Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Child Abuse or Discipline? 

We were talking in Ethics class today, in part, about child abuse. One of the questions that I had, which I did not get to ask, was where is the line drawn between disciplining your child and abusing your child. Our guest lecturer suggested a "spectrum of abuse" which he said ranged from the most severe form, murder, to the least sever form, spanking your child. I don't know that I can get on board with the idea that spanking a child to discipline them is abuse. What is your opinion?



Wow, Ryan, this is a big one. If you've looked up the definition of "abuse" in the dictionary, you've found that the first definition given is "misuse," which would seem to suggest that physical discipline is not "abuse," strictly speaking.

However, I think that in a theological context, a better source than Webster's would be Carr's "New Dictionary of Pastoral Studies" which notes that the definition of "misuse" has been superceeded in the USA since the 70's and the UK and Europe since the 1980's with a definition that is more like "any deliberate violence." Under this construction, spanking would certainly qualify.

Interestingly, Carr's spectrum of abuse goes from "murder" down to "witholding of love." With a spectrum this wide, I think that the question of what would constitute appropriate Christian discipline is open again.

As a not-yet-father (as are you, Ryan), I may be ruled out of bounds to have an opinion on this matter since I haven't faced the harsh reality of the actual need to discipline an actual child. But perhaps it is also true that those with children are affected by the specificity of their experience. So, let's give each other a break at the outset and hold to our commitment to Christian responsibility as the ground for this debate.

It seems to me that violence among those who have a duty to care for one another (and parent to child is only one example) is counterproductive to Christian principles at best, and outright sinful at worst. Christians who wish to regulate each other's behavior must find positive, rather than negative, ways to influence each other. And to remain Christian, the witholding of love (as Carr acknowledges) is unacceptable.

Tricky problem, no doubt. But anything done in a Christian manner is harder than the same thing done according to the rules of the world. I'd have to side with Prof. P. on this one.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:58 PM  

Well Ryan, as a Director of Church School, discipline is a part of my staff's job and to an extent mine also.
Spanking is a rather out dated form of discipline. Nobody likes to do it. Never spank a child in anger.

The key with disciplining children (in my humble opinion) is consistency. "Let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no" (and your "maybe" maybe).
For example:
If you are driving in the car and all hell breaks loose: Do not threaten to pull the car over unless you will actually pull the car over.
Be consistent, talk to them at eye level, use a lowered tone of voice (always with adult words), never shout, and above all: DO NOT LET THEIR INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR CONTROL THE EMOTIONAL DYNAMIC OF THE ENVIRONMRNT.

By Blogger K, at 1:38 PM  

I don't think "violence" is as obviously defined as some of the remarks in the post and comment seem to me to suggest.

Is violence merely the application of force? Then I practice violence when hammering a nail. But then hammering a nail is not usually considered vicious (unless it's through the hand of our Lord--and even then, that vicious act is for our redemption).

Is violence then the application of force which violates the physical boundaries of another without their consent? Then my pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car is violence. Yet here again, I would doubtless be lauded as a hero for so doing.

Is violence the application of force which violates the physical boundaries of another without their consent and toward a predetermined end? Well, the pushing of the kid out from in front of the speeding car would fit that depiction.

And I would add that spanking a child would fit the previous description. So why would spanking a child be potentially vicious whereas pushing a kid out from a speeding car virtuous?

Must there be supposed another ingredient? If anger is involved, is it then vicious? I would think so (and thus agree: never spank a child in anger). But what if spanking is the deliberate, rational and calm action (unsolicited surely by the disciplinee) which is intended toward corrective discipline? Why would that be vicious if it's free of anger?

And what if I angrily and forcibly draw an attacker away from his intended victim and subdue him, with force, mind you, but without injury? Does my anger (even a righteous anger at the unjust attack of the defenseless) somehow make this act of violence less salvific and indeed vicious instead of virtuous?

In other words, the definitions (assumed mostly and not very explicit) presuppose some things about the discipline of children and of violence that I think need to be uncovered.

