Lately, there’s been much buzz online and offline concerning the agency of children and teenagers in the aftermath of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech. In watching these reactions and reactions to the reactions unfold in real time, there seems to be this broadening of our collective consciousness with respect to how children fit in with our culture.
What’s finally becoming clear to millions of people? That America fucking hates kids, and grown-ass Americans have zero reservations being complete monsters to people far younger than them. Yeah, there’s terrible people who hate children everywhere. But America has a unique disdain for its young.
You don’t need to look much farther than our schools, lax assault weapon laws, 6-year-olds being sent to jail over tantrums, children literally in cages at the border, and other large-scale atrocities. But just HOW deeply-embedded is America’s hatred of children?
Think about how after the 2016 election, people were only beginning to wake up to institutional racism and the kind of bigotry kept behind closed doors and masked with a polite smile, like putting ice cream sprinkles on a dog turd. But people in marginalized groups knew how much rot festered beneath the surface all along.
It seems as though the same kind of reckoning is happening now despite several moments in somewhat recent history, Sandy Hook being one of the most notable. (If you’re a TV Tropes fan, it was the Moral Event Horizon.) People are starting to wake up to just how much this country loathes children despite all those lofty TV specials and school assemblies that softly told us we were the future. But yes, Karen. There are people who really hate children that much and it didn’t start and stop with Sandy Hook and 40-something guys crying about a teenage environmental activist online. This form of hate has always existed. Child abuse survivors knew this pretty much forever.
But child abuse survivors aren’t really given a platform to discuss this, and it’s a topic people tend to avoid. It’s uncomfortable to many and the survivor is expected to just get on with life, put on a happy face, and act like it’s just another obstacle like those stories on LinkedIn about how those first six investors turned you away until you met the seventh by chance at happy hour.
So, why don’t we actually discuss child abuse?
Victim Blaming Starts Early
The term “victim-blaming” is typically used when describing sexual assault. Read: “if that woman didn’t dress that way/take that route home/have that drink, she wouldn’t have been raped.” It is a separate concept from gaslighting, where the abuser and/or their enablers will tell the victim their experience didn’t happen and make them think events and circumstances were totally different when they in fact were not.
However, child abuse is often rife with victim-blaming and sometimes gaslighting is part of the package. Depending on the kind of environment that a child grows up in, this victim-blaming can be compounded by anyone from other family members to teachers and school officials, or perhaps members of the child’s community.
I wasn’t quite able to vocalize what was wrong with my household until I was about nine years old. When I started to though, the victim-blaming began early:
“What are you doing that makes your mother constantly yell at you?”
“That’s what happens to kids who don’t behave.”
“Imagine how tired and agitated your parents must be coming home from work then having to deal with YOU!”
While abuse can manifest differently and isn’t always strictly physical or emotional, kids can still feel as if they’re these horrible burdens who are to blame for why their parents do what they do.
This type of victim-blaming is why child abuse survivors don’t come forward in the first place. It makes children blame themselves for what happened and they can spend decades of their adult lives feeling that they deserve every terrible thing that happens to them.
LACASA examined why children don’t come forward when a figure outside the nuclear family abuses them. Now multiply those factors by an amount that can only be expressed in scientific notation when it’s your own parent/guardian or sibling who has done these things to you.
For both children and adult survivors who decide to discuss their experiences, it can often feel like we’re copping a plea for sympathy when we’re just discussing our experiences for other survivors’ benefit, to educate others, and/or personal catharsis. Seeing the way that abuse and rape victims are often castigated online and in person in the #MeToo era is also compelling young people to blame themselves and stay silent.
I’m a mouthy bitch, my abuser is dead, so I’m going to fucking talk about it. If you’re a survivor who’s reading this, YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME. The victim-blaming starts when we’re young and it was not your fault!
Children Are Treated Like Possessions
I slightly dove into this concept before, about how parents using their children’s academic performance is seen as acceptable bragging but still treats them like show dogs rather than people.
This concept still applies and can manifest in different ways like parents who force their kids to dress up like political figures and plaster these often-derogatory images all over social media, or make them take music lessons or play sports to make up for their unfulfilled dreams when the child isn’t actually interested in these things. While the conversations surrounding consent and bodily autonomy are starting earlier and becoming more nuanced— it’s more common and acceptable nowadays to tell children they don’t have to let that family friend hug them, for instance — children are still largely treated as property to show off, complain about, declare on your taxes, you name it.
