Friday, February 15, 2013

Spiritual Abuse



[v. uh-byoozn. uh-byoos] verb, a·bused, a·bus·ing, noun
verb (used with object)
to use wrongly or improperly; misuse: to abuse one's authority.
to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way: to abuse a horse; to abuse one's eyesight.
to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign.
to commit sexual assault upon.
Obsolete to deceive or mislead.

Virtually everyone, if asked, would assert he is against abuse of any kind. The problem comes 
when we define abuse differently. For instance, I believe spanking is physical abuse. There are 
many others who disagree with that blanket statement and wish to add caveats to it: spanking is 
an acceptable form of punishment unless taken too far they say. Unfortunately, what may be quite
obviously "too far" for one child is not so obvious for another.

I believe repeated teasing and mocking of children is emotional abuse. There are those who 
disagree, who insist their child knows teasing is done in fun and their child actually likes it. 
Frankly, there are people in this world who are so damaged by that type of thing in their childhoods, 
that they do not feel truly loved unless their sexual partner mocks and ridicules them. If there is 
even a remote possibility my actions or words to my children could lead to that type of dysfunction, believe me, I will do everything I can to avoid setting my child up for that type of dynamic.

I believe many well-meaning religious institutions (churches, universities, mission boards) practice spiritual abuse. I daresay most of the perpetrators of spiritual abuse do not actually intend to wound others, although there are certainly exceptions where individuals do willfully and knowingly use their spiritual authority to control others. Spiritual abuse is defined as "the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment." A broader definition would be "a kind of abuse which...leaves us spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God." 

For churches to function properly, they need to know those to whom they claim to minister. Christians and churches can give trite "Biblical" answers to people, but often, they do not wait for a question. Jesus is the spiritual answer to dealing with the consequences of sin, yes, but "Jesus" is not always the correct answer for day-to-day problems.

For instance, I have a friend with serious health problems. In addition, she has two young children, a husband who is out of work, and a mortgage to pay. Groceries and medications are the main areas where their money goes, but she also needs gas to get to her own job, and her husband is continuing his education in an attempt to get work. Placating this family with the phrase "Jesus will take care of you." is not the answer they need right now. That answer is damaging to their souls, and causes them to wonder, "Why isn't Jesus taking care of us? What have we done wrong? Are we being punished for past sins?"

The true answer to their needs would be to act as the hands and feet of Jesus: dropping off food, offering childcare, being on the lookout for job opportunities. 

Another example is my acquaintance who is a single mom to a young, school-aged boy. She has to do the work of two parents. When she tried to join an evening ladies' Bible study, she was asked not to bring her son (even though he was quietly doing homework), because it was supposed to be a time for the moms to "relax and focus on God." 

Those women, because they could not see past their own preconceived notions of what Bible study is, hurt and alienated a woman who desperately needed support and fellowship from other Christians.

In my own experience with at least four different churches, I have been accused of not parenting "biblically" (because I do not spank), accused of not allowing the Holy Spirit to produce the fruit of self control in my life (if I do spank strike a child, something snaps as a result of my own abuse, and I have extreme difficulty stopping myself), accused of being selfish and not taking others' needs into account (for bringing my newborn with me to a MOPS meeting instead of leaving her in the nursery with strangers), accused of making my newborn selfish (by taking her out when she cried in church),  and finally, accused of not supporting my pastor-husband by not sitting in the services and hearing him preach (I took our then four small children out to read them a Bible story book).

In churches, Christian school, and Christian college, I was told that a man's morality is dependent on how much skin I covered. (By implication, the message is all men are rapists at heart, which is both demoralizing and infuriating for normal men.) I was told that the happiness of my marriage was dependent on how much and how well I submitted. I was told that because Eve sinned by eating the fruit, and because she caused Adam to sin, women could not be trusted on spiritual matters. 

Brothers and sisters, fellow believers, that is spiritual abuse.

It is spiritual abuse to say "Be warmed and filled," and not provide the means of warmth and food if you have it. If you do not personally have the means to provide for those asking for your help, you likely know to whom or to where to direct those in need.

It is spiritual abuse to treat those is need as if their souls are somehow separate from their bodies - and vice versa.

It is spiritual abuse to place the burden of your interpretation of God's law on others.

It is spiritual abuse to shrug your shoulders or turn away when confronted with a problem in your religious institution you can help  correct.

The solution to this is simple: 

Jesus said, "'You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments." Matt. 22:37-40

Monday, February 11, 2013

To Tell the Truth

Honesty v. Dishonesty
Truth v. Lies

We all strive to model and teach honesty to our children. And while most of us consider ourselves basically truthful, it is very easy to let the "little white lies" infiltrate our interactions with our kids. Using "Because I said so," instead of admitting we don't have a good reason not to allow a particular activity; telling little ones there is no more (candy, cheese, whatever) instead of using the moment to explain why we limit certain things; trying to convince youngsters that a favorite place (Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald's, the library) is closed, instead of explaining why visiting certain places isn't an everyday occurrence.

On the other hand, I've seen parents go absolutely ballistic if their potty-training two-year-old says, "I didn't peeeeeeee!" while simultaneously sporting a large wet spot on their pants.

In my mind there's a huge difference. And it's not that the parents' behavior is acceptable and the toddler is being deliberately deceptive. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In cognitive development, children go through various views of reality. This is not the world as we adults know it. It is the world through the child's perception. It is the child's reality.

