Spanking: Where Does Discipline End and Abuse Begin?

spanking definitionI am guilty of spanking my children. My oldest has been spanked once, maybe twice, in his entire 17 years. My 7-year-old has received a few prime swats, and other forms of discipline, in her short lifetime. My middle child, a 14-year-old boy, is much more intimately familiar with spankings. As an extremely hyperactive and unruly child, my son was constantly exploring things that were off limits and often dangerous. Undeterred by the threats of toy removal, time-outs, and other nonphysical forms of punishment, he pushed me to my limits and I resorted to the only other method I knew: spanking. At the tender age of 5, he was quite adept at “assuming the position.” He no longer covered his back end with his tiny hands, and as much as it drove me crazy, he developed a stoic resistance and would receive his spanking without so much as a tear.

Was this child abuse? Or was it merely discipline? According to the statutes of my state, Florida, I have not committed child abuse because I did not significantly impair my children’s physical, mental, or emotional health. But if I look at an exception in the same statute, it is not so clear. It reads: “Corporal discipline of a child by a parent does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.” So even though I subjected my child—actually, all three of my children—to corporal punishment at one time or another, it is considered abuse only if I harmed them.

But doesn’t a spanking cause emotional injury? Doesn’t bending over and getting smacked, pretty firmly, on the bottom cause physical pain? Doesn’t this type of action potentially result in a traumatic event for a child who has never been struck by a parent? Did I cause harm?

I don’t know where discipline ends and abuse begins. I know that I was spanked as a child. I know that sometimes I learned the lesson and sometimes I didn’t. But I also know that when I was young, the thought of calling the police and reporting my parents as abusers never even entered my mind, no matter how sore my butt was.

Times changed as I grew up. Cable news outlets expanded, divorces were on the rise, and the stories of children being abused, and others claiming abuse to malign a parent, exploded. As an adult, I became keenly aware of how lucky I was, never having been subjected to horrific physical or mental traumas. My eyes were opened to the fact that what I saw as a form of discipline could be interpreted by some as abuse. I was also very cognizant of the fact that had my parents delivered the punishment out of anger, they could have easily crossed that fine line.

I don’t know where discipline ends and abuse begins. I know that I was spanked as a child. I know that sometimes I learned the lesson and sometimes I didn’t. But I also know that when I was young, the thought of calling the police and reporting my parents as abusers never even entered my mind, no matter how sore my butt was.

I heard members of the media discussing this very topic. They agreed that spanking is an acceptable form of discipline, if done appropriately. They stated that if the punishment is delivered out of anger, as an outlet for frustration and rage, then it is abuse. It is only when the punishment is administered out of love, and with the intention of teaching a child what is right, that it constitutes as discipline and not abuse. But doesn’t the mother who brushes her child’s teeth with steel wool say she does it only to teach her child the importance of dental hygiene? Doesn’t the father who forces his toddler to wear a dirty diaper for two days do so only to help the child become potty-trained?

Children have been spanked for generations. And yes, they have been given alcohol, medicine, and even hot sauce. A relative of mine got hot sauce on her thumb to help her quit sucking it. She ended up crying so hard after she tasted the hot sauce that she rubbed her eyes with the same thumb. The result? Very irritated eyes. But she didn’t lose her eyesight, didn’t call the police, and didn’t suck her thumb again.

I am an extremely fortunate person. I was not abused as a child. I was punished, had pickle juice put on my thumb, was sent to bed with no supper, and was spanked. But I was never beaten. I was never psychologically tortured. I was never burned, locked in a closet, or left hungry for days. And I never, ever had any potentially harmful liquid forced down my throat or got thrown into an ice-cold shower. I could not imagine doing this to any of my children, not matter the circumstances. But mothers, fathers, stepparents, foster parents, and other so-called “guardians” do these things every day to hundreds of thousands of children. And I’d bet that if you asked any one of them why, they would all say the same thing: they did it to teach a lesson; they did it to discipline; they did it out of love.

I’m really glad my parents didn’t love me that much.

© Copyright 2011 by Jen Wilson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cane

    Cane

    August 29th, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    I have never been able to wrapy my mind around the idea that hitting your child is okay, even under the guise of spanking and it being for discipline. If it is not ok for your kids to hit others, then how can you ever justify that it is ok for you to hit them? Don’t you think that in many ways spanking sends exactly the opposite message of what you intend, and that it probably gives them the idea that hitting others is ok. There are so many more effective ways of disciplining the children- why not try that?

  • stuart

    stuart

    August 29th, 2011 at 7:01 PM

    If spanking is abuse then what next?A parent helping a little toddler in the washroom is sexual abuse? What are coming to??