Oh hey, I didn’t reference the 2016 reckoning earlier by accident: treating children like they’re fancy rag dolls you can throw in a car then on Instagram just to scold them when you don’t get your way is pretty damn deeply-rooted in settler-colonialism. This is just yet another way ignoring colonist roots has caused this mindset to seep into so many other aspects of our lives.
In the discussion over how much agency young children, then teenagers, actually have, this doesn’t mean that kids should have the ability to do things like drive cars or take out mortgages. If you don’t feel like reading the piece I linked by indigenous professor and parent Andrea Landry, it can be summed up with this sentence:
Traditionally, families operated and thrived by maintaining respect for one another and the land, valuing equality over hierarchy and considering community members to be extended family.
There’s entire essays about how isolating the American family unit is that I can’t squish into here, and almost 20 years after my abuser’s death I’m still separating how much of the isolation I experienced was structural and how much was chalked up to my mother’s own acts of alienating herself and by extension, the rest of the family.
It’s not something you just get over once you move out of the family home, something that frequently isn’t happening at all now.
Whether you had a thriving local community or your family was pretty isolated, children are treated like possessions here. They’re not allowed to express any agency and there’s a very, very curious phenomenon over which children are supposed to “know better” and be expected to have the same worldliness as a 30-year-old woman, or get tried as an adult in court.
No One Wants to Acknowledge Abusers Walk Among Us
America is a microcosm that glamorizes abuse. Abusers are quickly forgiven and victims are blacklisted. For fuck’s sake, men are diaping it out on Twitter about “witch hunts” but so many of these famous men who ignore basic boundaries made comebacks in less time than it takes to get a pizza delivered.
But it’s a reflection of America, sadly. Our schools and workplaces are inherently abusive environments. Domestic violence gets constantly minimized as a “troubled relationships” and that cycle of victim-blaming continues. And damn right, does this ever extend to child abuse where that victim-blaming starts early and being treated like your parent’s possession only compounds this.
Acts of child abuse and the people who hurt children aren’t necessarily monolithic. Not all child abuse is sexual or has sexual elements, but there is one common thread that child abusers have with rapists: the reality of who around them is likely to be an abuser is too grim and unbelievable for most people to stomach, which is why discussion of child abuse gets suppressed.
A lot of men find it easier to imagine this hulking predator with prison tattoos and facial scars, all dressed in black with the same build as a WWE champion, lurking on a poorly-lit street waiting to abduct a woman walking alone. Yes, those types of predators exist, but they’re the exception and not the rule. Less than 20% of rapes are committed by a total stranger, and that’s only what we know from the cases that get reported.
The reality is that the victim usually knows their rapist, and a lot of men have not wanted to confront the truth that it’s seldom someone like the above predator archetype often seen in movies, games, and comic books, but someone who looks and talks just like him, his buddy, his co-worker, or his dad.
It’s the same when it comes to people who abuse children, not just Jerry Sandusky figures who take advantage of being venerated but specifically abusive parents: they’re not all visibly horrible people who showed up at a casting call for a video game villain. They’re often that nice couple at the PTA meeting or church. The stay-at-home mom who volunteered to make costumes for a school activity, the dad who complains about having to spend time with his kids at the office. It’s all quite banal and the worst often takes place behind closed doors.
Thus, it can be hard to tell with families in public and people often just mind their business if they see a child being yelled at or even smacked, because once again, they assume the child did something to warrant a punishment. Or you don’t know if that parent is just having a bad day or it’s always like this. You feel your heart stop seeing that haunted and forlorn look in a child’s eyes on the subway and you meet them in sympathy, remembering that look you tried to give numerous adults over two decades ago while wishing you could be somewhere else, someone else, and ponder if you should interfere. But you don’t because you know from experience that trying to contact someone outside your family, or the authorities, can often make the problem even worse: 4–5 kids in America die every day as a result of abuse and/or neglect, and that’s only based on cases already filed with Child Protective Services.
Every child abuse survivor manifests their pasts and present differently. Not all of us can speak up yet or are still taking time to even realize they’ve been abused.
But perhaps it’s time we started talking more frankly about child abuse, and centering survivors in a way that lets us tell our stories how they actually happened and how this fabric square stitches into this patchwork of brutality.