May 30th, 2011

The Cost of Symbols

The featured news from the Robert Manwill murder trial last week was testimony regarding the contrast between the treatment given by MBF to Robert and that given to his biological child.,  The later was treated with affection and tenderness; MBF was not only an adequate father to the younger child, he was an exceptionally good father by all accounts.  We know that it happens that one child in a family is singled out for abuse. That child is called the "target."  In olden times we called him or her the "scapegoat."

In the seventies there was a Canadian study that showed that infants living with a stepfather were 600 times more likely to be murdered than children living with a biological father.  The study was touted as evidence of the biological basis of human behavior' but, of course, it didn't show that at all.  Every theory i know of could find some way of explaining that discrepancy,  For example, families with step fathers are statistically far more likely than families with fathers to be dysfunctional, resourceless, stressed, and otherwise disadvantaged.

For me, the concepts "father" and "step-father" may account for much of the difference in the way "children" and "step-children" get treated.  While most of our mythology about cruel step-parents is directed at women, the use of the term "step" creates an unnecessary distinction between a biological parent and the parent in the situation of parenting.  There have been well functioning societies where biological factors play almost no role in ideas about social parenting.  Other societies have combined close attention to biological parenting with a culture that is very unfriendly to children.  The Huron, when they came into contact with the French, combined tenderness toward children with sexual promiscuity among adults.  The priests told men to control the behavior of their wives.  The men wondered why,  The priests said because they would end up raising the children of other men.  The men said "So?"  The Huron had to explain to the French that an adult should treat all children as though they were one's own, and as if they were not one's own, but children of the spirits.