    Parents CAN spank their kids for discipline and there is no two ways about it. I think the present laws of “unless to cause harm” are good enough and we would do better if frivolous appeals of teens charging their parents of abuse are thrown out of the window…not using legal proof or something but just COMMON SENSE!

  • Ella

    Ella

    August 18th, 2016 at 5:54 AM

    Helping in the washroom isn’t a punishment, though. Would you kiss your kid as a punishment? Hug them as a punishment? Make them show you their butt as a punishment and let you touch and slap it…? Because that’s what spanking feels like for some kids, especially when they’re in preschool and their adrenal wiring is being formed (that’s when sexual responses are actually shaped, not during puberty). So for kids who were spanked and DIDN’T interpret it this way, I’d say they were lucky. But the ones who did aren’t likely to talk about it until well after they grow up, if then…

  • Against Spanking

    Against Spanking

    August 29th, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    Here are the problems with spanking:

    1) There is always an alternative, and just as effective way of teaching (or dealing with a behavior problem) that does not involve physical force.
    2) Spanking always impacts the attachment/relationship between child & parent.
    3) It teaches children that physical force is an acceptable solution to problems that do not require it.
    4) It says more about the parents inability to regulate their own feelings than about the child’s behavior.

    99% of those who spank their children, were spanked themselves in their childhood. It’s a legacy burden passing from one generation to the next.

  • Michelle Glass

    Michelle Glass

    August 30th, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    I couldn’t agree more with “Against Spanking’s” (comment #3) responses. I’d like to further add that spanking (or other forms of corporal punishment) “out of love and with the intention to teach” is merely rationalism and justification. Could not a husband do the same to his wife and say he was lovingly try to teach her a lesson? Or your boss say she/he was trying to teach an employee a lesson? Fortunately not, as we have strict laws on that. Unfortunately for children the laws give adults more power over them. Striking anyone one loves, whether in anger or not, in itself creates harm and does, as stated in comment 3, impacts bonding.

    There are other solutions to “teach a lesson”.

  • Joni Sadler

    Joni Sadler

    September 7th, 2011 at 8:20 PM

    For once I agree with the media. If you take your anger at them out on a child by spanking them, you need help. Be like Hayden in Coach and find yourself a kicking tree out in the yard and take your frustrations out on that. The worst end result will be a sore toe.

    Seriously, it’s not right or smart to take your anger out on any living thing. An inanimate object you yourself are willing to smash up or punch, like a pillow, is your best bet.

  • Maurice T. Cohen

    Maurice T. Cohen

    September 7th, 2011 at 10:17 PM

    If it has a lasting effect that is negative, physically or psychologically, then it’s child abuse. If you hit them on the head or hard enough that you draw blood, bruise, or have to take them to the doctor? You have committed abuse.

    Sometimes you do need to swat them on the backside a few times when all else fails and it is very easy to cross the line -IF-you don’t wait until you’ve cooled off to punish them.

  • H. Edwards

    H. Edwards

    September 7th, 2011 at 11:45 PM

    My Dad used to say “this hurts me more than it hurts you” when he was giving us a whipping. Yeah right Dad. My sore butt complete with bright red handprints on it doubted that very much. That’s how he would be justifying it in his own mind and I believe he truly believed that.

  • Jackson C.

    Jackson C.

    September 8th, 2011 at 12:36 AM

    Parents, you should keep your hands to yourself. Period. Even if you don’t care about the damage you’re doing them, think about this:the sooner you hit, the sooner they will hit back. One day they will be the bigger, stronger one of the two of you and when they hit you, remember that you taught them how anger and consequences go hand-in-hand.

    That’s karma for you.

  • Stella Donovan

    Stella Donovan

    September 8th, 2011 at 12:39 AM

    Even if hot sauce worked, it’s downright cruel to do that to a child young enough to suck their thumb. Children do grow out of it eventually and it honestly doesn’t do any harm at all. Ever accidentally splashed hot sauce in your eyes? That burns like heck and needs medical attention. The poor girl! They were lucky her eyes weren’t permanently damaged.

  • Sadie G. Murphy

    Sadie G. Murphy

    September 8th, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    “We did it out of love.” That’s what they say to make you feel bad. Excuses and lies. Go pick on someone your own size, you bullies. Would you hit a co-worker if they did anything wrong? On second thoughts, you probably would if that’s your mentality.

    I’d gladly pay the costs of your jail term if it kept you off the streets and away from your children forever.

  • h.s.

    h.s.