For instance, infants know only their own comfort and discomfort, but they lack the ability to soothe and care for themselves. Infants cry not because they are sinful or manipulative (yes, that was the viewpoint I was taught and even believed in my early years as a parent), but because they are communicating their needs the only way they can.

Once language is introduced, toddlers are fascinated with their communication skills. They believe "words are magic" and can make things happen. This is one reason toddlers have meltdowns when they can't communicate well. Not only are they frustrated they aren't understood, they are also frustrated that the "magic" isn't working!

This "words are magic" stage lasts until almost age five, at which point the child has assimilated enough information to understand that s/he can't change everything by speaking it into or out of existence. Age five marks the beginning of logic and a grasp of cause and effect, which, coincidentally, is also the age most children start school in this country.

So, when a two-year-old insists, "I didn't pee!" it is because s/he believes saying it makes it true.

When an adult says, "McDonald's is closed." (when, in fact, it isn't), the adult is deliberately trying to deceive a child.

The child is being dishonest, but s/he isn't being untruthful. The child knows s/he wet his/her pants, but the child also believes that saying otherwise changes what happened.

The adult is being dishonest, and s/he is lying. The adult knows McDonald's is open, and s/he is also attempting to convince the child of something that is untrue.

Parents often find "white lies" (lies of convenience, in my opinion) acceptable, but rarely take into account their children's cognitive development before condemning the child as a liar, liar with pants on fire.

With my littles, I've found asking, "Is this true, or pretend? Is this true and what really happened, or do you want it to be true?" helpful. I also don't freak out (anymore) if my three year old insists he didn't draw on the wall with marker while sporting marks on his hand (and face, and shirt) and is still holding a marker that matches the color on the walls. I simply point out the evidence contrary to his assertion and tell him that even if he wishes he hadn't drawn on the wall, Mommy knows what he did. And when we make messes, we clean them up. I then hand him appropriate cleaning supplies and supervise his clean up, assisting if necessary. (I also confiscate the markers! If we can't keep the markers on paper, we don't have the markers for a while.)

There is no shaming and accusing. I do express dismay at the mess and gratitude toward being responsible and cleaning up, but I don't harangue or get angry that my child had the audacity to deliberately destroy property and then tell me a bald-faced lie. That's not what happened.

My child made an impulsive choice (because he's three and lacks impulse control). He doesn't understand cause and effect, so he has no concept of the potential damage markers can cause to antique wood finishes or wallpaper. He believes words are magic and that by saying he didn't draw, the marks will magically disappear. That is his reality. That is truth as he knows it.

My job, then, is to teach him about reality. Shaming isn't teaching. Punishment isn't teaching. Modeling and explaining are teaching. Enforcing rules (you make a mess, you clean it up) is teaching. What's more, I am being truthful in my teaching by not over-reacting in order to "scare" him into making better decisions "next time."

I am also being truthful by not saying, "Oh, that's ok, sweetie. Just don't do it again." It's not ok, but it's not a travesty worthy of a mommy-meltdown, either.

In closing, we as parents need to be careful to consistently model both honesty and truthfulness. We also must take care to remember things from a child's perspective are very different from our adult perspectives. A child's truth (or reality) is much different than what we adults know as truth (or reality). It's much easier to graciously correct your child's behavior once you're aware their choices are based on an alternate reality.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

When Help Isn't Helpful

I'm a helper. I prefer the term advocate, but regardless the label, I truly enjoy the feeling of helping others.

Sometimes to the point of helping because it satisfies a need in me.

Yeah. Selfishness masquerading as helpfulness. It's not pretty. In fact, it's manipulative and damaging.

This particular selfishness tells others, "You're not good enough...without me. Your failures reflect badly...on me."

Intent is important. Sometimes I jump in and help my children for the right reasons: so they learn how life works, so they learn how to accept assistance from others, so they learn the feeling of successful cooperation.

But sometimes, help looks like letting a 16 month old descend a flight of stairs by herself. She can do it, and she knows it. I supervise for safety's sake, but she needs to learn that just because a task is daunting, it shouldn't be ignored. Constantly carrying her up and down teaches her to rely on others to do the hard stuff.

Sometimes, help looks like insisting my 9 year old sort, fold, and put away an entire load of laundry by himself. He can do it, despite his protests to the contrary. And he needs to learn that everyone in a household contributes to getting the needed tasks done. Just because a task is boring doesn't mean it isn't important. Doing the task myself may save time, but it teaches him that procrastination will eventually let you off the hook.

Sometimes, help looks like standing over my 3 year old and supervising the clean up of an accidental spill. He needs to learn that a responsible individual takes care of his own messes and doesn't rely on others to fix his problems. If I wiped the spill, he would learn that the consequences of his actions do not affect him directly.

Sometimes, help looks like saying, "Thank you." to my 10 year old after she has unloaded the dishwasher, instead of telling her she put pots and pans in the wrong places. She is assisting in the running of our household, and criticizing her efforts immediately after she has performed the task will take the wind out of her sails and ensure reluctance the next time her help is needed. If I corrected her right then, I would be teaching her that only perfection is acceptable.

So if you see me standing back and watching my children instead of rushing to correct or assist, please do not assume I am doing nothing. Do not assume I don't see how they are struggling, and please, please do not assume I am being negligent.

I am teaching. I am helping. And it is oh, so hard for me to allow them to try and fail. But it is how we all learn, and I am helping them see that failure is actually a positive thing. I am helping them learn that failure is not something to be feared, but acknowledged and learned from.

Because constant success isn't reality. And helping isn't always helpful in the long run.