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How Do We Protect the Children?


photo credit: Isaí Moreno via photopin cc

To my astonishment, and delight, the post Dear Parents With Young Children in Church  is still receiving comments. This week we received two comments that really challenged me. It started with this one

“After attending the traditional service, I was leaving the church through the back door. Hearing a commotion, I checked it out. A mother was standing over her child looking down at him. I asked if I could assist her. She informed me that her son (at most 3-years old) was misbehaving in church, so she brought him outside. I noticed that his pants were down and when I coaxed her into picking him up, as she was pulling the pants up, I saw the bright red backs of his legs. In our conversation, the mother mentioned that her son didn’t like to go to church. I can understand why and I wept for the boy. Whenever I saw them again, I went up to them and chatted with the mother and exchanged greetings with the son.”

There are no words adequate enough to express the sadness I felt for this little boy and his mother. A young child’s understanding of God’s love and forgiveness comes largely from their experiences at church. I cannot even begin to imagine what kind of image is being formed in this little ones’ mind. But the comment also caused me to wrestle with some difficult questions

  • At what point does discipline cross the line and become abuse?
  • At what point should we as a church community step in to protect a child?
  • When is it right to intervene as a parent disciplines their child?

While I was struggling with these, and other questions, another comment was posted

“So what are ways we as church/witnesses can protect the child(ren) from abusive behaviour without also alienating mum? Linda’s work on building a relationship with the family seems like a good start but it also sends a terrible message if child learns by silence or non-intervention that church (still) tolerates beating people in God’s name.”

Note: I have only posted excerpts from these two comments, if you want to read the full comments please go to the article.

These are really good questions and there are no easy answers. I intend to open this conversation up for discussion, but first I would like to share some of  thoughts I’ve had about this issue.

Scripture calls us unequivocally to protect those who have no voice. Obviously this includes young children. If we stand by in silence then we are sending the message that it is acceptable to hit a child. I don’t believe it is.

Having said that I think we need to be very careful that we intervene from a place of compassion and not judgment. We do not know what burdens or pain that young mom is carrying. We don’t know what she is dealing with. Parenting can be really exhausting at times and I know that there were days when I did and said things to my children that I regret. It happens to the best of us. It could be that she was having the day from hell. It could be that she is at the end of her rope. It could be that she doesn’t know any other way of dealing with her child’s behavior.

When we speak out we need to be very careful of the language we use. Jesus didn’t hesitate to speak up, but he never shamed.

It isn’t enough just to speak up. As communities we need to be working hard at supporting young families.

  • Are we offering supportive fellowship groups for parents and young children?
  • Do we offer informal parenting classes?
  • Can we point young parents to community resources as they tackle the difficult job of parenting?
  • Do we know what our community has to offer in the way of resources? If not, why not?

I also think we need to acknowledge that sometimes no matter how carefully and sensitively we approach a parent on this matter chances are they may feel alienated and judged. Noted researcher Brené Brown has studied shame for many years. She reports

“Without exception, all of the participants’ shame experiences fit in one of these categories: identity, appearance, sexuality, family, motherhood, parenting, health (mental and physical), aging, religion and a woman’s ability to stand up and speak out for herself. These are the categories in which women struggle the most with feelings of shame.”

Notice that family, parenting, and motherhood are right up there with things like appearance. It can be really difficult to question a mother’s parenting approach, especially if you touch on a place where she is struggling with shame. Her first response may be anger and harsh words. If we can react to anger with grace and not respond in kind, we will leave the door open for further conversation.

Finally if you do intervene or speak out in a situation such as this, please, please speak to your priest about what happened. These kinds of situations have a tendency to blow up and your priest needs to know what happened. They may also want to follow up with the parent.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on this matter. What would you do if you witnessed an incident like this? What is an appropriate response?  Parish priests what do you think? What would you want people in your congregation to do if they witnessed a child being disciplined in this manner? Please join in the conversation.

Sharon Harding

About Sharon Harding

I was born in England and immigrated to Canada almost 30 years ago. A graduate of Gloucestershire University (B.Ed.), I have been involved in children’s ministry since I was 16. Over the past 12 years I have written for a variety of Christian Education curriculum resources. I also write a blog at encouraging parents to build strong connections with their children. When I am not working I enjoy painting, reading, and pottering around the Internet.
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