Korean parents are famous for their overprotectiveness and single-minded dedication to their children. As long as their children bring home good grades from school and win competitions, Korean parents can wink at their children’s ill manners and impertinence to the point of spoiling them.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions. Recently, two children, a 16-month-old and an 8-year-old, died due to their parents’ ruthless and consistent abuse. Both are dead, not directly from neglect -- though that, too, was part of their terrible ordeal -- but from repeated beatings. The younger child died of ruptured internal organs, and the older one had 13 broken ribs that pricked the child’s lung.
We have encountered other appalling news. Last week, a young mother in her twenties threw her newborn out of a window, and the poor baby died from a combination of a concussion and the cold weather. Another mother killed her 8-year-old daughter in cold blood. Some time ago, a stepmother put a 9-year-old boy in a small travel bag by force, which made him suffocate and die in there.
They say that nothing in the world is sadder than when parents have to bury their child. How, then, could parents commit such cold-blooded crimes? Whether the tragic incidents happened at a foster home or by a stepparent does not matter. What matters is child abuse itself.
Child abuse derives primarily from our wrong notion that we own our children. Since we wrongfully think that children are our property, we believe we have the right to abuse them. In Korea, when parents commit suicide, they often kill their children first. That is another form of child abuse. Parents have no right to terminate their children’s lives.
In advanced countries, if you abuse your children, the authorities will take them away from you because children are not your property. In Korea, however, even the police are reluctant to interfere with child abuse, thinking that it is merely a family matter. Oftentimes, they ignore the doctor’s report of alleged child abuse.
However, that kind of social milieu must change now. We must recognize that parents do not own their children. Due to Confucian customs, we tend to think that children are lesser adults. However, children are full-fledged human beings with dignity and integrity, so we should treat them accordingly. We should listen to them and respect their opinions, instead of forcing them to obey us.
Child abuse also occurs when parents confuse it with discipline. Of course, you can ground your children for discipline, if necessary, but you can no longer use corporal punishment, which is a remnant of the 19th century. Unfortunately, some parents still seem to rely on child beating as a way of discipline and punishment.
Another reason for child abuse stems from cowardice. A truly brave and chivalrous man never hurts someone who is smaller or weaker than he is. Only cowards do. How could you beat up a helpless baby or a little child unless you are a coward? Such cowards will surely kneel in front of a bigger, stronger man. It is a shame for an adult to abuse physically and spiritually vulnerable children.
When it comes to children, parents have duties and responsibilities only. Some of us may think we have parental rights, but child abuse has nothing to do with parental rights. We should bear in mind that it is our solemn duty to protect and support our children until they become independent adults. When our children grow up, they will leave us and build their own homes. Then, our responsibilities will be over. Until then, we should take full responsibility for our children. Unfortunately, however, we tend to think of childcare and child raising not as a responsibility, but as a sacrifice or doing a favor.
Of course, childcare is not easy. It really is hard work to raise a child. Oftentimes your child gives you a hard time and as a result, you are frustrated and exhausted. Perhaps that may be another reason why child abuse occurs. Nevertheless, it is wrong to abuse a child under any circumstances. All babies and children deserve the utmost care and warm affection.
Many parents may click their tongues at the news about child abuse and think that it has nothing to do with them. Nevertheless, child abuse occurs in many ways. If you force your children to study all the time or send them to private “hagwon” for piano, painting, or taekwondo lessons against their wishes, you, too, could be potentially abusing your children.
The memories of these dead children will haunt us for a long time. We should suffer unmitigated guilt toward those whose lives were so brief and miserable due to parental abuse. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth. But we can build our youth for the future.” Indeed, children are our future. If we do not protect our children from abuse, we will end up ruining our future.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.