When Parental Discipline Becomes Child Abuse

Parental discipline and child abuse can take on various meanings and standards for different cultures. What is acceptable as discipline to an Asian country, for example, may be seen as child abuse in the United States. Corporal punishment is rationalized. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a saying many Asian parents believe in. But if you think a child is being abused at home, it’s better to look into the matter rather than ignore it. You could be saving a child’s life or helping in the positive development of their future if abuse is stopped early enough.

When Does Parental Discipline Become Child Abuse

Distinguishing between discipline and abuse is a delicate matter.  The most common form of physical discipline is spanking and in 2012, more than 70% of Americans agreed that children sometimes need a good spanking. But when is spanking good, how frequent should it be and how should it be done? These are questions that confuse most parents.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends finding other methods for disciplining your child and promoting good behavior. The association believes that children who are spanked, slapped or hit will develop behavioral problems and poor self esteem. The American Humane Association shares the same view and, as a policy, opposes physical discipline of children.

But physical punishment takes on many forms. It can mean striking a child with a hard object on the head or torso, beating a child severely so as to cause swellings and bruises, pulling a child’s hair, slapping and shaking a child. These acts injure, violate and humiliate the child and become child abuse.

Child abuse happens when the child is hit or beaten severely even if he or she has committed only a minor infraction and did not actually misbehave. It is the adult’s anger directing the abusive action rather than a desire to teach the child about proper and improper behavior. It is the physical act carried out to the most extreme and severe limits.

On the other hand, spanking is defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury.” It may cause pain to the child but is not injurious. The AAP goes on to say that it “is only effective when used in selective infrequent situations.” The Committee for Children (2004) describes the purpose of discipline as “to encourage moral, physical, and intellectual development and a sense of responsibility in children.”

A proponent for the use of force in children is the Supreme Court of Canada that ruled, “the criminal law applies to any use of force that harms a child, but does not apply where the use of force is part of a genuine effort to educate the child, poses no reasonable risk of harm that is more than transitory and trifling, and is reasonable under the circumstances.” Psychologists James Dobson and Diana Baumrind are getting flak for saying mild and occasional spankings do not cause long-lasting harm to children.

False Allegations of Child Abuse

One negative outcome to the law on child abuse is false allegations and accusations of abusing one’s child. The usual accuser is a vengeful ex-spouse. Others include teachers, social workers and well-meaning friends and neighbors who suspect abuse and are concerned for the child’s welfare.

It is a tragic situation for the falsely accused parent. Their image is tarnished, jobs become uncertain, custody and visitation rights are curtailed and even insurance premiums are raised. Acquittal vindicates the accused but a lot has been lost. Samantha Greene, a San Diego child abuse lawyer, says “time is crucial in a false allegation case and the accused should immediately contact an experienced attorney.”

But falsely accused parents, once acquitted, still have California law on their side. If you have been a victim of false allegation of child abuse and have been acquitted, you can pursue a criminal charge against the accuser. The family courts can also impose monetary sanctions on the accuser, witnesses and attorneys so you can recover all expenses incurred in defending yourself. Visitation rights of the parent-accuser will be supervised or limited by the court.

All is not lost. The child abuse law is one of the most abused laws brought upon another by divorced parents but an experienced lawyer on child abuse cases will ferret out the truth.

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He's an avid gadget geek and spends most of his time reading or writing.

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