Physical Abuse vs. Corporal Punishment?

I was asked to lead the children’s liturgy at my church. As part of my training, I had to take an online course titled Shield the Vulnerable. It was about how to identify sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and how to report it to authorities.

Most of it was self-explanatory, although I was stuck on the chapter about physical abuse as it tried to differentiate that from corporal punishment.

For example, here is one of the questions I got wrong. Because I did not write it down, I will paraphrase:

A.) Every Saturday, Reggie puts his 5-year-old son over his knee and spanks him with an open hand. Even if he has not seen his son do anything wrong, he knows that he is capable of misbehaving and the spanking is in response to that.

B.) Once or twice, Willy has whipped his 5-year-old son with a bamboo whip on his bare buttocks, leaving red welts. He reserves this form of punishment for only the worst misbehavior and relies on this form of punishment because he says it is quick.

C.) About once a month, Ginny gets so upset over her 5-year-old daughter’s incessant crying that she gives her a 10-minute timeout in her bedroom.

The course asked us to pick the MOST LIKELY scenario of physical child abuse. I had a hard time deciding between “A” and “B” as I thought both these fathers sounded abusive. I chose “A” because I thought it was effed up that Reggie was hitting his son for no reason.

The answer was “B” because Willy was leaving marks and using a foreign object to hit his child. Reggie was merely disciplining his son, and spanking is considered an acceptable form of punishment in some cultures. Wow, am I so far removed from that world.

Can you tell the difference between physical abuse and corporal punishment?


49 thoughts on “Physical Abuse vs. Corporal Punishment?

  1. Example A is problematic not because it is a

    smack with an open hand, but because of the ritualistic weirdness of it.

    EVERY Saturday?  Whether he saw him do something or not? That’s wrong, and it doesn’t matter what form of discipline you’re using on a child in that instance.

    We personally did not take physical discipline out of the tool chest when we had our boys, but really rarely used it. As it turned out, the eldest is one who we could say “I am very disappointed in your behavior!” and have that rock his world, and the youngest is one for whom restricting privileges is a huge, big, monstrous deal that makes an impact on future behaviors.

    Of course, once Youngest came to me weeping because Eldest had hit him. Being wise in the ways of siblings, I asked, “What were you doing just before he hit you?”  “I kicked him in the nuts,” was the angelic reply.  Then I got to explain about natural consequences of one’s actions. I personally have always found that arranging consequences and rewards works best. It’s just that sometimes it’s my job to limit the consequences so that they aren’t lifethreatening.

    • Hah!

      My MIL tells a story about how my husband’s brothers (he’s the oldest of three boys), would come to her wailing “Jeremy threw me!” and for quite a long time Jeremy would get in trouble for this.  I don’t know if he didn’t know how to explain his position, or if she didn’t believe him or what, but one day she saw what was happening.  He did throw his brothers–because they jumped on his back.

    • What were you doing just before he hit you?

      That is so the key with my boys.  Older brother can get little brother so worked up and upset, he’s too smart and a good manipulator and he knows how to push his little brother’s buttons.  The younger one will sometimes get fed up and haul off and whack him.  I can’t say that I blame him sometimes.  So then, the little one needs some kind of punishing I guess but the older one needs a consequence too somehow.

      • ohhh yeah

        The older one likes to boss his brother around, and the little one will shove him or pull his shirt or scratch him… at least he no longer bites.
        I once saw the little one chomp on the big one–immediately after the big one snatched the TV remote (they start early) and threw himself onto the couch with the remote under his body. Damn, dude, I’d bite  you too, if you made me feel so powerless. No, I didn’t say that.

        I have used the “M should not bite, that hurts. But you know that when you are bossy he doesn’t like it and he shoves you. Maybe you should not boss him around so much.” It’s a fine line between actions have consequences and blaming the victim. Arg.

        • “Arg” is right

          It’s been going on for years and obviously whatever we’re doing isn’t working.  I’m leaning toward saying they can work it out amongst themselves.  At 6 1/2 and almost 8, they’re old enough to negotiate things like this (with a little adult mediation)

          • only leaning toward?

