Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Amazon - We Find Child Abuse 'Offensive'

The world's biggest bookseller, Amazon, has a policy not to carry material with offensive content.  In their policy description, they say, 'What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect'.  This seems like a bit of a surface skimmer for such a large international corporation.  Doesn't the definition of 'offensive' differ dramatically from person to person?  As far as books are concerned, there is a whole raft of literature, from Lady Chatterley to The God Delusion, that some people find abhorrent, and some people find interesting and essential reading.

When it comes to parenting manuals, things are no different.  Some people, myself included, find the practice of C.I.O - leaving a baby or small child to cry themselves to sleep - pretty offensive, and yet there are a whole host of people who do not, and many many books available via Amazon and elsewhere which promote this practice.  A while ago I wrote a post, Judgemental, in which I wondered where we draw the line and say, this is not just a matter of parenting choice, this is wrong.

There are some ways of treating children that could never be described as 'grey areas'.  The abuse of children can be physical, emotional, sexual or neglectful. To hurt a child, to make them feel worthless, to betray their naive trust, to fail to offer them even basic care.  We know, when we meet such terrible situations, that wrong is being done.  We are deeply shocked, upset and saddened.  And we are offended.

Amazon currently stocks several parenting manuals that promote the physical and emotional abuse of children and babies.  The main player in the pack, To Train Up a Child, was recently drawn to my attention by two Facebook groups, The Mom: Informed, and The Dangers of Baby Training.  The Mom: Informed published the following advice given by Debi Pearl, one of the authors, when asked on their website, No Greater Joy, about using a rod on children younger than twelve months.  Please be warned the content is disturbing:
We never used the rod to punish a child younger than 12 months. You should read No Greater Joy Volume One and Volume Two. We discussed this subject several times in those two books. For young children, especially during the first year, the rod is used very lightly as a training tool. You use something small and light to get the child’s attention and to reinforce your command. One or two light licks on the bare legs or arms will cause a child to stop in his tracks and regard your commands. A 12-inch piece of weed eater chord works well as a beginner rod. It will fit in your purse or pocket. 
Later, a plumber's supply line is a good spanking tool. You can get it at Wal-Mart or any hardware store. Ask for a plastic, ¼ inch, supply line. They come in different lengths and several colors; so you can have a designer rod to your own taste. They sell for less than $1.00. A baby needs to be trained all day, everyday. It should be a cheerful, directing training, not a correction training. If a 10-month-old plays in the dirt in the flowerpot, a simple swat to the hand accompanied with the command “No,” said in a cheerful but authoritative voice, should be sufficient. 
When your 6-month-old baby grabs sister’s hair, while he still has a hand full of hair, swat his hand or arm and say “No, that hurts sister.” If he has already let go of her hair, then put his hand back on her hair, so as to engage his mind in the former action, and then carry on with the hand swatting and the command. If you found your baby trying to stick something in the electrical receptacle, keep his hand on the object and near the receptacle while giving him a few swats on the back of the offending hand, and this to the sound of your rebuke—“No, don't touch, No, don't touch.” This time he needs to cry and be upset. 
If your 10-month-old is pitching a fit because he wants to be picked up, then you must reinforce your command with a few stinging swats. You are not punishing him; you are causing him to associate his negative behavior with negative consequences. Never reward bad behavior with indifference. Tell the baby “No” and give him a swat. If your response is new, he may be offended and scream louder. But continue your normal activities as if you are unaffected. Wait one minute, and then tell the baby to stop crying. If he doesn’t, again swat him on his bare legs. You don’t need to undress him, turn him over, or make a big deal out of it. Just swat him where any skin is exposed. Continue to act as if you don’t notice the fit. Wait two minutes and repeat. Continue until the baby realizes that this is getting worse not better. Most babies will keep it going for 3 or 4 times and then slide to a sitting position and sob it out. When this happens, it signals a surrender, so give him two minutes to get control and then swoop him up as if the fit never happen and give him a big hug, BUT don't hold him in the manner he was demanding. Now remove yourself from the area so as to remove him from association with the past event.
 Don’t ever hit a small child with your hand. You are too big and the baby is too small. The surface of the skin is where the most nerves are located and where it is easiest to cause pain without any damage to the child. The weight of your hand does little to sting the skin, but can cause bruising or serious damage internally. Babies need training but they do not need to be punished. Never react in anger or frustration. If you lose it, get your self under control before you attempt to discipline a child.
Further reading led me to discover that in the book To Train Up a Child:
  • Thumping, smacking and hair pulling are promoted as a way of training a child to obey instructions. Children are compared children with dogs.
  • The use of a "rod" is promoted, which the authors describe as a "divine enforcer". They recommend using a metre-long branch or a belt on an older child and a smaller object on a younger child.
  • They say "Any spanking to reinforce instruction, must cause pain."
  • Also "If you have to sit on him to spank him, do not hesitate... hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered."
  • Michael Pearl said his wife trained their daughter to stop biting her during breastfeeding by pulling on her hair. "Understand, the baby is not being punished. Just conditioned." 

