Across many cultures, countries and communities of the world, disciplining a child often employs harsh measures such as corporal punishment and psychological or verbal abuse. If you are confused about whether your disciplinary measures towards your child border on abusive behavior, you might find this article useful in judging your actions.
“When a child hits a child, we call it aggression.
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility.
When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault.
When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.”
– Haim G. Ginott (teacher, child psychologist and psychotherapist)
If we think of child abuse as a perception depending on cultural or religious influences, perhaps we might find a way to justify the cruelest punishments meted out to children. Spanking or bruising a child are considered severe forms of abuse in most western cultures, however, it is perfectly normal parental behavior in most Asian countries. With the advent of globalization and large number of people leaving their countries and cultures for foreign shores, immigrant families often find themselves at the crossroads with the culture shock of being unable to “properly” discipline children. So where should parents draw the line between employing disciplinary techniques and indulging in child abuse. Let us attempt to explore some dynamics of child care and see how not to abuse your child misunderstanding it as discipline. Later, we will look at how to differentiate between discipline and punishment.
Child Discipline Vs. Child Abuse – How are They Different
Irrespective of our cultural roots, we must begin to grasp the reality that’s playing out in the innumerable crime corridors of the world; violence begets violence. Each time you raise your hand or raise your voice to reprimand your child, no matter how noble your intentions, no matter how deep your love for your child, the little mind understands that at some point it will become his/her right too. While the child may display “compliance” temporarily, somewhere in his/her mind you have sown the seeds of violent behavior. Now all the child needs to do as he/she grows up, is to find a justification for the act. It could be a religious justification, a cultural interpretation or as in the case of sociopaths and psychopaths (majority of whom have experienced some form of child abuse), perhaps no justification and no remorse. Most children indulging in violent behavior have been under the care (or lack thereof) of people with poor parenting skills or victims of drug abuse and/or alcohol abuse. It is more than likely that they will end up either as bullies, out to get even with their parents using others (mostly their own spouse and children, co-workers, etc.), or as individuals with an extremely low self-esteem and perhaps even as social misfits. Any form of discipline that infringes the basic rights of a child, whether physical or psychological denotes child abuse.
Most disciplinary techniques or punishments are focused on instilling a sense of right and wrong in a child. Obviously, you cannot hope to curb unacceptable behavior by meting out a harsh punishment that is more likely to seem unreasonable and unacceptable to the child. Another aspect to parental punishments is the justification to oneself that, “my strict parents often used these punishments on me and that is why I turned out fine, therefore, this has to be the correct punishment”. The authoritarian style of parenting is thus passed down through several generations across cultures. Not that there is a total lack of mutual love and respect between authoritarian parents and their children, but there’s a strong possibility of the bond between parents and children falling apart in due course. Children who may have conceded in response to punishment temporarily, and appeared to have been “set right” by parents demanding obedience, find that adolescence and early adulthood bring back those memories triggering rebellious behavior or feelings of strong resentment against the “perpetrators”.
The easiest thing to do is to single out cultures and religions where the cane is still used as the preferred tool of discipline and declare them abusive or hostile. However, the fact that the intention of such actions is not to perpetrate abuse, is reason enough not to sit in judgment. While leaving the choice of whether to follow methods prescribed by religious and cultural doctrines to you, let us understand some positive and constructive ways to instill discipline in children. Remember that every unhealthy or disruptive behavior is not necessarily traceable to bad parenting.
Traits of Child Discipline without Child Abuse
- Establish and Explain the Rules: Let your child know what your expectations are and explain why the rules exist. Don’t simply impose with a “because-I-say-so” attitude. Explain what the consequences of following the rules will be. For example, let the child know that if he/she throws his/her little gadgets and toys around they are bound to get wrecked. Make the child understand in a matter-of-fact way that he/she won’t be able to play with it anymore because it has been ruined. Convey to the child clearly that it’s a consequence of his/her own actions. This way, you can spare the child your “lecture” (again mostly an ineffective disciplinary technique) and he/she gradually understands that the only way to keep toys and gadgets safe is by being careful with them. Remind the rules from time to time until the child learns them. Remember that you can explain the rules in an assertive manner with a dash of affection too. You don’t have to sound stern and authoritative.
- Appreciate Good Behavior: What does it feel like when you are at home day after day, doing a fairly good job and your family hardly notices? It’s only when something goes wrong that you’re getting people’s attention. Even in the workplace, meeting expectations is no big deal but make one small mistake and it will be remembered for quite some time. We manage to deal with being taken for granted in the adult world. But it is not so with a child. An important part of discipline is rewarding your child for following the rules. It might seem redundant to you, but for the child who is going way out of its comfort zone, appreciation means a lot. In addition, it is the easiest way to positively reinforce good behavior. The child relates good behavior with reward and recognition. You need to be careful that the reward is equal to good behavior. For example, taking the child out for a small treat if he/she puts the toys back in place continuously for a week is alright, but showering more and more expensive toys will only turn the child into a spoiled brat. Strike a balance between rewarding and fulfilling your child’s every wish.
- Time-outs: If your child is emotionally attached to you and dreads being away from you for a long time, time-outs can be an effective technique for discipline. In this technique, you essentially make the child take a break from you as a disciplinarian and the situation that initiated bad behavior. Remove the child from the situation and place him/her alone in a quiet, even a boring place without toys or television. The time-out period should not last for more than five minutes, just enough to deprive the child of your presence but not so much that he/she feels abandoned or neglected. The aim is to indicate displeasure at the child’s behavior, not the child.
