Why a Different Risk Call Is Not Child Abuse

We shouldn’t judge parents too harshly for their decisions around risks to children. An activity that one parent might consider too risky for a child another might consider safe by another.

Stopping an activity could be considered over-protective by some but allowing it could be considered reckless by others. Humans are terrible judges of risk. We are all awful at it, and it’s not our fault, our brains are hardwired to struggle with risk.

The Pine Needle Example

Our risk thresholds are all different. For example, there is a pine tree in our neighborhood that kids love to play under. One mother won’t allow her daughter to touch the needles out of fear that she’ll prick herself and will then be afraid of the tree.

I’m OK with my son touching the needles on the tree. I’ve judged the risk that he will injure himself and the associated trauma as low, and the other mother has judged the risk of injury and trauma as high.

Neither of us are right and neither of us are wrong.  Neither of us are bad parents. Neither of us love our children any less than the other. We’ve each simply made an assessment of risk and our threshold is different.

When I told a friend about the pine needles her response was, “that’s child abuse. She’s not letting her have a full childhood, she’s teaching her kid to live in fear of nothing.” The other mother may have been what others consider to be over protective, but it was far from child abuse.

Parents Encounter Many Risk Decisions

Something I became acutely aware of when I was pregnant with my first child were that some parents labeled decisions or risks they wouldn’t take with their own children as “child abuse” when those risks were in fact anything but. We need to stop doing this. It is harsh and damaging to other parents and disrespectful to those of us who have survived actual child abuse.

Formula feeding is not child abuse. Crib bumpers are not child abuse. Co-sleeping is not child abuse. Giving your little one a chicken nugget is not child abuse. Crying it out is not child abuse. Returning to work after having children is not child abuse.

Let me be clear, if you suspect a child is being abused by a caregiver, you have a moral and legal obligation to contact the proper authorities in order to protect that child. When you recognize something as being child abuse and then do nothing substantive to intervene to help that child you are morally (and sometimes legally) culpable.

If your response to being told to alert the authorities to what you believe is child abuse is, “they won’t do anything, they don’t care about this kind of stuff,” then chances are that what you’re witnessing is not child abuse. Rather, it is a practice that you disagree with.

Contentious Child Custody Decisions

Contested child custody matters can often be difficult. A child custody plan may not be agreed by parents until after months or years, if ever.

Risk and the best interests of the child are central issues in mediation and court orders. Abuse allegations are rife, in part because of the strategic advantage they can give one parent over the other.

Generally speaking, the parties involved are not trying to inflict any kind of child abuse, though it can certainly happen because of separation conflict. Parental alienation has potentially devastating consequences for a child’s relationships and future. The same goes for false allegations of abuse, which often accompany the use of alienation tactics.

But most parents probably contest custody because they feel the child will thrive under their care. Judges also try to devise a good custody schedule and parenting plan for that child. Abuse allegations should only be made when they are warranted. They should also be set aside where the only problem is actually a difference of opinion over which custody schedule is best.

We All Have Personal Choices to make

There are many things that I would not, and have not done with my kids that other parents would do with theirs. There are many things I have done with my kids that other parents would not do with theirs. That does not make one of us the better parent and one of us the worse. Just like the neighborhood pine tree, we’re simply individuals who judged risks differently.

Sharing a bed with your infant to sleep is not something I’ve done with my kids and it’s not something I would recommend anyone else do, as it is associated with an increased risk of SIDS. Some parents have judged the risk of SIDS low enough to justify the practice. I don’t think you’re a bad parent, I don’t think you don’t love your child, and I don’t think you’re abusing your child. I think you’ve (hopefully) looked at the data, personally judged the benefits to outweigh the risks, and chosen to co-sleep.

My threshold for risk is lower than that, and for me, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks. Even though it’s a decision I wouldn’t make and a practice I would never recommend, I don’t believe you are abusing your child.

A friend posted a photo on Facebook of her eight-month-old covered in chocolate from eating an Oreo. The photo was adorably adorable, but it didn’t take long for one of her friends to comment that giving her daughter an Oreo was child abuse, following it up by rattling off the list of ingredients in Oreos to which she objected.

What Child Abuse Actually Is

To be clear child abuse and neglect are criminal acts. The definition of what constitutes child abuse and neglect can vary from state-to-state and province-to-province, but usually they encompass issues related to physical or emotional harm, and neglect or abandonment.

Forms of child abuse are serious acts that impair a child’s physical and emotional safety, their right to live without fear and thrive as they grow. Oreos and formula feeding do not fall into those categories.

Physical, emotional and sexual abuse are traumatic events for both children and adults. For children in particular, experiencing this type of trauma can lead to life-long psychological and physical consequences. This type of trauma can impact a person well into adulthood.

Let’s be Careful With What We Say

Language matters. When you say that something you disagree with is child abuse, think about what you are actually saying: you are saying that the child is suffering physical or emotional harm from the parent’s actions.

You’re also saying that it’s in the child’s best interest to be removed from their parent’s care and placed with other family members, or a family they do not know. And you are saying that the parent’s actions are deserving of criminal prosecution for their actions. Is that truly what you mean to suggest when you say that allowing a toddler to watch TV is child abuse?

For the sake of everyone involved, the next time you see a parent doing something that you disagree with, stop and say out loud what the action is in conjunction with the phrase “is child abuse.” If it sounds ridiculous when you say it, chances are it’s not actually child abuse.