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Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach
Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach

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2 Violence in the home

2.1 Violence towards children

For many children, the place where they experience most violence is in the home. Since the American paediatrician Henry Kempe first publicized the ‘battered child syndrome’ in 1962, the extent and nature of child abuse in the home has increasingly been recognized, and become the subject of research, legislation and social care practice. Following on from Kempe's claims that some children were routinely beaten and ill treated within their own families, other issues such as sexual abuse and emotional abuse have also come to the fore. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) released a statement in 2002 which said:

Home Office figures show that the rate of child homicide in England and Wales has not dropped over the last 25 years. In each generation of children, more than a thousand will be killed before reaching adulthood. Most will die at the hands of violent or neglectful parents and carers.

(NSPCC, 2002)

The home is still the environment where children are most at risk, despite the widespread fears over ‘stranger danger’. In the UK, in 2001, 65 children under seven were killed by their parents or carers (NSPCC, 2002). Even if children themselves are not the direct victims of violence at home, they can witness domestic violence carried out by one parent on another.

Activity 2 Different forms of violence

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

Read through the list below. Which of these behaviours do you consider to show violence towards children? Why do you consider some of these to be forms of violence, and some not?

  1. Being hit with a cane

  2. Being shouted at

  3. Overhearing parents arguing

  4. Being told that you are stupid or ugly

  5. Being smacked

  6. Witnessing one parent hit another

  7. Being tied into a cot or high chair

  8. Being told ‘I hate you’ by a parent

  9. Being humiliated in front of friends


All the above might be considered different forms of violence against children. Although only hitting with a cane or being smacked involve the imposition of physical violence and pain, it is possible to argue that the others show some form of violence towards children. Humiliating a child or telling them ‘I hate you’ can be seen as a type of psychological violence that damages the well-being of a child. Whether or not these behaviours are seen as violence towards children further depends on cultural attitudes. For example, parents in Vietnam expressed shock and outrage to one researcher over ‘tying’ a child into a pushchair (Burr, 2000), a behaviour seen as so unremarkable in the UK as to be not worthy of comment. Indeed, the issue of restraint is a striking one because it may be seen as protecting children and ensuring their safety in the UK, yet considered inappropriate in Vietnam.

It may also depend on personal interpretation and your own experiences of being either a child or a parent. Furthermore, the intention needs to be taken into account. Many people argue that smacking is an acceptable form of discipline, seeing it as an effective form of training for good behaviour. Those who are opposed to smacking view it as a form of violence and unacceptable.

What constitutes violence towards children must therefore be seen in its cultural context – it must be acknowledged that practices and attitudes will differ markedly even within quite similar cultural contexts. There are some practices that are universally regarded as abusive and constituting violence towards children, such as sustained beating or shaking. However, there are other practices that are more contested. A clear example here is smacking, which remains widely practised in the UK, yet is looked upon with horror in Scandinavia where it is considered violent and abusive. In these countries, it is seen as an abuse of adult power against people who are smaller, weaker and more vulnerable. Similarly, what is considered violence towards children changes over time. In the 1970s in the UK, corporal punishment was widespread in British schools and viewed as a useful disciplinary tool for teachers. Now it is banned and if it occurred would be classified as assault.

While all societies have ideas about what constitutes unacceptable violence towards children, definitions of abuse vary across societies. For example, in certain Inuit societies of Canada, children are ‘toughened up’ from an early age by being made to plunge their hands repeatedly into icy water. Among some groups in Amazonia, boys are encouraged to show the bravery they will need to hunt later on by putting their hands in a wasp's nest and getting stung hundreds of times. From a Western perspective, these practices might seem cruel, or even violent, but amongst the people who practise them they are regarded as a necessary way of disciplining children and teaching them the skills they need to know later. Jill Korbin writes:

The parent who ‘protects’ his or her child from a painful, but culturally required, initiation rite would be denying the child a place as an adult in that culture. That parent, in the eyes of his cultural peers, would be abusive or neglectful for compromising the development of his child.

It is equally sobering to look at Western child-rearing techniques and practices through the eyes of these same non-Western cultures. Non-Western people often conclude that anthropologists, missionaries, or other Euro-Americans with whom they come into contact do not love their children or simply do not know how to care for them properly. Practices such as isolating infants and small children in rooms or beds of their own at night, making them wait for readily available food until a schedule dictates that they can satisfy their hunger, or allowing them to cry without immediately attending to their needs or desires would be at odds with the child-rearing philosophies of most … cultures.

(Korbin, 1981, p. 4)

In short, particular ways of treating children may be seen as violent in one cultural context, but as necessary restraint or even positive training in others. It is important to take account of these different cultural beliefs about violence, especially when making judgements about what counts as abusive. So far we have concentrated on violence towards children in the home. Next we turn to violent behaviour in children themselves. Of course, in practice the two are often connected, especially where a young child's misbehaviour provokes a violent reaction from a parent, initiating an escalating cycle of aggression (Patterson, de Baryshe and Ramsay, 1989).