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Child abuse messages: They provoke and disturb - but don't work

Published on: August 01, 2004

Most of us have
seen the image: the fearful, battered child and the accompanying stern
message about the need to report child abuse. And if we haven't seen
the ads, we've heard about the issue from the media with its lurid
accounts of criminal atrocities, sexual predators and governmental

You'd think somebody would
be doing something about a problem that is this big and visible. But
while child abuse and neglect kills nearly 1,500 children annually and
harms untold others, somehow prevention of this problem has never
become a public policy priority.

The problem, new research says, is not lack of awareness, but too much
awareness - of the wrong kind. All the publicity has obscured the most
important message about child abuse-that it is preventable.
Studies by the national organization Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA)
have uncovered some important information that helps cast light on the

The study says that the term "child abuse" brings to mind extreme harm
- criminal, pathological behavior that is not preventable. And the far
more prevalent problem of neglect is largely invisible. When neglect is
considered, it too is perceived as confined to only the most troubled
families, rather than as a pervasive challenge for all.

Other points in the study:
people struggle with where to draw the line between "discipline" and
"abuse." An example: spanking isn't a preferred disciplinary option but
few are comfortable saying it shouldn't be done.

are concerned about the nation's children, viewing them as
"irresponsible and unlikely to make the country a better place in the
future." The blame, they say, is with parents. (Presumably, other
parents. Most people also think their own parenting is adequate.)

public is largely misinformed about child development. Many define a
variety of developmentally appropriate actions as "spoiling." Shifting
the issue to a conversation about parenting doesn't really solve the
problem. Most see parental "leniency" as being as big a concern as

advocates, some legislators and many parents here in the Washington
have clearly gotten the message that has been made plain by brain
researchers' findings: Families are a child's first teacher. Especially
critical years for parents are those when they transition to parenthood
and during a child's early years. It only makes good sense and good
public policy to offer tools that can strengthen those families.
But perhaps there is a reason these public policies are not moving
forward the way we'd like: because they are out of synch with the
misperceptions and confusion that prevail in the general public.
Fortunately, other PCAA findings point the way out of this dilemma. For example:
While parenting tops the list of priorities for adults, only about one in three say they felt prepared for parenthood.

problem of abuse and neglect - misunderstood though it may be - ranks
as "the number one public health problem facing this country," even
when compared to drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease, cancer and

begin to open when the issue is reframed as being about "education and
child development." For example, ambivalence about spanking dissipates
when it is characterized as an ineffective means of accomplishing the
goal of discipline, i.e., to teach self control.

the issue of parenting education is framed as necessary because parents
need training to be good teachers for their children, the biases
related to helping "those (other) bad parents" largely goes away.
the public readily accepts that parenting is a tough job that does not
come naturally, there seems to be a ready audience for messages that
build support for programs to educate parents and help connect families
to communities.

short, the research underlines what many in the field have been saying
for a long time. It's not about "good" and "bad' parents" - it's about
ALL of us needing help to be the best parents we can be. When ALL
families are offered resources and supports to help them meet their
parenting challenges (and who doesn't have them?), the stigma that is
sometimes attached to taking a parenting class falls away. When we see
ALL families as fundamentally wanting the best for their children,
we'll find strengths there to build on, and successes to celebrate that
deepen with every succeeding generation.

In time, the specter of abuse--the predatory bogeymen hiding behind
every corner--will give way to the formal and informal support needed
to ensure that all families are empowered to help their children.
That's TRUE child abuse and neglect prevention.
Joan Sharp
is the Executive Director of the Washington Council for Prevention of
Child Abuse & Neglect, an office of the governor dedicated to
reducing child abuse and neglect in Washington. To comment on this
story, contact

For more information
research referenced is from "Reframing Child Abuse & Neglect for
Increased Understanding & Engagement" © 2003 Prevent Child Abuse
America. For an executive summary of the article, go to
The Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect (WCPCAN) Web site ( has resource information.

"From Neurons to King County Neighborhoods: The Science and Polices of Early Childhood Development" (
portrays a comprehensive picture of what families need to be successful
in their most important job as their child's first teacher.
Parent Trust for Washington Children ( offers statewide support for parents and families via their toll-free Family Help Line, 800-932-HOPE (4673).

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