Conditions of Childhood in the United States
1986 Church of the Brethren Statement
Chris, a senior in high school, has lived in fourteen different foster homes. He has been rejected by his alcoholic mother, physically and sexually abused by foster parents, and punished for erratic behavior by frustrated teachers.
A four year old begged the counselor to protect her parents. The uncle, who had sexually molested her, told her that if she breathed a word to anyone about their “secret,” her parents would disappear.
Tina, an unwed mother, rejected by her family because she would not have an abortion, has left her home and community to start a new life in another state. Without the support of family and friends and barely enough money to exist, parenting is filled with overwhelming pressures for this young woman.
The image of America’s children frolicking through their tender years, holding hands with two loving parents as they are supported by their extended family has been shattered by reports of mistreatment and violence. Reports indicate that nearly 35 percent of our nation’s children are experiencing mistreatment.
Our committee has, at times, been overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems encountered by children in the United States. We confess that we are citizens in a society which promotes violence, condones exploitation and creates conditions for mistreatment. Even though we are a part of a Christian community that has appreciated the value of children, we confess the brokenness that sometimes occurs within our own families. Our ministers and church leaders sometimes feel forced into moves which seriously disrupt their children’s sense of community and continuity. Although we affirm our calling to be the redemptive community to persons of all ages, we are sometimes victims of our own pain and brokenness, and we have done little to create new ways of caring for and nurturing our children.
This paper acknowledges that child abuse and neglect are found in all economic, ethnic, and educational levels of our society. We deplore the fact that some adult/child relationships, intended by God to be loving, life-giving and nurturing have become hateful, crippling, discarding, and even death-dealing for many children.
Though we have struggled with the broad scope of the query presented for study, this document will address the conditions of childhood in the United States and will
- recognize the importance of child/adult relationships;
- offer biblical and theological reflections;
- acknowledge the scope of the problem;
- suggest reasons for church involvement and intervention;
- offer recommendations for positive action.
In the information that follows, children will be defined as persons from birth to age 18. Mistreatment will be considered any attitude, behavior, or relationship between a child and an adult which results in physical or emotional harm to the child.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CHILD/ADULT RELATIONSHIPS
Children depend upon adults.
They depend on adults for survival.
They depend on adults to provide for their basic human needs throughout their formative years.
They depend on adults to keep the world intact until they themselves become adults.
Children learn from adults.
They learn facts and figures in the classroom.
They learn attitudes and values in the home, school, church, and community.
They learn ways of acting and reacting from those responsible for their care.
Children teach adults.
They teach adults about love, forgiveness and creation.
They teach adults about growing and improving and becoming.
They teach adults about sharing, giving, and receiving.
Children are a gift from God.
They have not been haphazardly formed or birthed.
They have bean created in the image of God.
They have been entrusted to us for our nurture and care.
Children and adults need each other.
BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS
The Brethren have always sought to maintain a strong, stable, and wholesome family life. As Brethren, we have sought to respect all members of a family by the giving and receiving of respect for each other. Some biblical passages which reflect the Old Testament and New Testament views of the relationship between parent and child include the following:
And when Esau raised his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are those with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”
Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Do not provoke your children lest they become discouraged.
People both within and outside the church community sometimes claim that the Bible mandates or condones violence towards children. Proverbs 13:24 (“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him”) has often been paraphrased as “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Seen in the larger biblical context of the need for love and respect between parents and children, this and similar verses in Proverbs do not condone physical violence as a routinely acceptable method of child rearing.
Although the New Testament does not contain a developed theology of the child, children are considered a part of everyday life.
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for of such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.
A similar situation is recorded in Matthew 18:1-7 where the disciples are disputing who is the greatest among them.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptations come!”
The above passage not only speaks of the relatedness of children to the kingdom of heaven, but also the responsibility of anyone who mistreats these representatives of Christ.
In some of the Apostle Paul’s writings, he addresses the parent/child relationship in Paul’s Epistles. In the pastoral epistles, for example, Paul stresses the importance of an orderly family relationship (1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:6). Most importantly, however, Paul talks about a reciprocal relationship between a parent and child.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may well with you and that you may live long in the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
The above passage illustrates how the obedience of a child to the parent (Ephesians 6:1) should be reciprocated by the kindness of the parent (Ephesians 6:4).
