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In Depth Analysis

Nasty, Brutish and Short:
For The New York Times Childhood is a Battlefield

March 02, 2006
Rebecca Goldin
An elastic definintion of abuse criminalizes sibling rivalry

Remember fighting with your brother? How he used to slap your face, give you a noogie, and pull your hair? Such behavior is now termed “abuse” by the New York Times, a designation that exaggerates a problem while marginalizing the people who have suffered from true sibling abuse.

As the paper reports, “This casual, intimate violence can be as mild as a shoving match and as savage as an attack with a baseball bat.” But isn’t there a difference between a shoving match and a baseball bat attack? To most parents – and most siblings – the answer is yes. But apparently not to the Times.

According to cited research, some 35 percent of kids have been “hit or attacked” by a sibling. We’re surprised it’s not much higher – one child hitting another could be a harmless punch that means “gimme back that toy”, or it could mean a fist in the face knocking out some teeth. Just as with adult abuse towards children, we make a big distinction between slapping a hand and breaking a bone. How are we supposed to interpret these reports of abuse, when so much non-abuse is folded in?

We can look at numbers reflecting abuse resulting in injuries. According to the Times, “14 percent of the children were repeatedly attacked by a sibling.” Again, a repeat attack may or may not constitute abuse, depending on the nature of the attack. If the attack is an intimate shoving match, then most parents would not label it abuse, and most siblings would not have psychological damage from the interaction.

We are left with looking at injuries: 4.55 percent were hit hard enough to sustain injuries like bruises, cuts, chipped teeth and an occasional broken bone; and 2 percent were hit by brothers or sisters wielding rocks, toys, broom handles, shovels and even knives.

According to the lead author of the study, Dr. David Finkelhor, “If I were to hit my wife, no one would have trouble seeing that as an assault or a criminal act. When a child does the same thing to a sibling, the exact same act will be construed as a squabble, a fight or an altercation.”

Except, of course, that we have different expectations from adults than children. This is not to excuse serious sibling-on-sibling violence, but an act that would be unacceptable among adults is sometimes acceptable from children. For example, a child who steals gum from the store is shamed, told to return it and apologize, maybe grounded, maybe spanked. An adult gets prosecuted – it is criminal to shoplift.

Children do not have the same sense of judgement that adults have, nor do they have the same sensitivities. A child who is spanked until he cries by his parents would experience something very different than a spouse hit until she cries, even if no bruises result. And a child whose hair is pulled by a sibling (though not so hard as to make someone bleed or cry) does not experience the same trauma that would occur if an adult did the same to his or her partner. This is not to excuse bad behavior between siblings, but to de-label it as “abuse.” - “disrespect” or “physical aggression” may be better terms.

Midway into the Time’s exposé on sibling abuse, they called in a new expert, Dr. Caffaro, a co-author of "Sibling Abuse Trauma." Finally, we are treated to an expert perspective. For Dr. Caffaro, abuse is a repeated pattern of physical violence and intimidation. Unfortunately, the Times suggests that this new definition of abuse is what was measured by Dr. Finkelhor’s study even thought it is not at all the same. And predictably, the percentage of children abused according to Dr. Caffaro’s more rigorous definition is not reported.

The New York Times also reinforced the exaggerated reports of abuse by illustrating the article with a picture of a much older ambiguously-gendered figure (could be a teenage boy, could be a slightly older woman) about to hit a young boy in the face, and couching the statistics (bad as they are) among individual stories of traumatic abuse. It’s an effective tactic that leads the reader to react emotionally rather than evaluate rationally.

Dr. Finkelhor’s research on sibling violence is currently unpublished – so his words have reached thousands of readers without the benefit of peer review. However, last year he published an article in the journal Child Maltreatment, wherein he looked at a “large spectrum of violence, crime, and victimization experiences in a nationally representative sample of children and youth ages 2 to 17 years “ and determined that “Only a minority (29%) had no direct or indirect victimization.”

But if you define victimization so loosely, then we’re a short step away from all being victims. And by making the idea of abuse so elastic that the rough and tumble of childhood takes on the malevolence of criminality, then we’ve made news by playing with percentages


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