Child abuse prevention is a community responsibility. April is Child Abuse Prevention month.
Children need a Community
by: Rachel Galanter
April is Child Abuse Prevention month. Because of my profession, this is something I am keenly aware of. This past week, I was asked to give a talk to my synagogue, Beth El, about the weekly Torah portion. At first, I couldn’t see the connection between the scriptures1, which this week related the rules around eating (kashrut)2 and child abuse prevention–how are these ancient limits about what’s acceptable to eat related to this topic? As I read more from the commentators on this passage, I recognized there was a deep connection. Rules are necessary, particularly in a religion whose foundation is loving kindness, just as effective parenting is built out of structure provided in a context of nurturance.
Ancient scholars diverge about the reasons for rules about which food we should eat and which are forbidden. Moses Maimonides, a 12th Century Jewish philosopher, believed that the rules regarding kashrut were based in nutritional principles. He saw regulations about food as a path to keeping the body healthy so that it could be a sacred vessel for the soul inside it. Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman, a 13th Century biblical commentator disagreed, proposing that the rules regarding kashrut were intended primarily to help us Jews stay separate3 and to teach gentleness toward creation. By preventing us from eating just anything prepared in any way, we would come to appreciate the value of the foods on our table. And with so many rules about what we could eat that differed from our neighbors, the community had more difficulty assimilating and thus were more likely to maintain a unique identity.
The reason behind these rules that resonated with me was proposed by a more modern scholar. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky was the Dean of Adult Jewish Learning and Living at the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, where he worked in multiple roles for over a decade. He suggested in a talk that the entire book of Genesis was focused on relationships and that was being balanced in this section of the Bible, Leviticus, with a focus on rules. The need to balance relationship-based interactions with rules reminded me of the work of Dr. Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia. She wrote about the importance in a parent-child relationship of both nurturance and structure.
Children who were raised with nurturance and responsiveness grew up to feel loved and deserving. However, if there were no rules or expectations for them, this feeling grew into entitlement. She envisioned that these children were at risk of becoming law breakers and takers in relationships, because they didn’t value other people as much as they valued themselves.
Conversely, children who were raised with expectations, rules, and consequences, but less nuturance were able to function well with society’s expectations. They achieved in the workplace, but without nurturance or responsiveness to help them feel good about themselves, Dr. Pipher persuasively hypothesized they would grow up with anxiety and feelings of never being good enough that would manifest in stress, eating disorders, substance abuse, and/or other addictions.
Children with no meaningful attention—no nurturance and no structure–would be the least successful. These “feral” children, left to their own devices, would do whatever they could to meet their own immediate needs, but would lack both self-esteem and the ability to follow structure.
The children Dr. Pipher foresaw being the most successful were those who had strong positive relationships with their parents and had rules and structure. These children would develop self-esteem and a sense of deserving good things without a sense of entitlement. These children would also understand that the world did not revolve around them—they were accountable to other people.
Most of us have some rules around eating in our homes: you have to wash your hands before eating; you keep your feet under the table and your elbows off the table; put a napkin in your lap; put the forks on the left and the knife and spoon on the right; sit down together to eat an evening meal; eat some vegetables and protein, before you have something sweet; some foods just don’t go with ketchup, take it easy on the salt, et cetera.
Some of these rules are to help keep our bodies healthy, some are because this is the way our culture or our family does it; some are about building strong relationships; and some are just because. But having rules, regardless of the specific reason for the rule, benefits our children by building structure and moderating expectations.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Having parents who understand discipline and child development is one protective factor that lowers the risk of child abuse. The balance, being responsive and nurturing, yet having limits and defining consequences, is valuable.
However, this alone isn’t enough.
There are four additional protective factors that a civil society needs to provide to really make sure that families are not at risk of harming children when life becomes overwhelming.
The first additional protective factor is concrete support. When families struggle to make ends meet and don’t have anywhere to turn, that stress can overwhelm their ability to make thoughtful decisions. Making sure that when families need it, they can get food, help with a bill, or money to buy essentials like diapers is part of making sure their minds are able to focus on other things. Whether you give to the Diaper Bank, the food bank, or homeless shelters, you are helping make sure that families are stronger.
The second additional protective factor is social networks. We all have moments when we need a listening ear, someone to watch a child for a few minutes, suggestions about how to handle a situation from someone who has been there. When you reach out to the parents in your life, you are breaking down the isolation that can put their family at risk.
The third protective factor resides in the families’ children. When children have strong social-emotional skills, the whole family is protected. Parents, teachers, and other community members can help children learn how to identify and appropriately express feelings, solve problems, and cope with stressful situations. Some children build these skills more easily, and others need more guidance and instruction. When we create environments where children can develop these skills, we help protect their entire family.
The final protective factor is the parent’s resilience. Parents who understand how to come back from a crisis and try again are better able to meet their families’ needs. Having grown up with strong social emotional skills can be a source of resilience, but there are many ways to continue to develop resilience, even as an adult. For parents who are struggling, a parenting specialist or mental health provider might be able to support them in identifying next steps. Making sure these resources are available to parents of all means must be a priority. When only the affluent among us can seek counseling or talk to a mental health professional, we do a massive disservice to the next generation.
When we as a community make sure that parents have the ability to form strong relationships with their children that involve nurturance and rules, we are starting children on a path to success. But we also need to make sure that as a community we also provide concrete support, social connections, support for children’s social-emotional development, and ways to help people be resilient.
Together we can make sure that the next generation thrives now and as they grow.
Rachel Galanter is the Executive Director of the Exchange Family Center of Durham which makes children’s lives better by strengthening their families, teachers, and communities through proven counseling, coaching, and training.
She holds a BA in Psychology from Columbia University and a MPH in Public Health and Child Health from University of North Carolina.
In 2013, Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina presented Rachel with the prestigious Donna Stone Award, recognizing her significant contributions to supporting parents in their efforts to provide safe, stable, nurturing and healthy environments for their children, including her efforts to bring evidence-based family strengthening programs to agencies throughout the area.
Rachel joined the Exchange Family Center in 2000 as the Family Support Program Manager. She helped build that program, incorporating interns from the UNC School of Social Work, and developing sustainable funding for staff who have served over 700 families with in-home parent coaching. The program focuses on partnering with families to strengthen parent-child relationships and help caregivers develop their ability to successfully manage challenging behaviors.
2 More popularly referred to as keeping kosher.
3 Jews living in other countries needed concrete ways to maintain their identity as a minority in more homogeneous national societies.