Although there are these scriptural examples, child abuse and neglect seem to occur with or without any biblical or theological justification. As Brethren, we are called to affirm our biblical traditions of peace and reconciliation in order to stop war, violence, and the human suffering that surrounds our lives. As Christians, we are called to bring hope to abused and neglected children and to love one another even as Christ has loved us.
SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
Abuse. Neglect. Abandonment. Abduction. Are these the conditions of children in the United States?
Yes, some children, but not all children.
Some children experience severe beatings and bodily injuries, bruises, and internal organ damage; some experience inappropriate fondling or sexual intercourse from adult perpetrators. National studies indicate that over 108,000 cases of physical abuse and sexual assault were reported in the United States in 1983; the number of unreported cases is believed to be significantly higher.
Some children experience verbal assault, the denial of life’s essentials (food, shelter, medical needs), and little or no guidance and love by those responsible for their care. Statistics on child neglect and deprivation or necessities vary so much that accurate figures are nearly impossible; nevertheless, reports indicate that this particular problem is probably the most serious of any and may touch as many as 200,000 children.
Some children are unwanted because they cause too many problems, place too many demands on parents, or do not measure up to adult expectations. Child abandonment is on the rise. It sometimes takes the form of infants left on “doorsteps,” but it includes the abandonment that can accompany parental separations and rejection of youth by parents because of family conflict.
Some children are kidnapped, raped, and murdered, while others simply disappear. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (Washington, D.C.) reports that 25,000-50,000 children are kidnapped or abducted annually.
Not all children experience such extreme physical and emotional mistreatment. But all children are exposed to an environment laced with nuclear and toxic wastes. They are influenced by television, radio, drama, and music in which violence has become almost routine. They are anxious about the threat of nuclear war and total annihilation. Some experience emotional isolation, the end product of losing the extended family, of high divorce rates, and of parent-work arrangements that leave little time or energy for nurturing. Some develop a negative sense of self-worth; they may compensate by engaging in delinquent activities, drugs, alcohol, and early sexual behavior. Some have talents that are never cultivated, gifts that are never used. Many children lack adult models and friends–advocates who can and will support them through the pains of growth and living. Some commit suicide, which is at an alarming all-time high among children and adolescents.
The conditions of childhood in our nation today are complex. They are different from the conditions of America’s children fifty, thirty, or even fifteen years ago. A lack of parental understanding, coupled with feelings of uncertainty and helplessness, have resulted in inadequate responses to troubled children. It is clear, however, that we cannot simply wring our hands in despair and wish for a better day. An effective response is a legitimate and pressing concern for the Christian community.
CHURCH INVOLVEMENT AND INTERVENTION
Some will state that community agencies are more competent in dealing with these problems than is the church–particularly abuse, neglect, abandonment, and abduction.
It is true that professionally trained therapists and other service providers should be utilized whenever possible. Yet the church must not abdicate its unique role in prevention, intervention, and support for both the victims and perpetrators of these problems.
Since its beginnings, the Church of the Brethren has believed in the gospel of God’s love and concern for the whole person. The Brethren have a tradition of peace and reconciliation in a world broken by war, violence, and human suffering. Over the years, much attention has been given to Christian nurture and love in the home and the church. Additionally, the Brethren have believed that all persons are inseparably joined together and so have taken a deep interest in the welfare of all God’s children.
Therefore, the church is uniquely equipped to reach out with compassion to all children in need. We hold that whenever a child is abused, the church, as the body of Christ, suffers. Whenever a child is neglected, the whole body laments the blows to self-esteem.
In 1984, the Church of the Brethren recorded its opposition to abortion, stating: “We hold ourselves accountable to develop constructive, creative alternatives to abortion in the communities of which we are a part.” Should not the church be likewise accountable to develop constructive, creative alternatives to child abuse and neglect? Is not a denomination that takes a strong anti-abortion stance equally obligated to take a strong anti-child abuse stance?
The church’s historical concern for family life prompts response to the problem of child abuse and neglect. In the family, persons learn respect for self and others. Abuse within the family destroys the family’s ability to fulfill its nurturing role. If the family does not promote good relationships within, then the ability of family members to relate to those outside the family will be diminished.