- Grounding: This technique of discipline involves restricting your child’s movement and activities as punishment for breaking more serious rules like not getting back home within a reasonable time at night, etc. Let the child know that he/she cannot leave his/her room or visit friends or go to that Saturday night event as certain rules have been violated. Again the time period for grounding must be just enough for realization and not endless remorse.
- Taking Away Privileges: Anything that is valued by a child such as watching a specific television show or playing with a particular friend or staying over at a friend’s place, etc., can be deemed privileges. The child must be explained that these privileges come with responsibilities. If the responsibility is unfulfilled, the privilege must be withheld until appropriate behavior has been established again. Again, this technique must not be used very frequently and everything must not become a privilege. For example, do not let lunch or supper be a privilege and do not deny food when the child is hungry because he/she indulged in inappropriate behavior. That would clearly be abuse.
|Techniques of Discipline According to Age of the Child
|Newborn to 18 months
|Appreciating good behavior, show-and-tell acceptable behavior
|18 months to 3 years
|Appreciating good behavior, time-outs
|4 to 12 years
|Appreciating good behavior, time-outs, grounding, withholding privileges
|13 to 18 years
|Appreciating good behavior, grounding, withholding privileges
Common Forms of Discipline Associated With Child Abuse
- Spanking/Corporal Punishment: For typical cases of undisciplined child behavior, physical discipline techniques must never be used. It results in negative consequences and the child feels it is alright to physically punish someone who they love for something wrong they may have done. If the child’s behavior is extremely inappropriate, seek the help of a mental health professional. Parents are largely not capable of associating bad behavior with a psychological disability. Imagine you have been spanking your child for a while for not paying attention when ultimately he/she is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADT) or your child goes hysterical in public, has difficulty fitting in socially and you spank the life out of him/her only to discover that you have an autistic child. Due to lack of proper education, many parents do not consider ADT, autism and other learning disabilities and psychological disorders as disabilities. They’re often convinced that the child is being very unreasonable and deserves physical punishment. Spanking and corporal punishment have strong undertones of parental ego and frustration, not necessarily with regard to the child. The child often ends up being the victim of a parent’s temper, but of course, it’s a widely practiced form of punishment which serves as justification for the parent’s actions. For the sake of the child and in the interest of moving towards a less violent society, spanking and corporal punishment are not recommended.
- Verbal Abuse: Yelling and screaming at a child has never worked as a disciplinary technique. In fact, frequent verbal abuse may make you come across as repulsive to the child. The child will gradually stop confiding in you for fear of being yelled at. The child will become vulnerable while seeking out affection outside the home environment. Most victims of child sexual abuse and molestation find it difficult to tell their parents for fear of shame, distrust and reprimand. No form of discipline, no matter how justified is worth making your child afraid to ask you for help!
- Ignoring Bad Behavior: If your child is displaying unusually disruptive behavior or trying desperately to seek your attention, do not ignore the child hoping that he/she will overcome this “phase”. You might want to check out some tell-tale symptoms of child abuse to rule out that your child is in physical or emotional distress due to abuse by someone else (even your spouse). In case your child has been bullied at school or violated by another person, take immediate action and let the child know he/she can trust you to end the agony. In case of sexual abuse, young children cannot even articulate what exactly happened. In case of the abuser being from the family or a person of authority, the child is often scared and confused about their actions. The last thing you want to do is ignore your child when his/her dignity is at stake, the consequences of which will last for the lifetime of the child.
Common Mistakes with Enforcing Child Discipline
- Bribery: Positive reinforcement is different from bribery and it is not permissive parenting. Your rewarding techniques must not encourage the child to hold good behavior as hostage for a ransom!
- Parental Disagreement on Rules: It is very common for one of the parents to be soft on the child while the other assumes the authoritarian role. This is not a healthy way of parenting. The child grows up to harbor dislike for the strict parent and tends to cling to the softer parent. In addition, there are often open conflicts between parents about rules of discipline where one parent thinks the other is being too harsh and so on. It is vital to pose as one parental unit in front of the child or else the child can easily learn that “divide and conquer” is a great strategy to get away with unreasonable behavior.
Discipline: Foundation for a Lifetime
Instilling the right values in your child is not a one-day training event. It is in the small interactions of daily life that the seeds of right and wrong are sown. Disciplining your child is nothing but teaching your child about self-discipline in the long term. You have succeeded in the true sense in being a good parent only when your child displays good behavior, follows rules and regulations and fulfills his/her responsibilities even when you’re not watching! Every impulsive reaction from you to discipline your child (yelling, spanking, etc.) will encourage the child to be “on guard” when you’re around. Your short-term solution will result in long-term problems for your child.
Be a role model for your child as he/she grows up to be a responsible, respectful, well-adjusted and loving adult. Remember to give love and warmth in bulk and punishment in small doses. The child will grow up to remember what he grew up with most! With this, I am concluding with a thought by Francois Muriac, which should be considered each time the temperamental adult in you tries to dominate the good parent.
“Where does discipline end? Where does cruelty begin? Somewhere between these, thousands of children inhabit a voiceless hell.”