Child abuse? Or not?

A 7-year old boy is traveling around the country, standing on street corners and preaching hellfire at passers-by (you can hear him in a recording, too). He’s part of a caravan of Baptists making an expedition up to the land of the Yankees to tell us all we’re going to hell.

Is this abuse? The poor kid is wasting time on the Bible and haranguing random people at the behest of his parents. Oh, excuse me, at the behest of God.

The evangelical Baptist couple nurtured his talents with Bible readings in the womb and bought Samuel his first guitar at age four, said his mother. They read the Bible together every day as a family and have home-schooled their two boys.

Asked if their son is being exploited, his mother said, “We’re not making him preach. That’s God’s job.”

So if it is child abuse and exploitation, it’s all god’s fault? Can we have him arrested for that? I do wish we could arrest all those parents who use homeschooling as an excuse to keep their children ignorant.

Maybe if we monitor this kid, will be able to get evidence for the existence of god when we catch him compelling a 7-year old to do unnatural acts, like bible study. Especially since he doesn’t seem entirely enthusiastic about the occupation his parents have chosen for him.

Samuel, who studies the Bible for about one hour each night, wasn’t sure if he wanted to grow up to be a minister.

“It’s harder to learn to be a pastor than to preach,” he said haltingly.

If he’s a typical young boy, he’d probably rather be a baseball player or fireman. I also hate to say it, but from the recording he’s not a very good preacher, either, and I hope he doesn’t dream of a career in music.

I find it all sad and depressing and unfortunate for the kid, so I’d have to say this is an example of religiously-motivated intellectual abuse. I wish I knew what we could do about it.


  1. #1 kemibe
    June 20, 2007

    I noticed this yesterday (I’ve lived in Roanoke for much of this millennium) and also noticed the kid’s singing voice is assawful.

    No way is this kid doing this of his own accord, but of course his nutter parents are convinced he is.

  2. #2 Dutch Vigilante
    June 20, 2007

    “We’re not making him preach. That’s God’s job.”

    Keep telling yourself that when he doesn’t live up to your innane ideas.
    But whats worse? This or a mother who forces her little kids to go to sports or beauty contests and the like? Either way it screws the little kids up.

  3. #3 Cairnarvon
    June 20, 2007

    My first thought was to extract the audio and make a Steve Reich-esque “It’s Gonna Rain” spoof, but I can’t seem to get the raw media data from that website. Firefox VideoDownloader, I find your lack of success disturbing!

    If you just need the audio, why would you download the entire video? Just use a sound recording program and record while it’s playing.

  4. #4 One Eyed Jack
    June 20, 2007

    I found the entire thing very reassuring. The video showed clearly that for all their shouting and side-show antics, they couldn’t pull together more than 2-3 people at at a time.

    I only wish I could have been there. I never pass up an opportunity to interact with these nut jobs when I run into them. I know the signs say not to tease the animals, but I’ve also been known to walk on the grass and run with scissors.


  5. #5 Dan B
    June 20, 2007


    I was homeschooled until high school. I’m now an agnostic working on a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. There is nothing inherent in homeschool that is bad. Admittedly my parents aren’t the standard, they made an active effort to expose me to alternate ideas and to get me involved in the community outside of their supervision (volunteering and the like).

    Like PZ said, the problem is when it is used as an excuse. In my case it was used as a tool to allow me to go deeper with my interests in history and science than is possible in a class environment. In second grade I asked why Pluto takes longer to go around the sun than the Earth even though it moves faster. What followed was a year long exploration of astronomy, math, and physics. I finished it with a presentation to the 2nd grade class I would have been part of if I had been at the local public school. That’s how homeschooling should be used.

  6. #6 Nathan Parker
    June 20, 2007

    So if it is child abuse and exploitation

    It’s trivializing child abuse to give that label to any parental behavior we don’t approve of. Personally, I find Boy Scouts almost as abhorrent as what this child is having to do, but I wouldn’t label either as “child abuse”.

  7. #7 Leon
    June 20, 2007

    Good point, FastEddie.

  8. #8 A Hermit
    June 20, 2007

    They bought him a guitar at age four? Good; with any like he’ll rebel and be playing Lordi covers by the time he’s 14…

  9. #9 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 20, 2007

    M. H.:


  10. #10 Cat's Staff
    June 20, 2007

    That’s how Hector Avalos and Marjoe Gortner got their start…they turned out okay.

