Snakes and Scorpions

What do you do if you see a child being abused? What do you do if you are the abuser? Some parents think that just because they aren’t hitting their children, they are not abusing them. Child abuse takes many forms. You don’t have to hit to hurt.

From the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 11 we hear these lines. 11“Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he?12“Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he?” There are plenty of parents who do give snakes and scorpions. They take the form of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. They take the form of neglect for physical, mental, and emotional needs.

So many people don’t know where to go for help. So many people don’t know how to ask for help. There is a lot of shame in our society with asking for help. You may feel like you should be able to do it on your own. You may feel like you are admitting weakness. You feel stupid. You feel helpless.

But what is the saying – there are no stupid questions. It is stupid to not ask for help. It is stupid to try again and again on your own and fail and not seek help. There are other people who know what to do. Maybe you don’t get the right one on the first try. Maybe it takes a lot of work to find the right person or agency who can help. Maybe it isn’t exactly what you need but it is something. It is a start. Just the fact that you are asking for help is good.

I have seen more than my fair share of parents who are not very good with their children. There is nothing about having a child that makes you a competent parent. No magic happens that transforms your terrible upbringing into perfect parenting skills. Sometimes all the child gets is a warm place to stay and some food and clothes. But that isn’t enough. Children aren’t pets. They need a lot of time and attention and patience.

There is a lot of pressure to have children, and often that pressure is not helpful. Raising children is a very important job and shouldn’t be taken on because of peer pressure. People asked me all the time when I got married when I was going to have children as if my personal business was suddenly of public importance. I said that I wasn’t going to have children. They invariably answered that my opinion would change when I had one. Hmmm. What if it doesn’t ? What if I have a child and I still don’t want a child? What then? Would I become just like the people I see every day who are absolutely miserable being parents? I don’t just mean miserable at being parents. I mean the fact that they are parents makes them miserable.

It isn’t a joyful thing for everyone. It is very hard work. Something I like to say when people really push me on the subject is that I want to have a dog. But I know that I don’t have the time, money, or patience to have one. I know how much effort is required to raise a good dog. If I know I am not mature enough to have a dog, I certainly shouldn’t have a child. When people hear this line of reasoning they usually back off and agree with me about my decision. This conversation happens a lot, often with total strangers. I find it weird.

Perhaps this social pressure is harder than some people can bear. They decide to have a child even though they really haven’t thought it through. They have a child, and it turns out that they aren’t very good at being a parent. They growl at their child. Every statement to the child carries the feeling of “I hate you. You are a waste of my time. You embarrass me.” The parent may not say these words, but it isn’t the words that carry the feeling. It is the tone. Sometimes they do say the words. Sometimes every statement to the child is a yell. Sometimes the only time they talk to their child is to tell them what they are doing wrong. There is no patience, no encouragement, no building up. No wonder their children act out. They have learned that the only way they get attention is by being bad. Any attention, even negative attention, is better than nothing.

Sometimes the parents don’t say anything at all. Neglect is also abuse. There was a father I saw who was spending all his time texting when he should have been tending his daughter. He was sitting next to her while she was coloring but he might as well have been in another country. She was trying to draw a card for her mom and needed some help. She repeatedly asked her dad how to spell a word. I was nearby and waited to see what his reaction was. Four times she asked how to spell a word. Four times she was ignored. I became very frustrated that he was choosing to text someone rather than help his daughter. I spoke to the daughter – “I’m so sorry that your father has chosen to spend his time on his cell phone rather than help you. I’m so sorry that he cannot see you as the precious gift from God that you are.” Both father and daughter were initially shocked. The dad thought that I was chiding her for talking loudly. They came to understand that I wasn’t upset with her at all. I’m upset with him for failing to parent. He immediately put down his phone and helped her.

I have heard a mom call her young son “Little shit.” It was under her breath, but loud enough for me to hear it. I have a strong suspicion that this attitude is normal from her. I think some parents are simply unaware of the capacity of a child. A child at 4 cannot be expected to behave like a person of 30. They have limits. They can only handle so much. They don’t come out perfectly formed. That is the job of the parent – to raise them. To yell at a child for behaving as a child is a sign that the parent needs help.