Real News Headlines:

Colorado boy, 3, dies after being left home alone — mom charged with child abuse.

Orlando, Florida: Deputies: Child tied to door, left alone in home with sibling.

Former police officer charged with child abuse for force-feeding his 15-year-old daughter hot sauce.

Tennessee couple charged with murder and child abuse for allegedly forcing their 5-year-old daughter to chug more than two liters of water and grape soda.

Dayton, Ohio, 2013: Father Who Beat His Girls For Allegedly Twerking & Sneaking Out The House Indicted On Corporal Punishment Charges.

2014: New Kansas law bill proposes allowing teachers spanking that leaves marks.

2014: Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings’ all-world running back and one of the NFL’s biggest stars, charged with child abuse after allegedly hitting his son with a switch that left welts on his body. Peterson said, “When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, but love. You want to make them understand that they did wrong.” Peterson’s mother came to his defense, saying, “Most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes. But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world.”

While some of these headlines are clear cases of child abuse, some involve parents who were trying to discipline their children using physical means they thought were legal and acceptable to use or got carried away, to the point it became abusive.

The United States and Somalia are the only two countries that haven’t ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that recognizes the human rights of people younger than 18. While there are laws against child abuse, it’s legal in all 50 states for parents to hit their children, and for schools in 19 states to physically punish kids. Research says about 80% of American parents say they’ve hit their young children, and about 100,000 kids are paddled in U.S. schools every year.

What are the Definitions and Differences?

With many laws being vague and physical or “corporal” punishment still being widely accepted in America, how is the average parent supposed to know when they are crossing the line, from legal to illegal, harmless to harmful, or effective to ineffective actions? Here are some very clear guidelines and definitions taught in Parents Toolshop® workshops:


Discipline: focuses on helping children learn from mistakes, without any additional external suffering imposed by the parent or other adult. The child is taught proper behavior, that their behavior is a choice, and then are held accountable to make amends for their poor behavior choices. There are a variety of ways the lesson, accountability and amends can be addressed by the parent. (See article with list of effective discipline strategies.) With discipline, the parents aren’t doing something to the child; they engage with the child in a way that the child sees and understands for himself/herself that there were other choices he/she could have made, knows what to do differently in the future, and rectifies any damage the poor choice caused. If at any point the discipline imposes suffering, it turns into punishment.

Punishment: focuses on making children suffer for their mistakes, by imposing some external form of pain. The pain can range from a mild guilt trip, so the child feels bad, to moderate unpleasantness or inconvenience. Punishment can inflict both physical suffering (called “corporal” punishment, such as hitting, slapping, spanking, etc.) and emotional suffering and can be delivered both physically or verbally (yelling, cussing, name-calling).

Punishment is done to children, by another person, and the underlying belief is that “people have to suffer in order to learn a lesson.” This belief system justifies imposing suffering, as in: “Show them who’s boss.” “You should make kids feel bad when they misbehave.” “Make sure the punishment is unpleasant.” “What they need is a good spanking.” “Stand them in a corner until a timer goes off.” “Take away their favorite activity.” “Do it because I said so, don’t ask why.” “That will teach them.”

In truth, punishment doesn’t teach, it just hurts. Anytime someone imposes suffering, it makes learning more difficult and builds resentment toward the person causing the suffering.

Punishment can also involve “power plays,” lectures, and harmful words that blame, shame, warn, threaten, or put-down. Punishment is unfair and usually lasts too long. Often, the parent uses the same punishment every time, whether it relates to the misbehavior or not. When angry or hurt, parents use punishment as a weapon for revenge. If the punisher is particularly angry, the suffering becomes severe, or the child doesn’t appear to have learned and the suffering is intensified, the punishment can become harmful, which turns it into abuse.

