On a sweltering June day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, single mother Schaquana Spears found out that her 12 and 13-year-old boys had robbed their neighbor’s home.
So she whipped them with a belt. With their father already in prison, she told WBRZ-TV that “I didn’t want them to commit another crime,” and follow the same path as their father.
A few days later, Schaquana was arrested. The charge? Two counts of felony cruelty to juveniles. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office reported that Schaquana’s belt landed hard enough to cause bleeding lacerations on her boys’ bodies.
Since then, Schaquana has received an outpouring of support, including affirming words from the Louisiana Attorney General, who cited his own mother’s discipline as having taught him a valuable lesson.
Marketa Walters, head of the Department of Children and Family Services, however, did not agree, firmly stating, in a public statement, that punishment “crosses into abuse when it leaves a child cut, burned, bloody, or bruised.”
So, with all the conflicting opinions concerning when discipline crosses the line into abuse, how can a parent know how much is too much? Is there a firm, dividing line that can be easily recognized by those who wish to correct their children without causing lasting harm?
Yes. There is, and we’re going to help you find it. If you care about the wellbeing of your child, ask yourself three important questions to figure out if your discipline has slipped over the edge and into abuse.
“Do I injure my child?”
This is the most important question you can ask yourself as a parent. If you’re injuring your children in any way, that is abuse. An injury can look like bruises, cuts, scrapes, redness, or bleeding—any damage to the body is both legally and ethically off-limits.
And what’s more, it’s not even an effective deterrent for bad behavior. A recent study published by Cornell University concluded that physical punishments, like spanking, increase a child’s aggression, teaching them “only to behave when the threat of physical punishment is present,” according to the researchers.
Instead of resorting to physical punishment—which, to be honest, is the easy way out—try out other methods that are not only more effective, but are show kindness, love, and respect to your child.
For example, you could make an effort to plan for appropriate behavior rather than waiting for undesirable behavior to appear. Encourage your child when they make good choices, and reward them when they do well. Talk rather than hit, explaining exactly what the child did wrong in terms he or she can understand. Take away privileges and make use of time-outs—things that let a child know that they will receive no reward for bad behavior.
Above all, set a good example for your child with your own behavior. They’re always watching you, whether you know it or not—they want to be like you. Show them how to be good people, and they’ll follow your lead.
If you’re hurting your child during punishment, it’s time to put down the belt or switch and try an alternative—physical pain is never the answer.
“Do I punish out of anger?”
The word “discipline” comes from the Latin word, “disciplina,” which means “learning” or “teaching.” This is the mindset you should take—punishment isn’t about you taking revenge on your child. It’s about correcting and guiding them so that they can learn to make consistently good choices.
That’s one of the big differences between parents who are abusers and parents who provide loving guidance—the good ones want to teach.
The bad ones want to hurt.
Examine what’s driving you when you punish. Are you mad that your kid knocked over the milk, and you want revenge? Are you so frustrated that you need to vent your anger? These are the mindsets of abuse. If you’re angry at your child, you should the time to cool down before you discipline him or her.
Providing discipline in a calm way can go a long way toward helping your child see the reasoning behind their punishment, and sets a good behavioral example. After all, you don’t want your child to grow up thinking it’s okay to fly off and strike those who anger them, do you?
Ask yourself this question and make sure that your heart is in the right place when you punish your children.
“Do I try to understand my child’s needs?”
If you’re not making an effort to understand your child’s developmental needs before punishing, you might be abusing your child.
Communication is key when raising children. Remember that your kids aren’t some foreign species—they’re little human beings who can, to varying degrees, think, speak, and reason. They have their own unique needs, wants, and emotional pains, and if you punish without taking the time to understand these things, your child can slip into depression or low self-esteem.
Some children act out because they feel unloved or lonely or left out, for example. If you take the time to speak to your child and understand the source of their bad behavior, you can correct it at the source rather than continually doling out punishments that will, over time, make your child feel like there is something inherently wrong with him or her.
Understanding and empathy go a long way with children, so ask yourself if you’re taking the time to practice these traits. If you’re not, a change is in order.
Err on the Side of Love
When it comes to discipline, it is always better to err on the side of love. This doesn’t mean being permissive or allowing bad behavior to go unchecked—it simply means that your punishments should always come from a place of love, guidance, and understanding. You punish because you want your child to ultimately be happy, and to make others happy.
So take the time to ask yourself these three questions the next time your own little one acts up. The answers will show you where you lie on the border between punishment and abuse.