In other words, it's too easy to equate spanking with violence--a connection I'm calling into dispute here.

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 10:01 PM  

While I agree with Dr. Poling, and you Micah, in principle, I just can't call parents who occasionally spank their children as a means of discipline when all other modes of discipline have failed child abusers. Now a parent who spanks their child for reasons other than discipline, or a parent who overabundantly uses spanking as a disciplinary measure, or a non-parent figure who spanks a child for any reason might be a different story. Contrary to Kurt's thought, I guess I don't see spanking as an outdated mode of discipline for a parent to utilize. When it is misused, as Micah has pointed out with the definition he cited, it becomes abuse. From a legal point of view, most state laws that I found stated that "excessive corporal punishment" was against the law, but they differed of what "excessive" meant. All of this of course begs the next question: at what point does an outsider, or anyone of the three of us as future priests, intervene or say something?


By Blogger Ryan, at 10:07 PM  

Just saw Clifton's comment after I posted my own. Mark down the day and time, I think we agree on this. :)


By Blogger Ryan, at 10:11 PM  

See, Ryan, sometimes I clean up real good.

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 11:16 PM  


I think it is impossible for the human heart to punish without anger.

I'm just saying.

By Blogger Tripp Hudgins, at 12:31 PM  


it's abuse...whats more you enjoy it.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:41 PM  

But, Tripp, you're assuming that spanking-as-discipline is punitive. What if it's not punitive but corrective? Or do you have evidence and an argument to show that spanking-as-discipline is necessarily punitive?

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 2:32 PM  


The huge problem with the article you point us to is that it is rife with confusion:

Are we talking revenge, discipline, punishment? These things are all distinct, or at least the article does not prove how they are not distinct. As such the article is worthless other than to show that "getting back" at others makes us feel good.

But is spanking "getting back" at our children? Puh-leeze, the article neither argues for nor demonstrates what it already (apparently though confusedly) assumes.

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 2:38 PM  

This is one of those issues where I, like Micah, wish I were a parent. It seems so simple to discuss the pros and cons of disciplinary methods when one has not had to try them in practical application.

With that said I subscribe to the school of thought that says there must be a better way than physical pain to promote discipline. I understand that pain is a great teacher--we learn not to stick our hands in fire because it really hurts, for example. But as rational, thinking beings we should not have to resort to pain to teach. There are other ways, both positive and negative to get the point across.

But the real question here is whether spanking is abuse. One assumes that the spanking has to be hard enough to hurt, or there will be no message conveyed to the child. Again, never having done this to a child, I can only imagine that this is a fine line. If one does it in anger, or with too much force, or too often, yes it is abuse. I am not sure it is possible to completely set aside anger when spanking a child. And how exactly is one to judge "appropriate force," in such a situation? Or how often? Given that there should be other choices available to us rational beings, and the complications involved in using pain to educate, why don't we just steer clear and look for those other ways?

Cliff, you took a bit of a leap in your comment and lost me: How is pushing a child out from in front of a car the same as spanking them? In one scenario you have saved their life. In the other, they perhaps have learned not to drag the cat around by its tail. In the one there were no real alternatives, and in so doing you risk your own life. In the other, there are alternatives available, and chances are no one is going to die.

The leap to subduing a violent criminal also left me behind. While there are extreme cases, most children when they misbehave are far from "violent criminals." And besides, when you tackle that criminal how can you ever guarantee, as you suggest, that no one gets hurt. The introduction of physical contact into such a situation almost always escalates the violence involved to all parties.

On a last and somewhat humorous note, if you consider all this in light of American society, the person pushing the child from in front of the car is likely not to receive praise so much as a law-suit from the parents for the scrapes the child received in the process.

By Blogger Mark, at 2:53 PM  


Hero, but a hero sued in our litigious society. Regrettably you're right.