            My boys are about 6 months older than yours, and I’ve more or less dispensed with the adult mediation.  90% of the time they are both to blame, and the other 10% of the time it doesn’t make much difference anyway.  So my generic response to “MOM!  He….. ” is, “And why is that of interest to me?”

            • You are on the right path.

              Having had seven children, all fairly close in age, I quickly realized that the worst thing I could do was to become caught up in the middle of their disputes.  Unless someone was doing something to cause serious physical injury to another, I often fell back on the “settle it amongst yourselves”.  

            • yeah

              I think the only reason they need the mediation is because we haven’t helped them figure it out before now like we should have.  They don’t really fight all that much (like actual fighting as opposed to the mutual beating each other up for fun that they do constantly), but lately when they do I just get fed up and tell them to WORK IT OUT.  We didn’t really transition into that as well as I think we should have in past years.

              Seriously, the very hardest thing for me about parenting (and I think it’s one of the most important) has been consistency.  Some days I’m too worn out to make them pick up toys, and then one day all the toys will push me over the edge and I complain about them never cleaning up.  I am consistent about a lot of things, it just takes so much emotional energy to never let any aspect of it slip.  Sorry, OT, I’m just really feeling overwhelmed today.

      • Sometimes the answer is,

        “Well, you’re even, now, aren’t you?” as with the hit vs. groin kick. Everyone apologizes for going physical, and we go on.

        I absolutely think that antagonizing someone into violence deserves consequences. I have had that happen to me one too many times in childhood and then be punished because I was the elder and “should know better than to hit your younger sister”.  Yes, well, she should know better than to devil anyone like that…..

  2. I think

    A and B are both abusive, but A is is more emotional abuse carried out physically.  It’s still wrong, though.

    And I agree with Village–just don’t hit.  No gray area for physical abuse if you just avoid the whole thing.

    • I didn’t read Village’s reply that way.

      “Never touch a child in anger” is not the same thing as “just don’t hit.” (In fact, arguably, the first father is not touching his son in anger; he’s made a calm, reasoned decision to carry out the spanking … whether or not we agree with his decision is another matter, of course.)

  3. my dad took a little

    from Column A: If one of us was caught doing something wrong, he’d spank all three of us because of all the things he assumed we were doing that he didn’t catch. Didn’t happen very often, though.

    You’d think the group consequences would make us pull together and try to keep each other out of trouble, but it didn’t work out that way. I remember the Easter morning when my little brother couldn’t wait to tattle on us for using the shovels in our Easter baskets to fling jelly beans on to the cottage cheese ceiling 😉

    The example A guy sounds like a believer in original sin — we’re all sinning all the time, even at birth.  If that’s the case, maybe he’s sort of exacting penitence on Earth to give his child a better chance of getting into Heaven?  

  4. as a male

    who was a single father, I spanked my child once. I made a rule that spanking was only allowed when my child was out of control, and refusing to stop throwing a tantrum. I decided this from a supermarket trip, where a shopping Mom was allowing her child to throw a tantrum- actually, she did not know how to end it- the tantrum escalated into the child throwing itself on the ground and banging its head on the floor. Mom picked up the screaming writhing child, and tried to calm him, but he refused to be calmed, and, when put back down, threw himself on the ground again. I left the store while this drama was going on, and was outside loading in groceries, when the Mom & screaming brat came out. the child had escalated tactics into throwing himself in front of Mom’s path, Mom standing up child and child again throwing itself on the ground, but this time, while Mom was carting groceries across the parking lot- the kid did it with cars moving around him. Mom finally had it and picked up the kid and spanked the he11 out of him- finally the kid stopped.

    Justified spanking, I think.

    • OK

      I’m a little disturbed that you are referring to this child as “it”  I think the Mom probably spanked him in the end because she was terrified he could have gotten hurt if  a car had not seen him.  I’ve had to physically remove my son mid-tantrum where he was carrying on like that.  In our case I carried him to the car and then went back to retrieve items.  I was about 7 months pregnant at the time and my son was about 40 lbs too.  Good times.  It seemed the safest way to deal with it.  Spanking would not work mid-tantrum with my kids.  It would have fueled it and just changed the topic-not ended it or addressed the cause.