  11. #11 Shawn Wilkinson
    June 20, 2007

    I think I feel more sad to what would happen to his mental state if he somehow realized that a Christian God does not exist. The worse feeling, in my opinion, is when you realized you wasted your life on a fruitless endeavor. I can only imagine if one realizes they wasted their entire childhood on said endeavor.

  12. #12 Arnosium Upinarum
    June 20, 2007

    This is like “training” (read “forcing” or otherwise “intimidating”) a dog or a monkey to do clever tricks against their innate nature.

    Its abusive to train circus animals to perform imbecilic amusements. This isn’t any different – it merely demonstrates that human animal children are just as susceptible to trainers, but we already knew that. Yep, its animal abuse. Yep, its child abuse.

    What a wonderfully diverse culture we have.

  13. #13 Arnosium Upinarum
    June 20, 2007

    IanR says, “It may not be child abuse, but it is exploitation. Child labour laws give too many loopholes for parents to exploit their children, but they clearly state that he is being made to work by some other person, other than his parents.”

    That’s fine. Call it “child slavery” then. Whatever. ITS ABUSE.

  14. #14 Azkyroth
    June 20, 2007

    I don’t get the problem with calling this child abuse because it diminishes the meaning of, for instance, sexual abuse. It doesn’t. It’s like complaining that someone said his broken leg caused him pain, because it wasn’t the pain of being disemboweled by wolves. We do not have precisely calibrated terms for these phenomena.

    My guess is, it’s an issue of framing…

    (Couldn’t resist x.x)

  15. #15 Ragnor
    June 20, 2007

    When I was 6 I wanted to be an exorcist, so *maybe* this is something that the kid wants to do. Of course my parents didn’t tour me across the country casting out demons.

    Yes, I was a strange kid.

  16. #16 Ichthyic
    June 20, 2007

    oh i comprehended alrighty, but if you think otherwise, please do then explain exactly how the two situations are comparable.

    the boyscouts being a volunteer organization that any kid can leave at any time, and all.

    good luck propping up that strawman.

  17. #17 Ichthyic
    June 20, 2007

    What makes me think it’s not a practical idea? Enforceability, perhaps? How do you suggest we have the government regulate what ideas parents teach their children?

    apply exactly the same logic and reasoning applied to cults.

    that simple.

    if it doesn’t fit under the current state guidelines (depending on your state) for what constitutes a cult, it ain’t.

    it’s just that few state agencies are willing to push this button, only out of fear of backlash, not because the laws aren’t applicable.

    so if by “impractical” you mean, “too much fear to apply the law equally”, then yup, impractical it is.

    things change, though.

    there are several test cases relating to this issue that shouldn’t be too hard to google up.

  18. #18 Molly, NYC
    June 20, 2007

    But whats worse? This or a mother who forces her little kids to go to sports or beauty contests and the like? Either way it screws the little kids up.

    Dutch Vigilante – In the first place, what makes you think it’s always women who do this?

    Secondly, quite a few kids have rather pleasant childhood memories of playing sports or (though it’s not quite PC to say so) getting all dressed up and going to pageants (or similarly girly activities).

    In fairness, this kid may eventually look fondly on his days of accosting and haranguing total strangers in public, and, with his parents’ (and the more lunkheaded sector of the community’s) support, attempting to shame them about not enjoying as much of God’s approval as him and his family.

    However, I’m not so optimistic about his memories of (as is clear from his preaching) his parents convincing him that he’d be eaten by worms in Hell if he didn’t do what they told him.

  19. #19 David Marjanovi?
    June 20, 2007

    Enough people have already pointed out how inappropriate, in both a linguistic and social sense, to call this ‘child abuse’ that I don’t have to do it again.

    But not enough people have called PZ a moron for using the term in this context, so:

    You’re a moron, PZ. Think before you type next time.

    He still has a point, and you know it full well.

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?
    June 20, 2007

    Enough people have already pointed out how inappropriate, in both a linguistic and social sense, to call this ‘child abuse’ that I don’t have to do it again.

    But not enough people have called PZ a moron for using the term in this context, so:

    You’re a moron, PZ. Think before you type next time.

    He still has a point, and you know it full well.

  21. #21 Steve_C
    June 20, 2007

    Programming a child into a demented cultist is abuse.

    Except the parents are probably equally as out of touch with reality.

    That’s doesn’t let them off the hook however.