Abuse: imposes suffering that is harmful. There may be physical signs of harm (bruising, broken bones, etc.) or emotional damage, which is harder to document in a measurable way. It can be temporarily harmful (hurt feelings, a bruise fades) or incur physical harm that’s life-threatening or emotional scars that last a lifetime. The adult might perceive the harm as minor to the child (guilt, humiliation, shame, crying) or justified, given the child’s behavior, but if the child perceives it has harmful, the treatment might not meet the legal standard of “abuse,” but have similar effects on the child. The reason abusive parents often don’t see their behavior as abusive is because most abusive people have been punished or abused by someone (not necessarily a parent). It is learned behavior. Fortunately, not all abused children grow up to be abusive or punishing adults or parents.

As you can see, the standards and guidelines for “discipline” are very clear: the parent focuses on helping the child learn from his/her mistakes without imposing any additional suffering. Once the treatment is in the range of punishment, there are countless forms of suffering that can be imposed and many ranges of severity involved. Even the line of what’s “harmful” can be unclear. And once punishment becomes “harmful,” it is in the range of being abusive, which can raise legal issues for the adult/parent and have lifelong effects on the child.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Each?

Abuse, obviously, has no short- or long-term benefits.

Punishment can become addictive; because it often seems to “work,” parents get a “quick fix” and feel justified in continuing to use it. In truth, however, it only works in the short run.

Instead of wanting to behave well, children only behave because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t. Over time, children can become immune to punishment. They might sneak and misbehave when the parent isn’t looking. They get a “You can’t hurt me” attitude and punishments must become harsher to “work.” Children develop an “I don’t care” attitude and can believe it’s okay to “do the crime” if they are willing to “pay the time.

Most important, punishing parents are so busy controlling their children, children don’t learn self-control. Instead, they often take advantage of any power they have (with other children, a sibling, or when they are a parent or spouse) to act out the anger and frustration they’ve been holding in.

There have been hundreds of long-term research studies on corporal punishment, but they have traditionally been inconclusive, until an April, 2010 research study by Elizabeth T. Gershoff, PhD, published by Phoenix Children’s Hospital in a report called, “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children.” That study showed that children who received corporal punishment more than two times a week were more likely to have a whole host of cognitive, behavioral, emotional problems. This study was significant, because it was the first study to control for the most common risk factors that are most often associated with these outcomes, so it was clear that the corporal punishment was the only reason for the outcomes.

So when you look at valid research studies, such as this one, what you see are consistent, clear outcome results:

  • Punishment might work in the short-run, but has not been shown to get consistently reliable, positive results long-term.
  • Discipline is equally effective in the short-run and has shown to get only consistently reliable, positive results long-term.

This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes the position that certain forms of physical discipline should never be used, e.g. striking a child with an object or on parts of the body other than the buttocks, shaking or jerking a child, or delivering physical discipline in anger. For the same reasons, the AAP also recommends that parents be assisted and encouraged to use disciplinary methods other than corporal punishment.

The big myth is that laws and standards, like the AAP’s, are infringing on parents’ rights to parent their children as they see fit. The problem with that is that a parent’s perceptions of what is “fit” are influenced by their belief systems, which were programmed in childhood, sometimes by adults who were abusers themselves or believed that punishment was not only justifiable, but the “right” thing to do. These belief systems often perceive that to “not punish” means to “not discipline” or hold children accountable, which is not an accurate belief. So both beliefs and actions may need to be re-learned to discipline effectively.

Lastly, consider these facts: almost all parents agree that they want their children to be well-behaved and self-disciplined. If you look at the long-term research, only “discipline” consistently delivers these results.

This article is the first article in a three-part series:

For more information about corporal punishment: Get “The Controversy about Corporal Punishment: Should It Be Legally Banned? workshop audio and resource package.

If you’d like very clear guidelines for knowing when you are punishing or disciplining, read the next article in this series, “The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline.”

The final article in this three-part series offers a list of effective discipline strategies, read the article “Disciplining Children,” which explains, specifically, what discipline is and how to use it effectively. For more in-depth learning, get the Take the Bite Out of Discipline” workshop audio and resource package.



Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network , and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop .For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops  and interviews with the media worldwide,  including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series

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