Abuse is a very strong word. It brings to mind all kinds of terrible acts carried out upon the innocent. I now realize, I was abused as a child.
- Peas are a form of child abuse. I have been one of the many children who have had to sit at the table, long after the meal was finished looking at a small pile of cold peas. “You can go play as soon as your finish your peas.” Parents claimed all sorts of reasons for making us eat vegetables: “They are good for you”; “There are children starving someplace in the world.” It was really all about exerting their authority as was apparent when they eventually responded to tearful queries, “Because I said so!”
- Fluoride treatments. Talk about abuse! First, it took place on a series of Saturdays–the only day of fun in the week. We had to go to the school gym and sit in a cold metal chair while a lady clamped an complex and pinchy apparatus to our head and mouth. The purpose of this apparatus, besides the infliction of pinchy-discomfort, was to hold the mouth open and the cheeks away from the teeth. When she got around to it, the lady would then paint our teeth with a long cotton swab and we’d have to sit there forever to let the stuff dry. And then we got to go again the next Saturday to repeat the process. And again the next Saturday. Actually, I have no idea how many Saturdays I had to lose, but one Saturday was one too many. Stronger teeth and fewer cavities? Yeah right; we knew it was some sort of a conspiracy to deprive us of our only day of childhood freedom.
- The Saturday night bath is child abuse. Well, the actual bath wasn’t very traumatic, except the dreaded scrubbing behind the ears. The source of the dread of bath time, was the idea of having a bath instead of doing about a thousand other things I’d rather be doing. The real abuse came after the bath. Once one was dried and dressed in ones pajamas, one presented oneself for the combing of the hair. The combs back in those days were needle sharp. Mother took a mighty swing and embedded the tines into the scalp and then scraped them to the left, like a harrow on a hard field. This excoriation was repeat hair lay in perfect swaths, and then the abrading moved from the part to the right. By the time the combing was completed, the skin in the part of my hair was hot and I was sure I felt that blood must be seeping from the injury. All week, I dreaded the Saturday night bath. Kids these days like baths. They take them more than once a week. They ask if they can take a bath. They enjoy them and have no idea that you’d force them to take baths if they decided they didn’t want to. It’s much better for parents to come off as the nice guy.
- Church was child abuse. First, we had to have our hair combed again, reopening the injuries from the night before. The we had to put on clothes that would have tested the faithfulness of the most ardent medieval ascetic. We had to sit through the church service on hard pews that had been built to increase the discomfort of the woolen trousers. We had to sit through salutations, offerings, the dreaded congregational prayers, as well as prayers illumination, thanksgiving, blessing, and of confession. We had to endure the assurances of pardon, the articulations of the Law of God, the reading of the Psalms and the Gloria Patris. Then there was the confessions of faith, the recitations of the creeds, the Apostle’s but also, on occasion, the Nicene. And then came the sense of foreboding at the words, “Thus far the reading of God’s Word,” because we knew the sermon was about to start. It would last for long tortuous hours. And it you so did anything but sit like a post, you got an almighty pinch on the thigh by your mother. And if you cried out, your dad would take over into the lobby after a speedy exit into the narthex. “Train up a child in the way they should go,” is what they said. They had this idea that rituals and repetitions were essential for developing patterns that would stick with us for a lifetime. It’s so much better these days when kids get to leave after the singing to establish different patterns that aren’t so demanding on a child.
- Little league baseball. A lot of people reminisce fondly about their participation in youth sports. I am not one of these. I knew very well that I was supposed to play baseball and that I was supposed to enjoy it. I never enjoyed it. I was not an athlete. I wasn’t the worst guy on the field, but the idea of a ball being hit in my direction was a thing of nightmares. I prayed constantly as I stood out there in right field, “Please, don’t hit it to me. Please, don’t hit it to me.” If I wasn’t so paralyzed with fear, I bet I could have caught a lot more flyballs and fielded those gappers more effectively. If you liked little league baseball, your parents would put you in music lessons of some sort. Anything that would have no apparent short term benefits. We live in a far kinder world these days where we don’t make kids do anything that they don’t want to do. And the world is probably a better place for it. What good are sports, music, the arts or languages to those who were forced to stick with them?
- Swimming lessons were torture. I was forced to take swimming lessons at the YMCA. It had no slides or channels with currents or hot tubs or waves or anything fun. It was large, tiled rectangle. The water was very cold and heavily chlorinated. Your eyes burned when the lessons were done. The instructors were detached and impatient. I think I have heavy bones, because it always took a lot of energy to keep afloat, and one of the requirements of passing the swimming course was to tread water in the deep end for 3 hours or 10 minutes (I don’t remember exactly). They told us stories of kids who drowned in this or that lake and said that we wouldn’t live to adulthood unless we could swim 100 laps without touching the side. I had some issue with breathing while doing the front crawl–something to do with water in my lungs–it was so hard. I had more than one drowning scare during the lessons. I eventually learned how to swim, but I ask you, what was the point? Sure, I never drowned, but the chances of me drowning even without lessons were always very low. No point I say. Abuse.
- Walking from home from school. When I was in grade 1, I dreaded the bus. At school, at the end of the day, the bus was packed and all the kids were twice my size–grade 4 kids. I couldn’t get on; I couldn’t find a seat; I dreaded not being able to get off again at my stop because of the press of bodies. The fear was so great that I just walked home instead. It was a very long walk, but it was better than the trauma of getting on that bus. 7-year-olds walked great distances in those days. You’ve no doubt heard the stories from your parents and grandparents about the miles they walked in the snow. These stories are true. It builds character, they said. Helen Keller said of character that it “cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.” What did she know about suffering anyway?
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I remember when my son was about two years old. On one of his explorations of the back yard, he found a big, black, beautiful slug. He ran excitedly up to his mother with his handful of slug to show her this treasure. She instinctively reacted with horror. I’ll never forget the look on my son’s face–it was as if to say, “If this thing cause that much horror in an adult standing four feet away, how much more serious is it for the child holding it in hand!” He went from delight or horror based solely on the reaction of his mother.
The point is, that children easily accept the world as it comes to them. It is how the adults whom they trust behave that shapes their response to things like slugs and masks.