  22. #22 Azkyroth
    June 20, 2007

    You may also notice that I’m not using a loaded term that means far more than the meanings of its components combined and has a generally-recognized meaning that doesn’t fit here.


    You’re a moron, PZ.


  23. #23 Ichthyic
    June 20, 2007

    To be perfectly frank, I think there are precious few people here who haven’t been negatively psychologically affected – even ‘damaged’ – by some aspect of their upbringing, and there are some of you whom I regard as significantly psychologically ‘damaged’ because of the stupid beliefs and ideologies you’ve been taught by family, friends, and society. It’s not child abuse then, and it’s not now.

    your argument is a quantitative one, not a qualitative one.

    essentially, you appear to be conceeding that there IS abuse, but saying that abuse is relative.

    congratualations, that’s no more than anybody else has said.

    nobody ever delineated this as a black/white issue.

    I’m sure you could easily substitute the physical abuse argument in your statement and realize that the same issues of “degree” apply as well.

    hence the controversies over corporal punishment, for example.

    things change.

  24. #24 Ichthyic
    June 20, 2007

    Would it be appropriate to remove him from his family and place him into the foster care system because of this?

    well now, that’s the interesting question, not whether this is abuse or not, because it is.

    the more interesting question, is whether this kind of abuse would qualify for child removal.

    since the issue of physical abuse seems a simpler one for you to envision, when does corporal punishment qualify for removal?

    of course, again, this depends on which state you are in.

  25. #25 Caledonian
    June 20, 2007

    again, I am wondering why you insist on being ignorant of how child abuse laws are actually applied.

    So, tell us: how are they actually applied?

  26. #26 Scott Hatfield, OM
    June 20, 2007

    If the child is being directly coerced to do this, it’s abusive. If they are not being directly coerced, but the child feels an implied pressure to continue to do it when they don’t want to, then’s it’s punitive, like all those weekend warrior parents who push their kids unrelentingly to do this or that sport, turning what should be a child’s game into a punishment.

    Even if it’s not abusive, even if it’s not punitive, it’s exploitative to publicly use children in this manner—but it’s probably no worse than those stage mothers who drive the child stars.

    Hmm. After making those comparisons, I wonder if what’s at work here is specifically religious, or whether this is just an example of the sort of thing that happens when parents live through their children.

  27. #27 Kagehi
    June 20, 2007

    as long as it’s their rigid standards of behavior and belief.

    Hmm. Define “rigid”… Look, lets just be clear here. The kinds of people that do this to a kid **are** the sort of people that the Pilgrims escaped to come here. We would like to see a level playing field, where the *standard* for what is reasonable or not is based on how many it screws up, not if 1% of them get out of it. And by screwed up, we mean, “Fundamentally incapable of function in a world in which 90% of all favoritism **doesn’t** go to those who *claim* religious convictions, and where everything is stacked against the person saying that an idea is foolish, or for them, if they don’t or do, respectively, fool into that category.” What Cal is wrong with wanting a world where truth is determined based on its merits as a real explanation for something, and **not** on how many madmen, lunatics, liars, mass murderers, and priest, and laity believe and have believed in it? What is wrong with a level playing field, instead of one where someone **could** and have had their kids taken from them for trying to teach them a pagan religion, but where if someone else said, “I don’t have much of a belief, but my wife is a born again dominionist that believes in the end of the world and talks once a week about how to accelerate us towards that goal.”, the court is more likely to side with her, based on her “clear” religious claim, than my wishy washy position. And, if I, instead, had a kid and stated outright that I was an atheist, who the hell do you think is *still* going to get the kid?

    We are bailing water here and they are all scrambling to one side of the ship, shouting about how its a miracle that God tipped the boat at a 90 degree angle so they can see the water so much better. Ask me again when there is an article about a kid standing on a street corner shouting about how God doesn’t exist and the religious are all fools, instead of attending school or learning to think. When that happens, you can claim that we don’t recognize the distinction between merely teaching a kid a alternate belief system and *abusing* them.

  28. #28 cureholder
    June 21, 2007

    >>>Enough people have already pointed out how inappropriate, in both a linguistic and social sense, to call this ‘child abuse’ that I don’t have to do it again.<<<

    I don’t see how it can possibly be “inappropriate” to call this “child abuse.” (Linguistically, things really cannot be appropriate or inappropriate; they can be only accurate or inaccurate.)

