When does discipline become abuse?

In this day and age, it's much less socially acceptable to discipline children with a spanking than it used to be. But many parents readily admit they still do.
In this day and age, it's much less socially acceptable to discipline children with a spanking than it used to be. But many parents readily admit they still do.

We've all seen it before, frazzled parents dealing with their cranky kids; and threats of punishment. "When it comes to spanking, I like to say the hard part is to know exactly when," said Micheal Shank, a dad. "If they're reaching for something that in the future could be dangerous, for instance they're reaching for a knob on the stove and they're not really thinking. I think it's appropriate to give them that little, 'Hah! maybe I shouldn't do that," said Robert Kilpatrick, a father of three.

But when does the law say it's okay to physically discipline your kids and when is it considered abuse? Experts say it all has to do with the context, and of course, the result. "The spanking, the disciplinary action is to get the child's attention. So even if the child says, 'oh that didn't hurt me,' it's not supposed to hurt them," Elena Acosta the Assistant Director of Child Protective Services in Kern County.

Karen Cooley is the director of Haven Counseling Center, where parenting classes teach that it's never okay to spank. "I don't think that any form of physical discipline constitutes abuse, but it's a slippery slope. And it's real easy to go from slapping once on the bottom to slapping around on the arms and the legs and slapping the face,"said Cooley.

Many parents agree. "I absolutely believe 100% that it's not okay," said Heather Clinton, a mother of four. "If a child's getting into something or you're having a bad day, to me it would be too iffy to spank, because you don't know if you're spanking out of anger," said Lanita Moler.

To law enforcement, it comes down to the intent. They generally wouldn't prosecute a parent for spanking with an open hand, but say that's different from the type of force that might leave a child with a split lip or other injury. "Basically, when you leave an injury on a child you've crossed the line," said Acosta.

CPS officials have some tips for parents when it comes to disciplining their children. They say to always do so calmly and to use discipline to correct, not to hurt a child. "Parents who use corporal punishment can cross the line by inflicting an injury on a child that they didn't mean to. We recommend that if you're going to spank your child, only use your hand. But we don't recommend that children be spanked," said Acosta.

"Physical punishment is quick and easy and it usually gets a direct result of stopping the behavior. But it doesn't stop the behavior over the long haul and the child doesn't really learn anything from it," said Cooley. Cooley says removing a child from a situation and explaining what they did wrong is a much more effective way of teaching them not to do something.
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