The comment I hear most often from people about child welfare workers is this: “I got spanked when I was a kid, and I turned out alright!” When I talk to families, they tend to tell me that they use time outs as a disciplinary measure, until their kid blurts out that they get spanked when they get in trouble. There’s a fear of telling social workers that you use physical discipline with your children. It’s understandable. So what’s allowed? What’s not? When do you need to call child services about another person’s child?
Minor & Transient
Here in Washington State, the law states that child abuse is “doing any other act that is likely to cause and which does cause bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks or which is injurious to the child’s health, welfare or safety.” What does that mean? Well, child welfare social workers use this working definition: if the discipline leaves a mark that lasts longer than 24 hours, it’s abuse. The purpose of discipline is to correct the child, not to harm the child. This is an important disctinction.
A bruise or cut is not the only indicator of abuse. There are ‘discipline’ techniques that may injure a kid, but don’t leave any physical indicators. A well-known example is shaking- what used to be known as “Shaken Baby Syndrome” is now called “Abusive Head Trauma”. The injuries are to the child’s brain, not to his body. Shaking a child under 3 is always abuse. So is burning, cutting, punching, throwing, and any other action that a reasonable and loving parent would never consider.
What is allowed?
The keywords in Washington State’s child abuse laws are “reasonable and moderate”. Spanking your child on the bottom with an open hand- so long as it does not cause brusing- is considered reasonable and moderate. Smacking your child’s bottom or hands- so long as it doesn’t cause an injury- can be considered reasonable and moderate. The law makes it clear that physical discipline should be for the purpose of “restraining or correcting” the child. Not for the purpose of harming, or injuring, or inflicting pain. If you are physically discipling out of anger, you are at risk of abusing your child.
What is best for children?
Just because parents are allowed to physically discipline their kids, doesn’t mean that physical discipline is a good way to correct behavior- or that it even works. Research shows that physical discipline is not effective in addressing behaviors-and it actually increases aggression in the long term. So if I find out you’re spanking your kids, I’m not going to take your kids away- but I am going to wonder if you’re putting any thought into how you’re raising your kids.
Alternatives to Physical Discipline
Time-outs and taking away privileges are classic alternatives to spanking. However, researchers are discovering many other tactics that are effective for disciplining kids. ACT helps parents teach their kids how to deal with negative emotions in a healthy way. For example, ACT recommends having your toddler “practice” tantrums without problematic behaviors- i.e. “Can we try a tantrum without yelling and throwing? Let’s practice.” I know it sounds crazy, but apparently, it works!
Do you use physical discipline? What are your fears around that? What works for your kiddos? Share below!