suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD).

What is your thinking about this issue?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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