Discipline vs. Child Abuse

The NFL has had a rash of controversial issues in recent weeks from domestic abuse with the Ray Rice elevator incident to the most recent issue with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson child abuse controversy. This begs the question as to what place violence has in our society at addressing conflict, demonstrating discipline, and what level, if any, is acceptable? It also puts a spotlight on the appropriateness of behaviors that may be going on in society, but are only called into question when they are forced into the public eye. If certain practices are condoned by families, culture, race, or even professional organizations they are more likely to be ingrained and validated as appropriate or at least pass a level of acceptability for others with terms and phrases such as it’s a “private family matter”, which only sustains and fuels the abuse cycle.

Both the Rice and Peterson cases have launched debate, however in the Rice case the majority seems to come down on the side against domestic abuse, with the arguments pertaining more to being for or against Rice’s punishment and why victims tend to stay or leave their abusers. The Peterson case strikes a different chord in this country about rights as parents, which often provokes very strong emotions and reactions. There are responses such as, “I was hit as a child and I turned out fine” or even former basketball great Charles Barkley’s responses that he was beat with a switch, had welts and his sentiment of that’s how African Americans discipline their children, especially throughout the south. Barkley further states that society should be careful dictating to parents how they should discipline their children stating that there is a fine line between child abuse and discipline. The commentator, Jim Rome, vehemently disagreed. (3)

Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett claimed he also was hit with a “switch,” a tree branch that Peterson used to discipline his child.  Saints running back Mark Ingram also tweeted that he was disciplined as a child, stating that his parents wanted him to “be the best human possible!” (3)

A fine line? Best human possible?

According to police reports obtained by CBS Minnesota:

Daddy Peterson hit me on my face.” The child also expressed worry that Peterson would punch him in the face if the child reported the incident to authorities. He also said that he had been hit by a belt and that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet.” He added that Peterson put leaves in his mouth when he was being hit with the switch while his pants were down. The child told his mother that Peterson “likes belts and switches” and “has a whooping room.”(4)

This child was four years old. What in the world could this four-year-old child have done to constitute such a severe punishment?

Comedian Louis C.K. describes it this way in one of his recent bits:

Hitting kids(2)

“And stop hitting me, you’re huge. How could you hit me?! That’s crazy. You’re a giant, and I can’t defend myself.” I really think it’s crazy that we hit our kids. It really is–here’s the crazy part about it. Kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit. Do you realize that? They’re the most vulnerable, and they’re the most destroyed by being hit. But it’s totally okay to hit them. And they’re the only ones! If you hit a dog they f*****ing will put you in jail for that s**t. You can’t hit a person unless you can prove that they were trying to kill you. But a little tiny person with a head this big who trusts you implicitly, …

You Tube:


Kathyrn Seifert, PHD details an account from Astrid Lindgren, the author of Pippi Longtocking :

Astrid recalled the story from an old pastor’s wife she had met twenty years ago.

Lindgren said that the wife didn’t believe in spanking children even though, in those days, “spanking kids with a [branch] pulled from a tree was standard punishment.”

One day, her son of four or five acted out in a way that made her finally believe that she needed to spank him. The mother told her son to go out and find a branch that she could use to hit him. “The boy was gone a long time, and when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, ‘Mama, I couldn’t find a [branch], but here’s a rock that you can throw at me.’”

The pastor’s wife suddenly understood the discipline through the eyes of her young son. The boy could not make the distinction that his mother had made between violence and discipline—he only understood that she was going to hurt him. (1,5)

Dr. Seifer explains that disciplining children by physical force is usually more harmful than helpful. Research has shown that using physical force on children increases the risk of mental disorders later on in life. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that adults who were physically punished as children are more likely to have schizotypal, antisocial, narcissistic, and borderline personality disorders. (1,5)

Even if the abuse does not lead to mental disorder and adults turn out “fine”, they often struggle with relationship issues, self esteem, and find difficulty in life due to insecurity from being parented by fear, conditional love, and/or expected perfectionism.

It is true that children need boundaries and discipline to grow up into a well-behaved adult, but violence or corporal punishment is not necessary in order to be effective. It is also true if discipline is too lenient, inconsistent or non- existent that children will act out. So it is important that parents are consistent with their punishment approach, but that it is done in a way that is reasonable (punishment fits the crime) is expected (the child knows what punishments will come from breaking certain rules) is effective, but is not harmful.

According to Dr. Seifert, studies have proven that positive reinforcement is the most effective way to teach children what is right or wrong. When you feel that punishment is necessary, however, there are ways to do it that are not physical and that will have a healthier, more positive impact.

Dr. Seifert believes that time outs are key because they offer consistency and allow for self-reflection. A standard rule of thumb is to issue a time out at a length of one minute for each year of the child’s age (for example, a nine-year-old will have a nine-minute time out). Some parents recoil at the thought of time outs as ineffective or largely too benign and wish to make a statement to their child and to others as to their effectiveness as parents. While it is important that the punishment needs to be meaningful, such as taking something away, it does not need to violent or cruel! That is a very important distinction. (1,5)

It is also critical to talk to your children, especially very young children to explain the reasons for punishments. If the goal of discipline is to modify the child’s behavior so they act and THINK differently next time, you cannot teach the lesson if you don’t help them logically reason through the mistake or misconduct. Manipulating a child’ behavior only out of fear of punishment they may receive from you can have long term negative effects on their behavior later in life. However, teaching a child to think about the reasons for choices of right and wrong teaches them to be responsible adults.

Dr. Seifert finishes her recollection about Astrid “

…the pastor’s wife reacted when her boy returned with the rock meant to be thrown at him. “All of a sudden the mother understood how the situation felt from the child’s point of view: That if my mother wants to hurt me, then it makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with a stone,” she remembers.

“The mother took the boy onto her lap and they both cried. Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself forever: Never violence. And that is something I think everyone should keep in mind. Because violence begins in the nursery-one can raise children into violence.” (1,5)

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call Indiana’s Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline today. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You do not have to be afraid anyone will find out who made the report because you can report abuse and neglect anonymously.  

Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline


For more information on what constitutes child abuse:



1. Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D., is the author of the Child & Adolescent Risk Evaluation screening tool. more…


2. The Louis CK Wiki http://louisck.wikia.com/wiki/Other_people%27s_kids

3. Sam Louie is a therapist with a private practice in Seattle specializing in multicultural issues and sexual addiction.


4. http://www.boston.com/sports/blogs/obnoxiousbostonfan/2014/09/vikings_make_right_move_with_p.html

5. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-the-cycle/201207/spanked-rethinking-child-discipline-0

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