If you'll look I wasn't making a direct analogy between saving a kid from a car and trying to inculcate in them not to drag the cat around by the tail. Rather I was trying to draw out what is not explicit and only thus far assumed: what is "violence," or what is "abuse"? We think we know and have already begun to opine on this topic, but as the blinkered news article only too well illustrates, our assumptions do not offer a definition upon which to offer an opinion. We engage in gut reactions and then proceed to discriminate and judge.

My point all along is we need to come to terms with what we mean "violence" and "abuse," and then how those relate (or not) to spanking-as-discipline. I tried to offer some possible definitions but then also tried to show how those definitions were not at all helpful since they did not help us distinguish between acts potentially identical in form, though different in matter. But if, in fact, there is no material difference between spanking a kid and saving his life, then either every discipline is potential abuse, or even abuse is potentially life-saving.

I trust you will accept that such a conclusion is ludicrous.

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 3:40 PM  

As school teacher of almost 40 years I firmly believe that a lack of discipline can be child abuse. Tom

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:54 PM  

Hmm...Explain to me the difference between punative and corrective. I think of them as synonomous....no, that's not it. Why punish if not to correct? I think that punitive measures fall under the corrctive category. They are poor meathods of correcting as they destroy relationships and can break trust, but there you go.

By Blogger Tripp Hudgins, at 7:55 PM  

Anglobaptist -

I would look at "punitive" as being something that has as its end punishement and "corrective" as being something that has at its end the imparting of knowledge. As such, I would see spanking to have elements of both of those. Psychologists would call this negative reinforcement.

I saw the fire. I put my hand in the fire. I got burned. The next time I see the fire, I will not put my hand in it.

I saw my brother quietly reading in a chair and falling asleep. I walked up to him and slapped him because he was dozing and wouldn't be able to react quickly. My mother caught me and she spanked me. The next time I see my brother dozing in a chair, I'll at least think twice about slapping him (or look around to see if Mom is watching).

The effect of the fire burning my hand was corrective to my behavior, but the fire cannot be a moral agent and thus cannot have a punitive function in this example. The mother in the latter example wants to punish me for being obnoxious, and the punishment involved physical pain, so I think of that the next time I encounter the same situation. Her goal is both punitive and corrective. As Mark and others point out, there may be other ways to accomplish the same dual goal.


By Blogger Ryan, at 10:39 PM  


Well, I get that much, and effectiveness is a good thing to look for I guess. But is the response to punitive correction a moral response? Does that even matter? I get burned or spanked, it is my reaction to pain that matters. And even if one explains the reason for the punishment (given a child can reason - age specific?), does the punishment fit the morality..."does the punishment fit the crime" is a different quandry. I think we need to ask if the punishment, a punitive smack on the bumm for example, fits the morality one propones.

Hmm. Interesting. This may not rule out punitive methods of correcting a child, but it causes me to think about it differently.

By Blogger Tripp Hudgins, at 12:08 PM  

Hello to all. Mark asked me for my thoughts....and I am posting them here. I appreciate the opportunity to comment as this is one of my areas of research.

Mark, Your thoughts were well reasoned...as were those of the others overall. Abuse can be thought of as actions that cause harm, whether physical or emotional. The distinction between pushing a child out of the way of harm and causing a child harm from a chosen action are fairly distinct. I was confused by the last comment posted by Ryan...Ryan is correct that negative reinforcement will influence behavior and could be construed as part of spanking...in that a child will increase behavior that alleviates a negative situation....so the child will stop doing what gets him/her spanked to alleviate the spanking...however, it is not corrective in the sense of helping the child learn anything....and in that way functions more like punishment.

Ryan's comments regarding the fire as an example of either punishment or correction was unclear to me; I apologize....
Perhaps I was just lost here re what was meant by punitive and corrective and which had moral agency....the suggestion is that the fire was corrective...because it caused pain; the fire was not punitive, because although it caused pain it did not have a moral function.... I would think these more likely to be reversed...although I am not sure I agree with the premise.