      • I just wasn’t going there…

        But yeah…how bout helping that mom with the screaming toddler and armful of groceries instead of looking on and judging them?!

        • tantrums on purpose?

          “Refusing to stop throwing a tantrum” is kind of an oxymoron. Tantrums are total loss of emotional control, not preplanned efforts to misbehave–at least in my house. My “spirited” kid needs help and love to calm down in these situations…losing control of myself to “spank the hell out of” my child for losing control? Not gonna be so effective in the short term OR the long term.

    • So the lesson learned is

      child out of control with anger = adult out of control with anger.  

      I don’t see how this helps the situation.  Violence begets violence and this sort of parenting teaches the child that violence solves the problem.

  5. I’m gonna go with A

    Mom C bothers me a little.  It looks like she’s just imposing a cooling off period when she gets frustrated – that’s fine.  But if she always punishes erratically based on her responses rather than the child’s actions I wouldn’t necessarily rule her out as having potential to escalate.  

    Dad B is way over the top and needs to pull back.  Nevertheless, even though I can’t imagine any justification for raised welts on a 5 year old I don’t think this dad is likely to do real damage.  “Quick, painful, and over” was considered appropriate discipline in the pre-time out era and for the most part we turned out fine without ever thinking our parents were abusive.  My mom preferred ‘the stick’ to guilt-inducing punishments which she considered inappropriately harsh, and we kids agreed with her.

    Dad A is abusive, period.  I don’t care if his spankings were painless pats, this is not going to turn out well.

  6. no physical punishment was my motto..

    although i succumbed twice…once intentionally the other i lost control of myself.  neither instance was good.  the first was when dd was 2 and ran in parking lot.  i gave her a light swat on diapered behind…not much effect.  the other was a full blown temper tantrum and i got tired of holding the door shut during her time out, so i swatted her behind.  i still feel bad about that one.

    i disciplined through time outs.   dd was very good about throwing tantrums.  when she did it in a public spot my reaction was swift.  i dropped everything, and loaded her into the car for home.  no negotiating and  i never handled it by trying to calm her in crowded spot.  immediate removal seemed to work.

    Example A and B is abuse in my mind.  I wasn’t spanked, my brothers rarely and my parents didn’t take much flak in general.  I cringe when I see parents physically punish their kids.  Hasn’t everyone read the research on spanking at this point?

    • sadly, no

      I typically spend class time on use of corporal punishment…actually make students take a stand and back it up with research.  Every semester I have at least a few students who want to support spanking and find some flimsy research to try and use.  Ugh.

    • I think it’s a class/culture

      issue.  There are still places where spanking is alive and well, along with yelling, name calling, etc. And no, not everyone has read the research, even second or third hand. There’s a lot of ignorance out there.

      We saw “Precious” last night. I wouldn’t call anything I saw in it discipline but there was a lot of ignorant abuse. (I recommend it, BTW. Powerful stuff and a well-made film.)

      • Boy, did I find this out

        when I was immersed in school affairs.  There were many African American parents that not only spanked their own children, but demanded that corporal punishment be re-instated in the schools as well.  Took me awhile to process their reasoning, but when I did, I could at least understand a bit where they were coming from.  They pointed out, not incorrectly, that their children were now being punished in school by being suspended or expelled…a quick paddling was seen as less detrimental to their educational prospects.  They also were quite quick to point out to those like me, “white, bright and polite”, as one community put it, that their children had far less margin for error than mine had and therefore, their discipline had to be much more strictly enforced.  

        While I still don’t agree with hitting children with sticks, or doing anymore than smacking a hand or give an occasional swat towards the bottom, I no longer hold my position as being so morally superior.  Rather, I view it as another example of “white privilege” that allows me to have a different view of childhood behavior and discipline.

        • ouch.

          their children had far less margin for error than mine had and therefore, their discipline had to be much more strictly enforced.  

          Dear god.  That is powerful.  Painfully so.  Because its still right.

        • That’s interesting

          I teach predominantly African American children in an afterschool program.  While I was aware that corporal punishment was more accepted in their community, I was really unsure what the rationale was.  This provides insight as to why this is so.  Sadly, it makes sense.  Still I can’t help but think that there must be a better way to achieve their parenting goals.  We had a tragic example of abuse within the community last year.  

