Child abuse is not just about violence. It’s also about fear.

Deep Dark Fears is a pretty self-descriptive tumblr, where people’s deepest fears are confessed and then put to drawing. Many of these fears are deeply imaginative or evocative. Some, however, open a window into child abuse. We do not recognize it as child abuse because we do not see it as physically or psychologically “violent.” For the same general reasons, our societies do not recognize brainwashing as a form of abuse. If brainwashing, the extreme end of such abuse, is not recognized as abusive, then what hope do we have to point out such abuse in “normal” parent-child relationships?

The fear of Hell is one form of abuse commonly used in Christian families. Also, consider the following two fears from Deep Dark Fears:

It’s easy to dismiss these horrifying fears as “the result of overimaginative children.” But the fact is, it’s adults that put these ideas in children’s heads. The imagination is not the source of the fear, the lies of adults are. The reaction of the children is a natural reaction to the trust they have in their family members. Also note the reason for these lies, including the lie of Hell: the reason is to threaten children into correcting their behavior for the parent’s benefit, into pleasing the parent. This has nothing to do with improving children’s lives. Even if it was, the child’s terror would negate any such improvement.

I don’t know if all adults have experienced these fears as a child. I know I have, although to a lesser extent. It’s a terrifying thing. The terrifying thing is not merely the belief in the horror itself, but the belief that the horror is with you always, every minute of the day. I can’t even begin to imagine what children who believe in Hell go through. That in itself is a form of Hell, a concerted attack against a child’s sense of well-being, empathy, and freedom. No one deserves that.

What could justify inflicting terror on a child? Parents love to defend their right to parent any way they wish. To make such an argument is to consider a child to be an object, a piece of property, to be treated as one wishes, not a human being with their own needs and values. There can be no such thing as the right to terrorize a child.

The parents who inflict these fears on their children probably believe that it’s no big deal. Such people can’t possibly have any sort of kindness or sympathy towards themselves as children, otherwise they would recognize themselves in their children. The disconnection between our adult selves and our child selves is necessary for childism because, unlike other prejudices, we were all once children. This disconnection usually takes place through one’s parents. If your parents rejected your humanity when you were a child, and you still identify with your parents, then you will reject the humanity of your past self as a child.

All children are under tremendous psychological pressure to identify with their parents, and for most adults refusing to continue to do so is extremely difficult. When you ask most adults what they think about their parents, they will tell you that their parents could do no wrong, except for children who were severely abused or who are particularly freethinking in their mental attitudes. Some may say that their parents did some wrong, but nothing really important (“I still came out okay,” as if being raised was supposed to be the equivalent of World War 2 and you’re lucky to get out with all your limbs). A few may say their parents were monsters (and no doubt some parents are).

Likewise, many adults say spanking is no big deal and that they “came out okay.” Well, if they believe that inflicting violence on children should be supported, then they clearly did not “come out okay.” They are severely damaged human beings. So are people who support terrorizing children for training purposes (or for any other purpose).

As far as I know, there is no adult equivalent. The closest case I can think of is extreme cult brainwashing, but even in these cases, the terror is pretty diffuse and alleviated by the presence of other people (other believers) to share the burden with. Partially the lack of equivalent is because adults are somewhat more sophisticated and don’t believe that worms could live in their nasal cavity or grow out of urine (although, to be fair, spontaneous generation used to be taken seriously). Adults tend to fall to delusions more easily when the delusion posits that they’re special or superior, and those terrors are not about making the person seem more special or superior. The main terror that adults still have is the belief in Hell, but that’s because it’s tied to a religious worldview that makes them feel special.

Terror as punishment is based on exploiting children’s imagination. There is also the opposite error, which is far, far less damaging to a child, but is still wrong: not letting children use their imagination at all, refusing to allow children the freedom to make-believe. So you get parents who refuse to let their children play make-believe about Santa Claus, for instance. Sure, one should never lie to children, but children are capable of understanding the difference between make-believe and lies, if you tell them.

Another example with graver consequences is the belief that a child which states that it’s of a certain gender must be of that gender. Again, there is no freedom given for the child to play make-believe. Instead, we indoctrinate it into its “real gender” without regard for the consequences. No word on whether children who play pretend at being a horse or a dragon should be transitioned as well.

The core of the issue, I think, is that people have a lot of trouble dealing with myths or make-believe of any kind, and they reckon that any instance of it that they don’t classify as “play” (within their narrow classification of “play”) must either be true or false. That’s a whole other subject, though.

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