We’re not as individual as we might like to think. Often, how we understand the world  is by relying on the understanding of other people.”

-Psychologist Joshua Ackerman (in Carpenter, 2009)

Human beings are highly social creatures. We live to interact with each other. The brain’s very design makes it sociable (Goleman, 2006), and our social interactions shape and mold virtually every aspect of our brains and behavior. In fact, when nothing else seems to be going on, the brain’s default activity is to start mulling over our relationships and social interactions. (Iacobini et al., 2004) Humans have thrived by working together for a common good, and this social interaction is something that can enrich our lives and lead to cooperative behavior that benefits us all. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that humans regularly abuse our social nature. Eleanor Siegel (1991, p. 8) notes that “nearly every social interaction between humans…has a strong element of persuasion.” It starts in grade school, when kids will band together to pick on another child for some obscure reason. It continues as we grow up, when adolescents divide into various social cliques, bullying becomes even more sophisticated, and it seems every aspect of life revolves around who did or said what. Unfortunately, as one recent rock song so dutifully notes, “high-school never ends.” Adults regularly band together to try and use social influence to attack others on everything from their skin color and religious beliefs to their sexuality, hobbies or child-rearing practices. As much as social influence can benefit our species, it can also be used to destroy an individual.

Moreover, most social pressure has little to do with right or wrong, but instead focuses on being “different.” Most people have an inbuilt fear of anyone different from themselves, and will viciously attack those who we deem as different or who have different preferences. (Pettigrew, 1997) Racism, gay bashing, genocides, and a whole host of religious wars are testament to this realization. In fact, doing the right thing most commonly means going against the group and standing up to the social backlash that results from it. Given the bloody and prejudicial history of mankind, a widespread belief is far more likely to be foolish than sensible, and virtually every advancement humanity has ever made has gone against social constraints.

So, considering the importance of social interactions, it’s no surprise that maltreatment factors are largely dependant upon social influence. That’s a large part of what this book is about; identifying the social influences upon maltreatment and avoiding the social abuse of children that is becoming all the more prevalent day by day. The most important element of any form of child maltreatment actually has little to do with what any potential abuser did. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, what actually happened is of very little importance. It’s the social impact that matters. It’s in the social realm where false beliefs arise and long-term harm comes about. For all the fuss about wanting to protect children, the sad reality is that far too often the most severe damage is caused by us.

Types of Social Influences

There are good and bad types of social influence, so it’s important to be able to tell the difference. Our social nature can be a wonderful tool if wielded in the right ways. It is where empathy originates. But it also becomes an avenue for evil if used in the wrong ways. There are basic elements that can distinguish the good from the evil in virtually any situation.

Good Social Influence
The good types of social influence have a few things in common:

  • It seeks to use its power to make people feel good about their situations and experiences.

  • It embraces variety in views, beliefs, and preferences.

  • It seeks outcomes that are based on real and legitimate noble causes (helping people live happily) and not the personal beliefs of one person or group (You must worship Allah or grow up in a certain way in order to live happily). It can be applied to any human in any environment, and especially these humans in this environment, without losing scientific validity.

  • It seeks to restore and repair people, not separate and divide them. Positive social influence makes no enemies and strives for mutual happiness.

  • It embraces individuality and welcomes diversity, rather than trying to force conformity.

Bad Social Influence
Bad social influence also shares some common identifying factors:

  • It’s based on my opinions or beliefs: “My God is the true God. You worship a false idol; I like skydiving, asparagus, and bathing in purple gelatin, therefore you must too; I feel exposed and vulnerable in the nude, therefore nakedness is evil for everyone.”
  • It seeks to ratify one belief over another.
  • It is restrictive and harmful in its ideals. It squashes our freegoing spirit and instead replaces it with shame, embarrassment, or ridicule, along with strict guidelines for ‘proper’ behaviors.
  • It discourages individuality and individual thought, promoting conformity in its place.
  • It is usually confrontational, and results in all the harmful things that come with conflict.
  • It is based in abstract ideas, not legitimate goals. It often seeks to insert harm where there was none, taking a benign situation and shrouding it in harmful beliefs. For instance, protecting children from abuse is a valid and noble goal. But if children aren’t actually harmed within the particular experience we’re calling abuse, and in fact sometimes strive for such experiences, then merely labeling it as bad because of our personal prejudices and surrounding it with harmful beliefs would be bad social influence. It’s child abuse by us, not the action.
  • It tends to create harm out of its own volition.

Our Social Nature
Our social nature affects every aspect of our lives, and is the most important factor in child maltreatment. All acts of abuse, injury or violence ultimately boil down to the social meaning contained in such actions (or that which we construct about them) more than the actions themselves. This is a sampling of some of the different rules and nuances guiding that social nature. Others will be discussed in greater detail in other areas of this book.

The Social World of the Child

There are many parts to a child’s social world. Each of these parts has a tug on the child, and their influence will decide a lot about the beliefs the child forms.

1. Parents:
A child’s primary and most important social circle is the one within their immediate family. Parents, or other caretakers who are acting in the capacity of a parent, are the God’s of a child’s universe. Their very life depends on these caretakers, and so appeasing the God’s is a child’s foremost concern. Because of this, a child’s parents are the number one social factor to a child. Their importance makes every little comment or action matter, and hostility from a parent or person acting in the capacity of a parent is the hardest type of abuse for a child to deal with.

2. Secondary caretakers:
Secondary caretakers such as teachers, grandparents, or other prominent adults in the child’s life also play a role. While secondary caretakers, their influence still matters a great deal.

3. Siblings:
Siblings…you can’t get rid of them. They are always there. Because they are always there, they have a strong social influence on each other. They can be a source of antisocial behavior or serve as surrogate parents. Good or bad, their influence on their fellow sibling’s development is strong.

4. Peers:
From the moment children start playing together, their peers will begin to influence them. However, the role of peers in a child’s social world changes over time. In the beginning, peers are more playmates than anything else. They are a handy thing to have around. While they still have an emotional tug, they are more physical than mental. At around age 7 or 8, that changes. (Ruble, 1983) Peers begin to take on more of a social-emotional role. At around the age of puberty and during adolescence, peers take on an even more important role still.

5. The Media:
Whether it is through books, television or films, everywhere you look someone is trying to tell us what to do and how to think. They’re trying – and succeeding. Regardless of who you are, we all soak up vast amounts of this pre-packaged culture on a regular basis, and it influences us to a great deal.

The media is so powerful because it influences not just the child, but all those other people we talked about who influence the child. In actuality, it’s in many ways the parent to us all. We are fed ideas about the things for which this collective entity approves and disapproves. Most of us adopt the standards put forth without question. We rush off to imitate it in order to gain its approval. Even if individuals break free of its sway, the other 95% of the population is hard at work emulating what is put before them, so none of us can ever truly escape it. To give an idea of how big of a social influence the media can be, recent reports and surveys show that kids spend around 45 hours per week with some form of digital media; more time than they spend in school, and way more in terms of quality time spent with their parents.

Each of these areas has a tug on the child, and their influence will decide a lot about the beliefs that child forms and the personality they develop. If your child were compared to a clay sculpture, each of these groups would have a hand in the artistry.

Summing it up
Maltreatment issues cause damage through a lot more people than the original perpetrators. The social impact from maltreatment is dependant upon us all. A child’s fate is more in our hands than it is their abuser. A lot of the harm done has nothing to do with the original acts but in their interpretation. Thus anyone spreading harmful interpretation is committing an act of child abuse just as severe as the original act. In this regard, the ‘war against child abuse’ is as much about fighting harmful ideas as it is fighting particular actions.