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Child Mistreatment, Age Perception, and Birth Order

Some child mistreatment reflects a parent’s misunderstanding of the child’s deve

I see child abuse, neglect, and spoiling, the three kinds of maltreatment, as distinct, categorical phenomena (because they are legal findings even if they are not always easy to diagnose). There are more normal, less harmful versions of all three that I call mistreatment. It’s the difference between forgetting to pick your kid up at school and forgetting to feed him for a week.

One useful way to think about child neglect is to consider the age of the child in the parent’s eyes. A three-year-old boy wanders along a busy street. Someone calls the police who identify the right home. The parent says, “I’ve told him a hundred times to stay in the yard.” This constitutes child maltreatment because a prudent parent knows that you cannot rely on verbal instructions to keep a three-year-old in the yard, and wandering at that age can be dangerous. You have to watch him. The parent has treated the child as if he were much older, old enough not to be watched. The same goes for not feeding children or not stimulating them. These omissions often stem from skills deficits, where the parent simply doesn’t know how to raise an infant, and they often reflect characterological problems, where the parent lacks the basic empathy to appreciate the child’s needs. But sometimes, especially with mistreatment rather than maltreatment, these problems reflect a misunderstanding of the child’s age, like when parents leave a pre-schooler camped out in front of cartoons all day (mistreatment) or leave an infant lying in the car seat so long that the head becomes flattened (maltreatment), mistaking the child for one in utero who needs no stimulation or for one who’s much older and can provide his own.

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Spoiling, too, can be conceptualized as an error in age perception. A school-age child is treated like an infant and allowed to make messes without cleaning them up, or the child is freed from all responsibility from chores. An adolescent is given unrelenting praise, like a toddler, instead of guidance on how to adjust to the realities of the particular adolescent’s strengths and weaknesses. Many psychology trainees expect to be treated like six-year-olds at their after-school activities instead of like adults in graduate school. (We make it worse when we expect to be treated like first-grade teachers.)

Physical and sexual abuse, too, often involve perceptual errors about age. A snotty remark by a school age child is responded to as if it had been made by a rival in a bar. Irritating crying by an infant is treated as if a neighbor were playing loud, atonal music at 3 am. Sexual curiosity in a child is interpreted as a knowing come-on.

Birth order is one of the main reasons parents engage in age misperception. When a new baby comes along, the parents compare the kid to the baby and expect more of the kid. When a new baby does not come along, the parents persist in the view of the child they have been accustomed to; they tend to see youngest children as younger than they are. An only child can go either way, perceived as being on the team of adults for many transactions and as infants for others.

The implications of this view are several; I’ll mention three. One, parents should try to learn something about development (or maintain ties with a community, such as competent grandparents, that already knows). Two, in families that have already committed abuse, neglect, or spoiling, any mistakes about age-graded understanding of children should be taken seriously and either disputed or mutually explored as to whether they are accurate. Three, you should examine your assumptions about adult behavior to see if they are realistic; in other words, you might be neglecting yourself or your patients if you think adults at 30 act like adults at 60, or if you have unrealistic ideas about how mature (how imperfectly denatured, to use Kipling’s phrase) human adults actually are.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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