    September 8th, 2011 at 5:57 PM

    I knew a woman who would hit her kid if he even tripped. Every time I saw that kid and I saw her every time I went downtown, that kid would be tripping and she would be hitting him. What did I do? Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I called her out on it and told her to knock it off or else. She said some rather vulgar words.

    Next day, I had a talk with a social worker I knew who soon dealt with it through official channels. Some people won’t listen until they get reported.

  • N. Antonio

    N. Antonio

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    @h.s.– It’s good you took action, especially if she was doing it in a public place often and everyone else was completely ignoring what she was doing. If the child was unable to walk without tripping all the time, either she was pulling him too fast or he was physically disabled. Probably from her hitting him!

    Too many turn a blind eye. It’s not good to be a bystander ever when children are involved.

  • S. Zachary

    S. Zachary

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    Here are some lies that abusers tell their victims, which includes parents that hit their children or discipline them too harshly.

    “You’re just taking it wrong.”
    “I wouldn’t hit you if you weren’t bad.”
    “I only have your best interests at heart.”

    Note the third one.

  • Edmund Peters

    Edmund Peters

    September 9th, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    Children have a right to food on the table and a roof over their heads. Locking them out the house or starving them is not just child abuse-it’s a human rights violation surely.

    Disciplinary methods will always be controversial in some quarters and trends on what is and is not acceptable will change. My Grandmother literally had her mouth washed out with soap for swearing and not one adult batted an eyelid.

    However severely damaging a child will never be tolerated.

  • Sasha JJ

    Sasha JJ

    September 15th, 2011 at 4:04 PM

    The way I see it spanking is an easy way out of thinking up a creative punishment for your child. Instead of parents taking the time decide what would be an appropriate punishment, they think “Why don’t I just spank them” as an easy way to avoid thinking.

    I don’t think parents should be spanking their kids not because it causes them pain as this is temporary but because of the emotional damage it does. It’s incredibly humiliating to have to bend over and be slapped on the butt. The fact that your parents, the ones who are supposed to love you, are doing this to you could really negatively affect a child.

  • J

    J

    October 30th, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    Spanking a child is wrong but even more wrong if it isnt the parent like at school

    If any of you have a facebook then file a petition on We the people to ban corporal punishment in all schools, private or not.. i made one http:/wh.gov/b3e..

    Help get rid of this cruel practice and sign or create your own..

    Thank You and God Bless

  • georgia1958

    georgia1958

    March 28th, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    Spanking should be limited to situations where a child is either endangering someone and situations where they are breaking the law. I believe parents should use other consequences for the typical things kids do which would be behaving disrespectfully or lying.

    Nevertheless, as a mother of three grown children I believe that spanking has a place. Grounding or loss of privileges never had the “shock value” to any of my children that pulling down their pants and giving them a spanking them over my knee had. I saved spankings for things I felt were truly unacceptable.

    One example would be that my oldest son who was about ten at the time participated with two other boys in vandalizing a home that was vacant and for sale. The boys broke windows and made a mess inside. He was referred to juvenile court. My response as a mother was to first arrange a time,a day later, when he could help clean up the mess he had made. After we had done that I took him home and explained how serious his actions were. I than bent him over my knee and gave him a hard spanking in his jockey shorts. It hurt and he cried a few tears that day. He learned though that I was dead serious about never doing anything like this. It was the last time anything like that happened.

    I believe there is a time and place for spanking.

  • Vicki

    Vicki

    October 17th, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    I really don’t see the arguments that if you can’t hit your spouse or employee why can you hit your child…you aren’t responsible for your spouse or employee. If they break a law it’s their issue not your’s. If a child does something truly malicious and doesn’t respond to other consequences there is nothing wrong with a calm parent using reasonable corporal punishment. I was spanked and suffered no ill effects at all – just a red butt for a little while.

  • Ella

    Ella

    August 18th, 2016 at 5:59 AM

    Yeah, but you aren’t the kid who was four years old and thought her butt was one of her private parts, only to have her father yank her over his knee and start slapping it. It totally felt sexual to me, and I was only in preschool! I told my mother this and she laughed, saying, “There is *nothing* sexual about spanking.” Well, not for everyone–but it’s not like I had a choice as a tiny little kid about how to interpret this (to me) OBVIOUSLY invasive and sexual act. So where do we draw the line? We figure out which kids sexualize it and make sure never to spank *them*? I don’t think that’s realistic! It doesn’t make logical, ethical sense to do something that SO MANY STUDIES have show to be risky and declare that no, it’s actually good and harmless. If you suffered no ill effects, it’s because you were one of the lucky ones. The rest of us are still trying to make ourselves heard.

