Education led to end of cycle of abuse

The sting is just as sharp today as it was decades ago for George Barfield.

"It was not unusual for my father to be mad at me and say, 'Get undressed, get into the bathtub and bring the electric cord when you come,' " says Mr. Barfield, now 53. "It was called discipline, but what it was was abuse, plain and simple."


It took Mr. Barfield years to learn the difference. He was the father of five by the time he was 30 and continued the tradition of corporal punishment and verbal abuse without too much thought.

It was his decision, at age 37, to get a college education that made him aware of several things about his life.


One was that "what I thought was instruction was nothing but physical abuse," he says. And as he worked on his degree in education and a master's degree in therapeutic recreation, he became a man with a mission: to prevent and eliminate abuse in families.

Mr. Barfield, who grew up in Baltimore and Annapolis, and now lives in Benton Harbor, Mich., is a national consultant with the Nurturing Programs, an organization aimed at helping dysfunctional families.

"This country does not define abuse," he says, while in Philadelphia recently leading a workshop for social workers who deal with troubled families. Mr. Barfield has a definition though: "Abuse is anything that doesn't help a child feel good about himself." That includes all hitting, spanking, yelling, belittling and name-calling that "shatter the self-esteem of a child."

This definition, it seems, would make all parents at one time or another abusers.

"True," he says. "At one end of the spectrum is abuse and at the other is nurturing. We all fall somewhere in between. The goal is to be more at the nurturing end than the abuse end."

And that can be accomplished only through education, Mr. Barfield says. Which is difficult because people get invested in the way they do things -- often because that is what was done to them.

"Lots of parents will tell you, 'My mother used to beat me; it didn't do me any harm,' " Mr. Barfield says. "But I ask parents to remember back. Did it make you feel good about yourself? Did it make you feel like a better child? I bet not."

Abuse most often is found in poor families because they are already under the scrutiny of government agencies, Mr. Barfield says. "But abuse occurs in families regardless of income. Families with money can stay out of the system and the abuse becomes ingrained and passed along to the next generation without comment."