Further, Christianity proclaims justice and hope for all who are disadvantaged, impoverished, and unjustly victimized by the oppressors of this world. Victims need to be helped to experience themselves as persons loved by God through the faith community. Abused children have lost their self-esteem. Is not the church called to restore hope and confidence to such children?
The church is ultimately involved because of its faithfulness to Jesus who came proclaiming “release to the captives;” as such, God summons the church to bring release to children held captive by the oppression of unloving families and a broken world.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR POSITIVE ACTION
There are many ways the church can respond to varied adverse conditions of children.
- Provide meaningful ways to integrate children into the total program of the church. Pastors can integrate the children’s story with the total worship experience, include words to the children in the offertory statement, and provide bulletin supplements for children that elaborate on the worship theme.
- Sponsor congregational/community workshops on parenting and relational skills.
- Develop and coordinate parent support groups for single parents, foster parents, congregational couples, divorced parents, etc. for affirming and encouraging one another and providing other help.
- Develop a congregational parent co-op that provides, at no cost, exchange sitter service for all co-op participants.
- Provide foster care or other shelter/respite care for children in need. Consider using the church as a sanctuary or safe haven for children/parents who are endangered by violent relationships, or provide transportation for victims to an existing shelter.
- Sponsor a “hot line” that provides information and a listening ear, or become acquainted with hot line resources already available in the community and offer volunteer services. Volunteer to coordinate resources in the community.
- Provide non-violent teaching/training/learning experiences for children and adults through Sunday school, vacation Bible school, camps, youth clubs, youth/adult fellowships, etc.
- Befriend lonely children and parents who need to talk to someone. Contact local service agencies for names of persons in need in the community; be aware of similar needs within the church family or relatives, friends, and acquaintances of the church family.
- Pray for those who experience sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual abuse. Pray also for those who perpetrate such violence.
- Train and coordinate volunteers to provide meaningful child care for the congregation, the community, and the district.
- Work toward the inclusion of parenting courses as a part of the academic curriculum in public and private schools.
- Provide or sponsor a wholesome day-care program in the church building.
Pastors, deacons, and other church leaders can:
- Take advantage of training opportunities on how to relate to, support, and (if appropriate) refer victims and perpetrators of child abuse and neglect.
- Preach on the importance of enhancing human life and dignity within the family.
- Understand their own personal communication patterns and consider how their behavior, attitude, and sermon illustrations distance persons from approaching church leaders in regard to family violence. Examine their modeling of discipline and interaction with children.
- Plan congregational worship experiences that capture the conditions of childhood and extend a call for congregational response.
- Initiate educational opportunities that nurture positive attitudes toward human sexuality and health relationships including junior and senior highs and adults.
- Provide opportunities for discussion of parenting and relational skills as a part of premarital counseling, senior high and post high Sunday school classes and other pre-parent groups.
The denomination authorizes a denominational Task Force on the conditions of Children and Youth.
This Task Force shall be appointed by the General Board for a five-year period with the following suggested responsibilities:
- Identify and publish a list of resources related to this subject, including existing Church of the Brethren programs ministering to children with special needs.
- Provide materials to congregations that will implement strategies for responding to conditions of childhood in the local setting.
- Develop and publish congregational worship resources that capture the conditions of childhood (e.g. sermon starters, offertory statements, calls to worship, invocations, scriptural references, bulletin supplements, etc.)
- Coordinate and distribute audio-visual resources and other training and teaching media for congregational and district use.
- Monitor how we as a denomination are responding to the conditions of children and youth and facilitate consciousness-raising experiences in districts.
- Examine placement procedures and time demands imposed on church leaders and consider how these procedures and demands affect their children.
- Identify a network of resource persons and agencies who have skills and experience in the training, development, and support of new programs and projects relating to the conditions of children and youth.
- Recommend ways to make troubled families whole, working with parents as well as children.
Theresa Eshbach, Chairperson
John Carlson, Secretary
Jay Gibble, Staff Liaison
*All scriptural quotations from the Revised Standard Version.
Action of 1986 Annual Conference: The report on CONDITIONS OF CHILDHOOD IN THE UNITED STATES was presented by Theresa Eshbach, chairperson of the study committee, with other members of the committee present. The delegate body adopted the report with three amendments which have been incorporated in the preceding wording of the paper.