Children of a greater god?
By MARGARET WENTE
Saturday, June 15, 2002, Page A21
As I pull up to the tidy suburban bungalow in Aylmer, Ont., three little girls peek out the door. They wear spotless cotton jumpers over long-sleeved blouses. Their long hair is braided neatly down their backs. With smiles and modest giggles, they say hello and politely invite me in.
Out back, an extended family barbecue is under way. Nine or 10 kids are romping in the yard. None of them are inside watching TV, because there isn't one. The adults (there are three families here tonight) greet me warmly. I am a surprise guest. But now that I'm here, they're eager to talk, eager to show an outsider what their lives are all about.
These are the parents who hit their children with a strap. They belong to a tiny Christian sect called the Church of God. To some people, they are a community of child abusers.
A few kilometres away, another Church of God family is battling that accusation in court. Last July, their seven children were seized and carried from their home by the police. The local child-protection workers believed the parents were abusive, because they sometimes spanked their children with "an object." The children spent three weeks in foster care before they were allowed to return home.
The family and child services agency wants the children declared "in need of protection" by the court. It wants the right to supervise the family for a year. The parents say that their children don't need protection and were never at risk, and that the only rights abused were theirs. They refuse to promise to refrain from corporal punishment. Their religious teachings are explicit on the need to use a rod or strap or other object for that purpose.
The media can't report on the court case because the judge has imposed a near-total publication ban. But this dispute is about far more than spanking. It is religious in the broadest sense. It's about radically conflicting beliefs over how to raise children to become responsible, mature and mentally and physically healthy adults.
The people who belong to the Church of God believe that children must be trained in order to be good. They must be punished so as to learn how to obey and not to sin. We -- the progressive, modern, secular middle class -- believe that children are naturally good, and should be allowed to express themselves, and that hitting them is a sin.
Is our belief system so much superior to theirs? I'm not so sure.
On the back deck, everyone stands for a short prayer before supper. We help ourselves to President's Choice burgers and hot dogs and juice. There are no chips or junk food or alcohol or cigarettes. All the kids come over to say hello. They're an attractive, unaffected lot, and none of them are fat. One boy shows off his High and Low German (Low German is the language they speak at home), and one of the girls shows me some family snapshots from Bible camp.
After we eat, Agatha Braun and her husband, Diedrich, sit down with me in their family room. Like the rest of the house, it is sparsely furnished and neat as a pin. Against one wall is a set of encyclopedias, against the other a computer.
"Children must be disciplined so that they can grow into disciplined adults," says Diedrich. "At work, I see the consequences of not disciplining all the time." He is a manager at a local equipment store, and he seems to be a likable and open man.
The Brauns, who are in their late 30s, have three children. They moved to Aylmer in 1993 from Durango, Mexico, because they wanted them to have a better life.
"Education is very important to us," says Diedrich, who speaks excellent German-accented English. "We want them to have a better education than we did."
The Church of God is a splinter group made up of former Mennonites. About 200 members live in Aylmer, a pleasant town not far from London. Most of them come from Durango, where a large group of Canadian Mennonites settled 50 years ago. But Durango was a dusty, backward and oppressive place. The Mennonites were even forbidden from driving cars. The schools were bad, and girls were made to quit at 12.
"We want all our children to finish Grade 12," says Diedrich. "We would like them to go to college. They must be prepared for this world."
Do they worry that their kids might lose their values as they become more exposed to the world.
"No," he says. "Not if they are brought up right."
And what if their daughter wants to work?
"We need teachers," says Agatha. "She could be a teacher."
The children go to religious school, and family life revolves around the church. But they don't reject modernity. They have e-mail and cordless phones and minivans. The kids have bikes and rollerblades. The Brauns are surrounded by secular neighbours.
Diedrich and Agatha, like all Church of God members, believe literally in the biblical adage about sparing the rod. They believe that a measure of physical correction is essential. From time to time, they use a leather strap on their children's clothed behinds. It is meant to hurt.
"Only as a last resort," says Agatha. "We don't like to do it."
But they don't apologize for it, either.
The social workers have a Bible, too. It is a large binder called the Risk Assessment Model 2000. It instructs them in great detail about how to measure child abuse. It includes an Eligibility Spectrum for "physical force and/or maltreatment" that runs on a scale from 1 (the worst) to 6 (none). The seven children were removed from their parents because a social worker judged that one child scored a 3 ("excessive or inappropriate physical force used, resulting in superficial injury"), and the others were thus thought to be in danger, too. Even a red mark qualifies as a superficial injury. But because the force was inflicted by the "primary caregiver," the case got the worst possible rating on the scale for physical abuse: "extremely severe."
The social workers argue with complete sincerity that they went exactly by the book.
The book, of course, does not have context or nuance or extenuating circumstances. And the people who go by it have been indoctrinated to believe that striking a child under any circumstances is a mortal sin.
I'm no fan of corporal punishment. But its malign effects, I believe, have been greatly exaggerated by the anti-spanking lobby. A child who feels secure and loved probably won't be hurt by it. (I'm not talking about beating the bejesus out of a kid. But that's not what Church of God parents do.) A child who is emotionally neglected probably suffers far more.
In many other ways, these parents seem exemplary. They spend a great deal of time with their children. They read to them more than four minutes a day (the national average). They don't park them in front of the TV, and they make sure they get lots of fresh air. They shield them from pornography, secondhand smoke, junk food, and excessive materialism. They teach them modesty and manners. They love their children dearly, and their children love them back. They are, in the language of child psychologists, securely attached.
I ask the Brauns about the case before the courts. They know the family well. "They are good people," says Diedrich.
The Brauns and the other parents I met that evening seem to be good people, too. They want to be good citizens. They are hoping they can find some way to play by our rules without abandoning their own.
The trouble is, so long as the social workers go by the book, every single one of them is probably a child abuser.