  • calis

    calis

    March 20th, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    i belive that parents should be able to disiplen there children however they want as long as it is not permantly hurting the kid.

  • calis

    calis

    March 20th, 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Personally being only 16 years old, and looking back i appricate my parents roughing me around a little bit and putting me in my place

  • Hondoalex

    Hondoalex

    April 1st, 2014 at 6:37 AM

    I believe there are so many comments against abuse/discipline because there are different generational ideologies. In my era it was not only accepted but expected when you did something wrong. the traditional way of discipline will not ever be accepted by the new generation. And now you see kids going and committing mass shootings and the like because those parents gave them a time out instead of teaching them what was wrong when they acted out. no, checking on them when they have there door closed doing who knows what. the whole if you can’t hit another adult nonsense only shows your missing the point.

  • Ella

    Ella

    August 18th, 2016 at 6:04 AM

    I was spanked and I sexualized it–and my response was to really look forward to the day when I was a parent and could do that to my own kids. (Seriously. Messed. Up.) So it’s not like *not* spanking kids is what messes them up. All kinds of bad treatment create bad treatment in turn as the person to whom it was done tries to justify paying it forward. It’s not ok, though. All you have to do is step back and look at it, free from cultural assumptions. You’re hitting someone to make them do what you want. Hitting. Someone. To make them do what you want. And communicating to them that you think this is a good way to behave toward people who are smaller and weaker than you. No wonder so many people who were spanked themselves want to believe it’s a good thing: there’s no downside for them! Now THEY get to be the powerful ones. I think that was part of the tradeoff of the early spankings…yes, you have to undergo this now, but when you’re an adult you can do it to your own kids and that will make it all ok. (I disagree, obviously, and have definitely outgrown the preschool desire to get revenge.)

  • Wissie

    Wissie

    January 11th, 2017 at 11:10 AM

    To everyone who says ‘I was spanked, and I turned out OK’.
    Answer this question- Do you spank your kids, or will you spank your future kids?
    If the answer is yes then- NO, you did not turn out OK!

  • John

    John

    February 25th, 2017 at 7:23 AM

    The spanking debate/issue is one that changes with the times/generation. When I was a boy, I was rarely spanked and do not remember being spanked prior to age 5. The Christian school I attended, used to paddle students on a regular basis. Each teacher in the elementary was equipped with a wooden paddle without holes. Almost daily, one could hear students being paddled in the hallways and stairwells. And even worse for many of those students was an even harder spanking facing them when they arrived at home with a discipline notice, I am sure that many of them were abused at home. Boys my age would tell me about their spankings at home. Many times it was done on their bare bottom or during or after a bath when they were totally naked. Some were spanked until they “could not sit down”.
    Spanking, as well as other forms of punishment, can be helpful or harmful to the child. It all depends on the parents/guardians ultimately.
    There are two main philosophies for raising children. One is punishment based. The other is education based. The education based approach is the better approach because it encourages the child to learn. The punishment based approach encourages a child to lie in order to avoid punishment, whether it is corporal or otherwise. They are not learning anything from being punished, other than how to escape punishment.
    Education based parenting, allows the child to learn and grow while simultaneously having discipline provided externally. The end goal is for a young man or woman to be self disciplined by the time they leave your home or turn 18. The beauty of education based parenting, is that each child is viewed uniquely and individually. One child might respond well to discipline spankings, while another child might respond well to being seated on your lap and talked to. I have to agree that denying a child food or clothing, or making them swallow or hold in their mouth something like soap or hot sauce or other such punishments, as well as striking them in anger, is abusive and harmful to a child. Education based parenting might include a variety of methods, but one thing is clear, love is at the heart of it. If you love your child, you will teach him or her how to be self disciplined. You would never punish the child for spilling something or tripping or wetting the bed or sucking a finger. You are always talking to them and teaching them. I have seen and heard parents scream at their kids, rather than talking calmly and firmly to them in public, and who knows what they say or do at home. The home is where a child can be made or broken, depending on how the parents approach parenting. Just my two cents worth…

  • L

    L

    July 15th, 2017 at 9:48 AM

    Spanking is not something I would ever do to my kids, but I can see how a few taps on the butt or something may help educate them. However I personally was spanked by someone out of control and angry, I was forced to strip for my dad and lay across his knee while he took out my frustration on me in a physical form, sometimes multiple times a day, and certainly multiple times a week throughout a lot of my childhood. I think allowing yourself to spank your child and saying in your head it is okay makes it easier for it to become abuse. Your children will learn to fear you not respect you and I don’t think that is something you want. I certainly wouldn’t.

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