Generally, however, corrective discipline does encompasses a moral function, because corrective discipline is meant to bring about behavior that conforms to conventions [which is part of the theory of moral reasoning]. Conversely punishment, is meant to control behavior by causing pain or discomfort [whether that pain be from a burn, from withdrawal of affection/love, or from berating/yelling, or from some form of abusive response]. Punishment controls behavior, generally, only in the presence of the punisher because it does not lead to an internalization of the convention or understanding of the reason behind a necessary change in behavior. Thus, punishment is often done in anger as we are punishing someone or something for keeping us from our goal. In the case of the fire, we don't put our hand in the fire again because it caused pain...there is no understanding of how that translates to other situations and beyond the age of 4 or so we are unlikely to hold the fire accountable for our pain. When the adult/parent engages in corrective behavior it is couched in interactions that explain the situation, expected behavior, and why the behavior exhibited was not acceptable. This can take various forms. These can range from time out with discussion following regarding the issues of expected behavior to time out, explanation, and a slap on the bottom. However, as pointed out in the discussions posted, spanking used in this manner will not constitute abuse, will not be done in anger, and will not be used often...generally when the adult/parent gets past the calming down and explanation the need for further discipline is unnecessary because the correction has already been undertaken. If this doesn't function as corrective over time, then a slap on the bottom may be undertaken as part of the process...being the latter act and done when calm. This is corrective, this is not abusive. Conversely, hitting a child hard, hitting a child as a means of discipline but not in the context outlined above, and hitting a child because they have made you angry will teach them....to look for mom before slapping a sleeping child, to overpower those who anger them with force, and to fear the punisher....not healthy outcomes.

So, is spanking abuse? Yes, it can be when it is meant to cause pain, when it is used in anger, and when it is not used as a corrective mechanism. The better question, which is what many addressed, is whether spanking is a necessary component to corrective discipline....that is more likely to be answered with a no. The most effective correction comes from setting clear boundaries and requiring children to conform to those boundaries. The encouragement to conform to these boundaries comes from not chiding the child or punishing the child, but by respecting them and understanding them and encouraging them, through guided interactions, to understand why they should chose a different behavior and why that has rewards for them, their friends, family, etc. This can be done through a series of interactions, very few of which would require spanking. The use of reward for what is desired, the adage of catching a child engaged in the behavior you want and praising that behavior in some way, coupled with explanations and related costs for behavior that is unacceptable is more likely to help children develop behavior that is acceptable. This is true for a number of reasons...first, as a punisher you don't gain a good deal of good feeling and thus your rules are important to me as a child only in that they can help me avoid pain; much better equipped for decision making is the child who sees both the authority and the rules as important because of the positive outcome following them will bring [health, safety, acceptance, friends, toys...etc.]. As God helps us flourish with his love, we are best off as parents/adults when we help others flourish through loving, and corrective, interactions.

So, as the child is sitting by the fire, explain to them that the fire is hot and not to touch. If they go to touch, ask them to move away /or move them away/ from the fire for a short time, explain to them why they have been moved (i.e., that they are acting in a way that is dangerous, etc.) and then let them move back to the fire with the understanding that they cannot touch the fire. If they touch the fire; well yes, the pain will help make your message about the fire clear...but not about the importance of being responsible and safe...that comes from continued efforts to teach them.

Slapping the child when he is sleeping....some may say to slap in return so the child knows it hurts...not really affective because it doesn't teach the messages that are important (i.e., that reflect the moral function) which are not to take advantage of others and to protect others. A corrective response may be to have the child sit for a bit to think about the situation, then explain some of the issues at hand, and then decide on a corrective action related to the unacceptable behavior. In this case, since he caused his sibling pain, having to do something that helped to fix that situation.

If you engage in all these steps and then, if the behavior continues, you can add more consequences, praise the times the sibling is helping the other, and perhaps over time add a slap on the bottom as part of the consequence...but it will probably not be necessary. And with children who are most difficult to help correct, a slap on the bottom is more often unhelpful to gaining their compliance. We have a thinking and thoughtful God; in his image, we should be thinking and thoughtful educators/parents....

Dr. Wendy Middlemiss

By Blogger Mark, at 5:13 PM  

Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?