          Warning:  This link is extremely disturbing and involves a toddler dying at the hands of her abusers.

        • yep

          We had discussions about this between white, black, and hispanic families at DS’s hippie school. All the families were politically progressive but there were differences in discipline.  I remember one black parent pointing out the difference between seeing a group of white students run and a group of black students run. Her point was that her child should be trained NOT to run, because a black child running is seen as threatening.  I’m not sure it had anything to do with spanking, but it was a good reminder of white privilege and how many more restrictions — or maybe just different ones? — different communities impose, based on their own sets of hopes and fears.  

          One of DS’s friends (half black) was grounded for going to sleep with her bedroom window open.  Her black father believed she was risking a break-in and rape by doing so, so he handed out a pretty stiff punishment for it.

          I still don’t believe spanking is the best way to accomplish discipline goals. I believe it can buy you some short-term compliance, but in the longer run it may create resentment and fear and, in the case of a parent losing their temper, it can lead to a loss of respect for the authority figure.  Punishment in general is not found to be as effective as other disciplinary measures.

        • you are right..

          i was being flip in my remark.  i know not everyone is aware of the consequences of physical punishment.  there was an interesting inteview on…again NPR, about an african american educator who had remarried and started another family.  he was stunned by all the new parenting techniques with his second round of parenting and began a parent education program for an african american community.  part of the program discussed physical punishment as well as the importance of reading to children early.  he worked hard to change parenting techniques and was successful.

          i have known several white privilege folks who were raised differently than me. physical punishment left its scars emotionally imo on them.  i am grateful my parents resorted to spankings very rarely and in my case…never.  

          i don’t think i can see the movie Precious, too upsetting, although i hear it is a fine movie.

    • same here

      I’ve spanked ds three times, once for running in the street on purpose, once for climbing up on the garden gate and opening it and letting himself onto the driveway (he was warned if he did it again, he would be spanked), and once for refusing to get in his goddamned carseat, a battle that has lasted two years now and I am done with it. He got a warning on that one, too. We had a long period of M&Ms to get him in the carseat, then he was ok, then backsliding. I am Each spanking was a single swat on the butt, but the whole thing still sucks.

      Yesterday he started fiddling with his carseat’s buckles, trying to undo them – a first because the kid we carpool with does her own carseat. I’ve had to implement a rule that only grown ups touch the red button. Period. So I told him that if he touched the red button, I was going to spank him because it’s a very important thing about safety.

      I’m not proud of this, but he is such a relentless tester that I honestly don’t know what else to do.

      Oh, and then tonight, he said he was the grown up and I am the kid and if I didn’t do something, he was going to spank me. Stab one in the heart. When we asked why, he said it’s because he was getting mad (he wasn’t really mad, he was just telling us the script). He doesn’t even register the spankings as safety related. Stab two.

      Some days I want to just get in the car and drive away.

      • I hear you.

        My daughter had a few weeks of unbuckling her carseat on the freeway when she was two ish. What finally stopped her? I drove her to the police station and asked the officers to come out and scare her. They were very gentle, but very firm and told her ALL the bad things that can happen if children are not safely restrained in a car. They were very thorough and kind, and scared the living daylights out of her. She’s never done it again, and warns her brother that mommy will take him to the police if he takes his seatbelt off. :) Not sure it had quite the right impact…but the result was good.

        • A friend of mine

          did a similar thing to get her son to wear his bike helmet.  She flagged down an officer driving down the street and he told her boy why it was important.  He always wore it after that.  When safety’s involved, sometimes a little scare can be a good thing.  

        • I’ll do this

          Good one, I’ll do this if he fusses with the buckles again. Once he was fussing as we were trying to get settled on a flight and I caught the flight attendant’s eye and said, “Isn’t it very important to put on the seat belt?”  or some such. She was a pro, warm but authoritative. For the rest of the flight I referred to her as the pilot to ds. A real policeman would do wonders.

          I remember on the Day of the Red Button my thought was “There’s no way I am going through anything more with the carseat.” I am pretty sure that when I start a thought with “there’s no way” nothing reasonable comes out of my mouth.