I feel certain that no one reading this can be in any doubt: such advice does not belong to a 'grey area' of parenting do's and don'ts, it can only be described as child abuse, and it is distressing and offensive.

I have spent the past week researching this matter and I was shocked to discover that this book belongs to a section of parenting literature which appears to all be published by Christian fundamentalists in the States, many more of which are also available on Amazon.  For example, Shepherding a Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp is already talked about in great depth online and advocates using a rod to punish children as young as eight months, as does the disturbingly titled, Don't Make Me Count to Three, by Ginger Plowman.

I have also discovered that there has been a case in America in which a child was beaten to death, and in which the book To Train Up A Child was directly implicated.  Here is the CNN report, including an interview with authors Michael and Debi Pearl.

Whilst reading and researching I have been thinking a lot about censorship, and the banning of books, with which I usually wholeheartedly disagree.  'Those who burn books, will ultimately burn men', as the Heinrich Heine quote goes.  I have wondered at the wisdom of getting involved in this debate, and other people who have already been involved have told me, 'It's pointless.'  Many times I have held back from writing this post.  But I also know - from several years of working with the victims of abuse in my professional life prior to becoming a mother - that it is very easy, once we enter this world, to unwittingly find ourselves adopting the distorted thinking that actually belongs to the abused or the abuser. 'Perhaps I should not speak up', 'Perhaps this isn't really that bad', or even, 'This is a matter of personal choice', are some of the thoughts that run through the minds of victim and perpetrator, and consequently pollute our own thinking.  I know from experience that it is important, when addressing situations of abuse, to plant our feet firmly on the ground, take a deep breath, and hold on very tightly to what we know to be right.  It is for this reason that I am writing this post, and for this reason that I have decided to petition Amazon.

Let's be clear, this is not a petition to ban books.  It is simply to ask Amazon to cease to stock parenting manuals which advise the physical abuse of children. What is the difference?  Well, to ban a book is a very big move, with implications on freedom of speech which need to be debated at high levels before such a move is made. I'm not saying that this shouldn't happen at some stage, but for now, to call for Amazon to review their policy to sell the books seems a smaller and more manageable step.  With a petition with thousands of signatures, Amazon will be forced to take some kind of action, even if it is to simply respond and say that they are going to continue to sell the book.  As such a high profile retailer, whatever action they take will be news worthy, and will raise awareness world wide of these books and their content.  This will then open up the question of whether such books should be allowed at all to a far wider group than I can reach through this blog.

Hopefully it will also generate thinking and debate about the whole issue of smacking, hitting and physical abuse as part of a parenting approach.  Recently more than one person has said to me, 'Stopping the books won't make any difference - you can't stop people abusing their children'.  This is not the case. Firstly, people can and do change their attitudes on such matters, and often news articles or changes in government policy trigger such changes.  Secondly, to throw up our hands and say, 'It's hopeless, let's stay silent', places us back in the role of 'victim' again, burying our feelings of outrage and pain and deciding to say nothing.  The fight against all forms of child abuse is complicated, difficult, challenging, and can sometimes seem hopeless, but this does not mean we should not try.  Like the victims, we need to find our voices and cry out. 

Please take a moment to sign the petition I have created, urging Amazon to refuse to carry books which advocate the physical abuse of children.  To view the petition and sign, click here:
In New Zealand,, To Train up a Child has recently been removed from some book sellers, and could potentially be completely banned.  Adding weight to the argument is the fact that, as in many other countries around the world, it is illegal to smack your child in New Zealand.  Certainly one way of getting the book removed from Amazon would be to campaign for smacking to be banned in the UK, rendering the book and others like it 'illegal'.  If you are interested in reading more about the issue of smacking, you might like to look at the NSPCC document, Hitting Children is Wrong and the Law Should Say So, the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, and you may wish to sign this petition to the UK government, to Abolish the Parental 'Right' to use Corporal Punishment.

