The controversy around the Adrian Peterson child-abuse case has generated a national discussion around an issue rarely addressed in a meaningful way — the line between disciplining children and child abuse.
The Peterson case will be decided in a court of law, but the case for how to guide children to develop and adopt values of self-worth, respect for others and making an effort to achieve goals should be argued at every dinner table in the land. Children do not arrive with an owner’s manual, so all of us learn from role models and from life experience.
Our parents or guardians were our first teachers. Their childhood histories of being disciplined in a certain way were often all they knew and therefore adopted as the way to parent us. That doesn’t mean those disciplinary methods are acceptable, effective or even permissible under the laws of our modern society. In fact, the biggest challenge for parents is to reassess how they were disciplined and parented and to be willing to think hard about the positive or negative effects on their emotional and psychological development.
Just as a parent seeks to guide their child toward acceptable, healthy behaviors, parents need help and guidance, too. This is why The Children’s Trust funds numerous culturally sensitive programs across Miami-Dade County that do not dictate how parents should parent, but instead offer reasonable, research-based alternatives to corporal punishment along with an increased awareness of child development.
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The Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, which operates one of these parenting classes in the Coconut Grove and South Miami area, models an approach our programs endorse. Parents are encouraged to have realistic, age-appropriate expectations for their children: Don’t expect that a 2-year-old can walk around with a container and not spill it. Consider that the toddler who drops his food off the highchair is learning about the law of gravity.
And when the anger builds up? Parents practice the same “time-out” techniques they use for their own children. Take a step back. The key: When you’re angry, you may be out of control, and that’s not the time to dispense discipline. It’s too easy to cross the line and substitute a message that scars the one you meant to teach.
Thelma Gibson’s Nurturing Parent Program has a “no corporal punishment” ground rule. A swat on the butt may stop an immediate, short-term behavior. It is also likely to stop a child from feeling safe and valued. Effective parenting teaches children to do the right thing, not simply to do or not do something in order to avoid punishment.
Let’s return to the pinpoint clarity of the current debate: There is an unmistakable line between disciplining techniques and abuse.
Florida law defines “abuse” as a willful act or threatened act that results in any physical, mental or sexual injury or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child's physical, mental or emotional health to be significantly impaired.
Our state law and those across the country prohibit using unreasonable force or torture that may result in serious injury or emotional harm. Our national law permits parents in all 50 states to physically discipline their kids as they see fit — as long as it does not lead to physical abuse.
With a clear line drawn between child guidance and abuse, we should continue the debate about effective parenting. Lots of resources offer guidance to parents. Still, we should acknowledge that effective parenting is a learned art, one that requires constant attention, learning and support.
If we want a more peaceful community and world, we should do everything to reduce violence against children, especially in the sanctity of their own homes.
We can all endorse the recommendations of the United Nations World Report on Violence against Children and the American Academy of Pediatrics honor the human rights of children, practice the lessons of the science of child development, and stop cultural traditions that perpetuate violence against children. The next generation can end violence if we teach them alternatives to corporal punishment.
At The Children’s Trust, we continue our commitment to promote parenting that supports stronger families to produce healthy, confident and hopeful children who will be equipped and inspired to achieve greatness.
Peter A. Gorski, M.D., M.P.A., is the chief health and child development officer for The Children's Trust.