          So your daughter has “The Day Mommy Took Me to the Police.” What a clever solution. Thank you for cheering me up.

      • {{{{hug}}}}

        Boy, it really hurts when they role play, doesn’t it?

        I personally don’t think you’re doing something wrong here.  Even if he doesn’t get that its about safety, he knows he’ll get in trouble–there are bad consequences.  It may keep him alive.  And likely in the future, he won’t really remember the spankings.  You’re not doing it every day, you’re not WAILING on the kid.  This doesn’t make you a bad mom at all, IMHO.

        • thanks

          I do appreciate that, tessajp. Next time he does some egregiously unsafe thing though I am taking him to the police, seriously! Cops and firemen are at the shopper in our little berg every day (getting lunch), so it’ll be easy to just flag someone down. I love it.

          Once he was roll playing our family and he had the daddy and the little boy playing. The mommy was …. grinding coffee! Had to laugh over that one.

          Overall he’s a sweet, sincere, and very engaged little boy, and thankfully he is wonderful with other kids and adults. But getting him to change tracks once he is engaged is our bugaboo.

  7. I cannot bear…

    …to think of what Dad A is teaching his child–that he’s no good, no matter what he does, or how hard he tries.  That he always, always deserves punishment.  It may not be physical abuse, but it is damn sure mental and emotional abuse.  It breaks my heart.  What a horrible relationship to build with your child.

    My dad spanked us.  I would never classify it as abuse–he only did it when we transgressed, in serious ways.  It never undermined me the way Dad A is undermining his child.  DD almost never gave us a reason to spank her, but maaaaan, DS will.  I just know it.  Like other pps, I would not hesitate to spank a child who willfully runs out into the street or a parking lot.  Hell, I’ve already started biting DS back when he bites me (and dammit, its not working!!).  But weekly, because they must have done something bad?  It makes me sick.

    • It’s ironic

      What dad in example A is doing is setting up his child to be vulnerable to predators by lowering the child’s self-esteem.  This was something we learned about in the program my diocese used.  No they’re not paying me to shill their training 😉

  8. We use VIRTUS training in my diocese

    Your example sounds troubling to me.  I would view both examples A and B as abusive.  I was satisfied with the training program used by our diocese.  I don’t know how much good it would do, but maybe you could write a letter to the bishop suggesting this program instead.  The seminar we attended was called “Protecting God’s Children”

  9. “Punishment” should occur

    in decreasing frequency over time.

    If it’s working (and I have my doubts), punishment should lead to a decrease in whatever behavior it’s addressing.  If the behavior continues then the punishment isn’t working, and the adult should be THE ADULT and stop.

    Hitting for the sake of hitting
    Hitting to bring bodily injury
    Hitting regardless of the behavior
    Yelling, threatening, time out, restraint, taking things away, ….
    all of those are or can be abusive.

    We’ve had this chat here before – and I think it’s a reasonable debate – on whether some form of spanking is appropriate and when.  There are cultural and family differences there.     But, if it’s not decreasing, if behavior is not getting better, then the punishment should stop and another strategy used.

  10. My guideline has always been

    that if I wouldn’t do it to my best friend, then I shouldn’t be doing it to my children, either. Likewise, I shouldn’t speak to them in a tone or with an attitude that I wouldn’t use with a best friend. No dog voice, no shame, humiliation, dismissiveness, manipulation, coercion, mean sarcasm, or taking out my own frustrations on them. I acknowledge their feelings, own my own without blaming them on anyone else, and make it clear that everyone’s needs are important.

    As to kids fighting with each other, I usually acknowledged their feelings – “I can tell you’re both feeling (angry, frustrated, grumpy, or whatever)” – and asked them together if they would like some help solving the problem, or if they wanted to try to work it out themselves. Usually that was enough all by itself. They needed to know someone understood how they felt, and they needed a chance to pause and refocus on solving the problem rather than just digging in.

  11. I think “A” counts as emotional abuse

    I will give the curriculum the benefit of the doubt and assume that if they had asked which one was emotional abuse, the answer would be “A”

  12. Example A

    is so weird it makes me wonder if the parent is mentally ill or something. Kind of like the people who beat their child to get the bad spirits out, or something.

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