Home / Opinion / Thin Line between Discipline and Child Abuse By Ruth Jack

Thin Line between Discipline and Child Abuse By Ruth Jack

It is important to note the difference between physical discipline and child abuse. On the other side, “Spanking Children, Evidence and Issues” defines corporal punishment as “hitting a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intent to discipline without leaving a bruise or causing physical harm.” On the other hand, physical abuse is an extreme form of corporal punishment that is typically intended to leave scars. When does corporal punishment cross the boundaries into child abuse? Even good-intentioned discipline can lose effectiveness over time. In order to get the intended message through to the child, parents will eventually have to punish child longer and harder. At first, when a parent taps the bottom of a child screaming in a toy store over the parent’s refusal to purchase a new toy, these are typically no indication of serious child abuse. This incident may even be forgotten until the next time when the frustrated parent must spank the child harder, presuming that the child will not react dutifully to any other form of punishment. This notion can continue, as the reprimanding grows persistently stronger and harsher. Each continual spank will not only leave physical scars for the world to see, but also it can potentially cause damage to the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Children in abusive environment develop certain characteristics in response to frequent beatings. As they mature, it becomes difficult for the child to ignore these characteristics and change his/her behavour. Even when placed in a controlled, not abusive environment, the abused still has the previous behavioral characteristics: early childhood may be thought of as a sensitive period for many forms of cognitive and most emotional – learning, after which it becomes difficult to establish new patterns of thinking or reacting. Thus, the abused or neglected child is asked to adapt to a new and different world but is given inadequate neural and behavioural tools with which to do so (Stirling 670). A child who is beaten by a parent is less likely to trust others, specifically adults, as he grow older.

John Stirling, author of “Understanding the Behavioural and Emotional consequences of child abuse,” advances this claim by stating that, pertaining to an abused child, “… the ability to perceive the intentions of others, or to monitor one’s own response, is lost and social learning is severely impaired” (669). The child develops the notion that because his parent, an adult, causes injury to the child, all other adults will be inclined to do the same. This is because abused children grow up unable to interpret other emotions or actions. As a result, the victim will trust other less, on the basis that he/she misunderstood a comment or action as an attack or threat. What may be an adult giving constructive criticism to an abused victim could be constructed as a personal attack from the adult.

Additionally, corporal punishment may damage a child’s cognitive development that emerges out of social interactions, and it includes the development of intelligence, conscious thought, and problem-solving ability. If parent try to modify their children’s behavior through inflicting pain, then those children are likely to do the same to others when they want to influence other people’s actions.

When a child who has been physically disciplined does not get what he/she wants from any member of society, the child will implement the same punishment that his/her parents have proven acceptable.

Abandoning Corporal Punishment

The only way to prevent these harmful outcomes of corporal punishment from affecting the child and the community in the future is by eliminating, or at least limiting, the use of corporal punishment as a means of moral discipline.   Instead, parents must accept alternative methods of concepts that yield the most positive results for the child. There exist many different styles and approaches to parenting and no person has the jurisdiction to tell a parent how to raise his/her child. It is possible, however to use research to show that effective parents do not need to use physical force to discipline a child, but should instead to set clear rules and explain why these rules are important (“Discipline”). Once the rules are established, parents should explain to the child that broken rules carry consequences; this does not necessarily mean that the consequences involve physical force. But rather, the parent should implement reasonable consequences that are on par with the wrong that was committed. For a example if a child is fighting over the television, turn it off, if a child spills milk at the dinner table as a result of goofing off, have the child clean it up. Another effective consequence is the suspension or delay of a privilege. If a child breaks the rule about where they can go on their bike, for instance, take away the bike for a few days (“Disciplines”). Most importantly, the parent must learn to control his/her anger and frustration. Physical punishment tends to escalates when the parent grows impatient with the child. When this happens, the parent should try simple stress-relieving techniques, such as breathing deeply or counting backwards from tent o zero.


A common misconception among advocates of corporal punishment is that without the obvious appearance of physical scars or bruises, this form of discipline is completely moral. While injury does provide clear evidence that abuse has taken place, this misconception implies that there is a difference between acts that result in injury and the same acts that result in injury.

In reality, most acts that we define as abuse are the same as those that we define as discipline, whether or not they result in injury is often a matter of chance “Whether or not bruising occurs e.g. depends on the part of the body struck, the child’s physical vulnerability to bruising, and the size of the child. This means that one parent’s beating that does not result in a bruise may be considered socially acceptable while another parent’s beating o f the same intensity could be considered immoral if a bruise appears.

This misconception fails to realize that not all effects of corporal punishment are physical. As explained previously, there exist mental and behavioral effects that are not visible but still negatively affect the child into adulthood.                            

The intention of parents who physically discipline their children is not to harm but to teach. It may be true that most parents who administer physical force to their children do not intend to harm them; however, this description also applies to most parents who do harm their children. The majority of incidents of child abuse began not with a desire to injure the child, but as attempts at discipline. This is because even good-intentioned attempts at physical discipline loss effectiveness over time. “Eventually, parents have to physically punish a child longer and harder to get the same message across.” Thus, it does not matter what the initial intention of the parent is. The line between physical punishment and child abuse is so thin that the parent can easily ignore it during times of desperation.


Some children are dying every day as the result of child abuse or neglect, most of which are infants or toddlers. If we continue like this, the death toll will continue to rise steadily without any sign of ceasing. To remedy the situation, we must realize that it is our duty to speak up once any of us witness anything resembling child abuse. It is also crucial that parents and caretakers globally are informed of the effects of physical punishment on the well being of a child. It is evident that corporal punishment will eventually lead to child abuse, as a result of anger and frustration, which can lead to complications in the child’s life well into adulthood. Thus, parents must realize the alternatives to corporal punishment and the benefits they hold over physical force. There may exist arguments against banishing corporal punishment, though most of which can be proven faulty. This means that the force that will be able to put a stop to the increased mortality rate of children as a result of abuse or neglect is our nation. The fate of millions of children is in our hands.

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