    But in any event, “child abuse,” understood as “abuse of a child,” is accurate and appropriate if it includes treatment that is detrimental to the development of the child. Because religious indoctrination (especially in lieu of real education) is detrimental to the mental development of the child, it certainly is accurate and appropriate to call it abuse.

    Perhaps it’s a matter of degree (e.g., telling a child early on that there is a Santa Clause might not be detrimental to the child to the same degree), but a categorical statement that religious indoctrination cannot be child abuse is simply silly.

  29. #29 tomh
    June 21, 2007

    Crimson Wife wrote:
    I definitely don’t agree with what the parents are doing but the Constitution protects their rights to free speech and worship.

    Who said anything about the parents’ rights to “free speech and worship”? You think free speech and worship for a parent includes forcing a 7 year old child to stand on a street cornet and scream about heaven and hell? That doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with a parent’s right to free speech or worship or the first Amendment or any other smokescreen. No one is denying that the parents have every right to do that themselves but making a 7 year old do it seems a bit unreasonable to some.

  30. #30 Heleen
    June 21, 2007

    Louis Theroux had a program on BBC about a family Phelps in Topeka, KS:

    Another one family church hating people

  31. #31 maria
    June 21, 2007

    speaking of children preaching… I realize she’s speaking portuguese, but somehow the point gets across anyhow. frightening.

  32. #32 ??????
    June 21, 2007

    Bill: I agree, the parents’ cavalier disregard for the intellectual welfare of their children is disheartening and appalling.

    Re: My avatar. :-)

    You are not alone. I used to haunt a Yahoo chatroom, and I was surprised at how often I was presumed to be an African male by those who weren’t already aware than ?????? (Kseniya, Xenia, Ksenia, Ksenya) is a common girl’s name east of… Vienna. :-)

    Obviously, the Kseniya-Kenya similarity is the cause. I thnik it’s reltaed to the fact taht baldly-missplet wrods are easliy recongized if the frist and lsat lettres are corrcet.

    I, too, have mental images of those who post here: vague impressions of physical attributes, timbre of voice, mannerisms and so forth, all suggested by their writing style, name/handle, and whatever is revealed by their comments. (And probably no more correct than what I’d come up with by rolling dice!)

  33. #33 ?????
    June 21, 2007

    ??????: No worries! I’ve seen and heard it mangled more ways than you can imagine. Besides, ????? is a diminutive form, and so is far more friendly than incorrect. :-)


    ????????? ?. ?. ???????

  34. #34 RavenT
    June 21, 2007

    Is that “Oooops!”? Transliterated or actually translated?

    that’s right :). and it’s only transliterated–just playing with the alphabet. No idea what the actual translation would be.

    but I just recently learned from Kseniya on another thread that “???????” is not, as I would have guessed, a small female gorilla**–so I’m not exactly the source for anything about Slavic languages.

    ** it’s actually vodka.

  35. #35 Wonders for Oyarsa
    June 21, 2007

    Oh, and I was homeschooled growing up – and am now a software developer pursuing my M.S. in Computer Science, with a focus on Computational Biology. I suppose my parents should have been prosecuted…

  36. #36 Uber
    June 22, 2007

    Interesting comments on the home schoolers. As a biology teacher in a public school for 14 years it has been my experience and that of friends and family who are principals that home schooled students are typically behind at least 1 year.

    There have been exceptions but they are not as common as the trailers.

  37. #37 Dan B
    June 22, 2007

    Feeling defensive? Arguably.

    Especially after he proceeds *not* to read the rest of the thread and then to make a bunch of stupid claims. Not everyone cheers for their school. Not all homeschoolers run around yelling, “LOOK AT ME I WAS HOMESCHOOLED.” It’s roughly equivalent to people saying, “Well *I* don’t know any gay people, therefor there must not BE any.” It’s patently stupid because the “observation” is flawed to begin with. He hasn’t observed any homeschoolers because there’s no magic, blinking, “Homeschooler” sign over their head. And to presume he can somehow identify them out of space *is* arrogance, at best.

    Do you know how frequently I’ve heard people make disparaging comments about homeschooling while I was sitting right next to them? Far more often than I’d like to think about because like any invisible minority people don’t *see* the ones that don’t fit their stereotype. It never even *occurs* to them that I might have been homeschooled. And so yes, when people make statements like that, I get defensive. Because it’s *not* anecdotal evidence, it’s just blustering. It would be anecdotal if he’d actually talked to those people about their schooling, maybe. As it is, it’s nothing but a thought excercise.

