Faith in the Young

Stephen Collier sees more to child "abuse" than meets the eye

In the current Postmodernist debate much has been said about the breakdown of traditional family and community relationships and the rise of the cult of individualism

Society seems to have become polarised between the individual citizen at the one extreme and the State at the other, with little to fill the void in-between. Individuals now look to the law for protection and redress rather than seek solutions nearer to home in more communal and informal structures.

This is no more clearly seen than in our relationship to our children and young people, and with the publication of the report Youth A Part, this is perhaps a good time to examine what has gone wrong and where we go from here.

In many ways the recognition of children as individuals with individual rights, as enshrined in the Children Act (1989) has been a positive step. We have become more aware of the extent of child-abuse in our homes, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, and, rightly, laws have been passed to increase child protection and encourage public vigilance. But at what cost have these reforms been achieved and how far have they led to an improvement in the emotional and spiritual health of our children?

In many ways both children and adults have suffered from these recent changes and a wedge has been driven between the generations. As our young people become increasingly aware of their legal rights this does not necessarily make them feel safer. A sense of security in children depends not on the law but by knowing that they are loved and that their parents and the adults in their lives are more or less in control and not on the defensive. they need to experience an authority based on strong relationships rather than external rules. but today, more than ever the roles of children and adults are being reversed to the detriment of both. Adults are becoming increasingly afraid of their children who know their legal powers, parental authority is undermined, and our teachers and youth leaders are confused and losing their natural confidence in their relationships with the young people in their charge. those working with children are no longer in loco parentis but no one has yet come up with a suitable alternative role.

And this disease has affected every corner of society in the name of "professionalism". Our social workers increasingly act as a police service rather than as carers and unfortunately the Church has jumped on the bandwagon without any serious analysis of what is happening. If we look at many of our church's guidelines for "Good Practice" in work with children and young people we find headings like "Child Abuse", "Home Assessment", "Safety in Worship" and "Supervision and Ratios", but nothing at all about relationships or trust. We accept without question dangerous guidelines like "Arrange that as far as possible an adult is not left alone with a child or young person where there is little or no opportunity of the activity being observed by others". On no account is an adult male to be left alone with a girl!

What message are we giving to our children when we refuse to be alone with them in the same room or the same car? We are saying "I'm sorry but I don't trust you, I'm afraid of you, and if it's your word against mine I'm afraid that they might believe you"

This kind of policy is nothing less than a subtle and insidious form of child abuse which the church has no business going along with. And what is more it produces a body of teachers and youth leaders obsessed with the law, suspicion, and "safety first" which prevents them fully giving of themselves and freely relating to the their young people, and furthermore discourages potential youth leaders from offering their services to this valuable and necessary work.

In seeking to protect our children we are separating them from our common humanity and in doing so, we are ourselves abusing them. What may appear to be a policy of caring may well be acting against our children's real interests. To give one more example of a current attitude which is potentially damaging: Why do all good parents seem to support the policy of a "9 o'clock watershed" on television on the assumption that their children must be protected from the harmful influences of "adult" material? Again, what message is this giving to the child beside that of adult hypocrisy? How can I say to my child "I can watch this but you can't", or "this will harm you but it won't harm me"? surely we will just be encouraging our children to associate adulthood with pornography and secrecy, which will only increase the attraction of such material. if a programme will harm my child it will harm me. if it will damage children then I will not want to watch it either. Surely television is to be watched together as a family. Who has the right to come between family members?

It is time that we stop abusing our children in the name of protection. It is time to trust our children as members of the same human race. it is time that the Church refused to embrace the "professional" values of the world and to assert again the values of family and community life and authority, and the relationship between the generations based on mutual care and respect rather than the law. Our young people are truly "A Part" of our society. We must not drive them "Apart" as we seek to protect them. Where society seeks to divide, the Church must unite.

Stephen Collier is Assistant Curate at Thorpe St Andrew in Norwich diocese

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