In the meantime, I hope readers of this blog are able to get the attention of a goliath such as Amazon, and make them finally see that instruction manuals for the physical abuse of children truly are offensive.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Riot Within

It seems like the smoke is clearing and the dust is settling after a week of rioting on the streets of our UK cities.  Most of us have been shocked, outraged and even scared by these events, and there has been widespread condemnation of the perpetrators of the violence throughout the media, social media, and by politicians and other commentators.  Words have been used varying from 'criminals' to 'scum', and the public have been united with an almost wartime spirit into a heightened state of 'us and them': 'us', brooms held high, keeping calm and carrying on, 'them', thugs, hooligans, cretins, low-life, and mindless yobs.

This kind of polarised language makes those of us on the right side of the fence and the law feel good.  It is comforting to know that the badness, the nastiness, the violence, belongs 'out there', to somebody else. Why should we care about such people?  But let's pause for a second, and take an imaginative leap.  Each one of the rioters was once a newborn baby.  At some point in time they were a bundle of potential, a tiny person, just begun, life in its entirety stretching ahead.  They could have been doctors, poets, scientists or artists.  They could have changed the world, or at least, changed their world, for the better.  Most importantly, they could have been kind.

What has been so starkly missing in the scenes of looting and acts of aggression is the quality of empathy.  That ability to pause, and to think about the effect of our own behaviour on another, and then to moderate our actions accordingly.  But this quality is not innate, it is a learnt behaviour, and we learn it, not at school or from our nagging parents as teenagers, but as a small baby.  As a tiny baby, our emotions are often in chaos, as we struggle to respond to a world that can seem fascinating, frightening, exciting and overwhelming, all at once.  Our parents provide stability, and help us to calm this inner riot, slowly begin to develop ways of making sense of the world, and most importantly, learn how, as we grow up, to provide this emotional regulation for ourselves.  If a parent holds their baby, tunes into them, and responds consistently and lovingly to their distress, they learn two fundamentally important things: how to take care of and be kind to themselves, and how to take care of and be kind to others.

This is not my own personal view, nor is it new thinking.  It is over sixty years since John Bowlby developed the idea of 'attachment theory', the notion that our future emotional well-being is shaped by the way we are responded to in the very early years of life. Since then this 'theory' has become a widely accepted tenet of modern psychological thinking, and in the last decade or so, we have seen more and more evidence of it's validity as the rapidly advancing world of neuroscience is able to map the brain's development in more and more detail.  And yet whenever I hear a politician speak about the answers, not just to rioting, but to any number of social issues, I never ever hear them refer to the first years of life as having any bearing at all on either the problem or the possible solution.

As Sue Gerhardt writes in her latest book, The Selfish Society:

...this knowledge that it is our experiences, particularly our earliest experiences, which have the strongest influence on our values and relationships to others, has not yet become part of our culture...There are still too many people who think that behaviour towards babies has no impact because babies 'don't understand' or 'won't remember'.

Politicians give advice about any number of issues, in particular those that may benefit our physical or emotional health, and of course in the long run also save tax payers money.  About a year ago, I saw a poster in my local doctors with the slogan, 'Back to Sleep - Tummy to Play'.  There is concern for those babies who are being held so little that they are developing flat heads, and 'Tummy Time' is seen to be a solution for this.  But for a very small baby, this slogan ignores their great need, not to be placed on the floor face down, but to be held, talked to, responded to, tuned in to, and mirrored.  This kind of interaction is absolutely invaluable, helping to keep a baby's emotional riot under control, to feel soothed, to feel loved, and to develop empathy.  A baby who is not responded to becomes an adult who still has this emotional chaos inside, and who does not have the tools to deal with it, and so they over-eat, or drink, or take drugs, or act it out in the real world with an anger and aggression that they cannot contain.

Until the fundamental importance of the first years of life is acknowledged by policy makers, and people are given help and support to parent in ways that develop empathy, attachment and kindness, I fear we will continue to see the symptoms of people's un-met childhood needs and deep anger and sadness manifest themselves in various ways in our society.  Meanwhile those of us who are struggling with the exhausting and frustrating task of looking after small children must try to remember the great impact we are having; with each, 'little, nameless, unremembered act of kindness and of love', we are helping to build an empathic adult.  As Ghandi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world'.


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

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