When discipline becomes abuse
Recent events that were broadcast on Facebook have initiated a very necessary discussion about what is appropriate discipline and when discipline turns to abuse. Let’s begin by determining what the purpose of discipline is. Children and youth are often ignorant of the ramifications of their behavior. They are also in a stage of discovery and in that process end up making mistakes, rebelling against instructions and experimenting with life choices. They have arrived in the world and did not come with a GPS so they have to go through a process of discovering what is right, what is wrong, which direction to take. Parents, guardians and authority figures are there to help guide young people on the journey and that means they have to correct mistakes, point out what is right and wrong behavior and ensure that they understand that there are consequences when laws are broken by their actions.
With that background in mind, let’s get to the process of discipline. Whether we use the Bible or our individual philosophy or knowledge base there are some basic principles that have been proven over time to be successful. I will refer to the biblical model along with my knowledge and experience base to guide this discussion.
The Bible states that we should train children in the way they should go. Train means to guide them through the process as they follow our lead. Training means providing information and examples which children can follow. When the information alone does not bring about the desired result, physical discipline is sometimes required to ensure that the message is heard.
The biblical statement is “foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but his rod of correction drives it out”. Basically it is telling us that despite our provision of information and instruction, children will do silly, dangerous and destructive things. Physical discipline is reserved for those times when other forms of discipline are not adequate. Physical disciple, I believe, is also primarily for young children rather than teenagers. It is hard to negotiate with a two-year-old who wants to play in the toilet, so the rod of correction will help him or her understand that the toilet is not a playground. Even when physical discipline is applied it should be accompanied by discussion and instruction so that it complements what you are already doing. Physical disciple should always be done with firm love and should not be a substitute for continual training through verbal instruction and role modeling.
Beating and physical discipline are not the same thing. Excessive physical discipline is one where marks are left, where there is punching or kicking or objects are used that can inflict major injury. If you are going to use physical discipline, something in the form of a paddle should be used and the reasons for use explained so that there is a correlation to it being used because of certain behaviors. Discipline becomes abuse when these precautions are not taken. If you just beat a child to the point where they are injured and have marks on their body and there is no connection to your current and previous admonitions, then you have ventured into the abuse zone.
One day I was in Walmart, and a young child was cursing the parent, screaming and throwing things. The parent kept telling them to “calm down, Johnny”, that everything was going to be okay. Johnny did not pay attention and became even more abusive. I believe she even threatened to give Johnny a timeout. As I observed the interaction I said to myself this parent was stupid, as children should never be in a position where they abuse and insult their parents in public. I thought to myself, she needs to take this child to The Bahamas as I am sure a good “cut skin” would help them remember to be respectful to parents.
There is a point where non-physical discipline borders on being ludicrous. Children cannot be allowed to do whatever they want without consequences — and sometimes the only consequence that can help them is a physical reminder of who the parent is. On another occasion I had a young relative I was charged with transporting to the United States. While on the flight, the young man became abusive to me. I reminded him of who I was and that his mother had asked me to take him with me, and that I would not allow him to disrespect me. He continued with his behavior so I grabbed his hand and began to squeeze it. As I squeezed it I reminded him that he was going to respect me and behave right, or the level of pain would increase. He got the message and I did not have any problems after that. At the end of the journey as we were separating, I said to him while smiling, let me shake your hand. He looked at me with fright and said “no thank you”. I just laughed because I realized he had gotten the message and if he ever thought about disrespecting me again I would smile at him and say would you like for me to shake your hand.
With both of my children I used physical discipline when they were young but it was very infrequent, and as they got older the methodologies changed. For example, in the early stages I used a paddle along with instruction to get the attention of one of my children who took the contents of the toilet and plastered them on the wall on more than one occasion. They were too young to negotiate with so I used a combination of words and action to get the message across. After that act of discipline the problem did not reoccur so it was obviously effective. As my children grew older I employed new methods. For example, instead of using a belt when my son did not heed verbal instructions I would simply shake his hand and squeeze it while I reiterated my instructions. Squeezing the hand was very painful but it left no injuries and he got the message. Another methodology I used was squeezing the trapezius muscle, the part of the shoulder that we often massage which is very painful if you grab it forcefully, but does not produce any injuries.
Eventually all I had to do was suggest that I would give them a “massage” and they got the message and corrected their behavior. Eventually as they entered the teenage years, I discovered something after watching NBA players get in fights that I found worked beautifully for me. NBA players used to fight during games, but then a policy was implemented that if they fought it would cost them massive amounts of money. The players stopped fighting. I took a cue from the NBA and I told my kids if they misbehaved I would fine them and after that I had no problem with them cleaning their room or doing the dishes.
Creative discipline is the key; find out what works. Older children should not need physical discipline because they are very capable of understanding behaviors and consequences and can be persuaded without beating.
We are supposed to discipline because we love. And discipline should be done in love even though it is painful to both the parent and the child. If we discipline and love is not involved and only anger is involved, then it is easy for discipline to become abuse. I do agree with the biblical narrative that sometimes children are foolish and the only thing that will change their behavior is the rod. I also believe that there comes a time when the rod is not the best form of discipline, especially as they get older. My admonishing is that as parents we learn what is appropriate discipline based upon age and infraction and learn to discipline firmly, but not in anger so that the discipline produces a healthy result rather than injury. I would recommend a book that I co-wrote with Dr. Myles Munroe called “Kingdom Parenting” as a great resource on this subject. There are also several books by Dr. James Dobson that are excellent on this subject.
- Pastor Dave Burrows is senior pastor at Bahamas Faith Ministries International. Feel free to email comments, whether you agree or disagree, to firstname.lastname@example.org. I appreciate your input and dialogue. We become better when we discuss, examine and exchange.