    I’m well aware that many homeschoolers fail miserably. And Kansas briefly decreed Pi to be equal to 3. Should we ban all public schools because of that? Should we presume that every person from Kansas is now inherently an idiot incapable of more than simple manual labor? It’s mass generalizations like that that lead to stupid ideas like “Poor people are stupid.” So yes, I’m defensive. I’m not claiming all homeschoolers are brilliant or “do it right” but neither do public schools, or private schools, or anyone else. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to sit by and watch him malign an entire group of people simply because he’s ignorant.

  38. #38 Wonders for Oyarsa
    June 22, 2007

    Did your parents have you out on the street shouting at strangers when you were 7 years old? Those are the parents who should be prosecuted. It’s got nothing to do with homeschooling.

    Ah – but what if the kid was shouting at strangers in a rally against global warming, or child labor, or feeding the hungry or some other good cause? Should parents be forbidden from getting their kids involved in anything others consider controversial? Or is it religion specifically that needs this state suppression?

    seems to have missed the point on this one, and has chosen instead to succumb to a common knee-jerk theist’s response to the supposed totalitarian designs of the atheist. One can almost smell the impending invocation of Stalin.

    Oh, I happily note that many of the above commenters would fight for my right to raise my own children, and I appreciate that. But some it seems would at least have me taken to court, even if the end my particular case it is eventually decided that imparting God delusion to my kids doesn’t meet the level of “abuse”.

    I mean, my oldest (2) sung a praise song that we taped and emailed to friends. The poor thing has been manipulated into singing religious words, and this was even distributed. If this was done, think of what other forms of religious abuse might be happening in my home. This at least warrants an investigation, for the sake of the children, right?

    I’m curious – those who agree that the above case warrants charges of Child Abuse, resulting in foster care for the child – do you yourselves have children?

  39. #39 Kseniya
    June 22, 2007

    Taping your toddler singing a hymn and mailing it to relatives doesn’t seem at all comparable to me, and your sarcastic assertion that it’s equivalent is just absurd.

    What? Taping your toddler to a hymnal IS abusive! Surely anyone here would agr…

    Oh. Never mind.

    Seriously, though. Thanks, Jen, for putting voice to some thoughts I couldn’t put my finger on, and in doing so you’ve supplied Wonders with a post to which he/she could reasonably respond. IMO this IS the topic.

    Anton, I’m with ya, but “probable coersion” is another slippery concept here. Kids so naturally take after and adopt the belief systems of their parents. I was never “coerced” into rooting for the Red Sox – it just never occurred to me to do otherwise, even though my dad often reminded me that baseball was for fun, and wasn’t really important, and that I was free to be a Yankee fan if that was my heart’s desire…

    Sigh, I’m rambling, and I’m distracted by my need to… get off the computer! Good night all.

  40. #40 Rey Fox
    June 22, 2007

    “and that I was free to be a Yankee fan if that was my heart’s desire…”

    But the innate God-given morality in your immaterial soul transmitter told you that that would be WRONG.

  41. #41 Wonders for Oyarsa
    June 22, 2007

    Wouldn’t it be nice if only those with opinions you approved of were allowed to post.

    Hey, at least he’s not suggesting the government should take your kids away.

    That is precisely the point. Of course I don’t approve of what the parents are doing. I wouldn’t exactly call this forcing the child to do this against his will though – that’s just not how the story reads to me. But I still don’t approve. But there is a rather fine line between disapproval and government coercion to enforce your disapproval. That you are eager to do this gives me the willies.

  42. #42 Kseniya
    June 23, 2007

    I agree with Wonders. It does not appear that this child is being forced to do anything. According to Mom, God is, um, inspiring the child to preach. The seed was planted somehow, but what’s far more likely is that it’s Mom and Dad who’ve inspired the child to preach, by way of example and approval. Clearly they are proud of him, and have fooled themselves into believing that they have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

    Not that that matters. He’s doing it, they are enabling and condoning it, and in time-honored fashion are assigning all credit/responsiblity to God.

    You think parents should be allowed to force their 7 year old children to harangue strangers on public streets and I don’t.

    Tom, I believe that the question is whether parents should be allowed to allow their 7 year old to harangue strangers on public streets if, in doing so, they are depriving him of something essential, such as sustenance and/or education.