Changing Attitudes on Child Abuse

However, within this seeming consensus of moral sentiment lies a mystery. Until the twentieth century, much ofwhat we now consider to be child abuse was regarded as morally acceptable and legally permissible. In fact, people generally argued not only that it was permissible to oppress and punish children to the point of physical abuse, but also that such abuse was necessary for the children's moral edification (Radbill). Thus, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Parents and teachers had absolute authority over children's lives. They could, and did, physically and sexually abuse children with an impunity so complete that such acts were seldom recognized or acknowledged.

Our current approaches to child abuse reflect a radical change in our moral view of the family. Until the twentieth century, families were usually seen as small, autocratic moral universes. Parents (in most cases, fathers) could use children (and wives) as they saw fit. Children had no independent moral rights. The movement to recognize and prevent child abuse, and to punish abusers, reflects a partial empowerment of the child. Such a sea change in moral sentiment raises important questions about the timelessness of moral principles affecting the care of children. Either child abuse was always wrong but not recognized as wrong, suggesting that our moral sensitivities are improving over time, or child abuse became wrong only recently, suggesting that moral values are not timeless and immutable but transient and constantly evolving.

Whether moral principles, such as those designed to guide the care of children, have changed over time or whether people have gradually become more or less virtuous in the treatment of children will be debated elsewhere in this work. Currently, attempts to formulate standards for appropriate ethical and legal responses to child abuse can be seen as efforts to craft social and legal policies that reflect our views of how children should be cared for and reared. But parents and other caregivers receive conflicting messages from current social policies; whereas our society restricts child abuse, its institutions and laws condone other activities—such as sexual activity during early teenage years and exposure to violence in television, films, and daily life—that would have been regarded as morally problematic in societies of previous eras and are so regarded in non—U.S. societies in the early twenty-first century. From one perspective, these conflicting efforts can be seen as experiments in social policy; from another perspective, selective legal interventions in the area of child abuse are viewed as justified by the legal doctrine of parens patriae. In this doctrine the state claims an interest in protecting the lives and well-being of children, even if this means limiting parental autonomy and infringing on family privacy.

Nevertheless, physical and sexual abuse of children is still common; in most instances, abuse is never reported or discovered.

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