Discipline: When is it Abuse?

To me, this was probably the single biggest behavior question that clouded the situation of our home life.  Gary believed that all his physical actions against the children were “discipline.”  He never could see that discipline was training in right behavior.  It is not punishment (punative action) for personally irritating childish behavior.  He didn’t look under the skin to his own motivation.  For him, actions that warranted discipline were ignored.  The actions he “disciplined” for were the ones that irritated, bothered, embarrassed, or inconvenienced him.

Gary watched violent martial arts R-rated movies with the boys starting when they were about 3 & 5 years old and every time I tried to reason with him about it he became angry.  (Interestingly, now in his new marriage he is upset that the father of his new step-children watches R-rated movies with them; they are 9 and 12.  I guess it was OK for him but not for anyone else.)  If anyone interrupted his TV show, he erupted in rage and would hit the offender if they were within reach.  If a boy running through the room tripped over Gary’s feet, he would scream at him and kick him as he ran away down the hall.  He excused this as discipline because the kids shouldn’t be running in the house.  However, it didn’t matter that they were running until one of them tripped over his feet and almost made him spill his drink.  And that child was the only one “disciplined.”  But putting children to bed on time, calmly insisting a child remain in bed after bedtime, keeping dangerous tools out of their reach, having them clean up their messes – none of these things ever crossed his mind.  In fact, he consistently undermined my efforts to do these types of child-training activities, thought I doubt he was consciously aware of it.

But when I tried to reason with him about his behavior and explain the difference, he never “got” it – actually the fact that I questioned his behavior was inconceivable to him and made him angry.  Notice too, that phrase — it made him angry.  His anger, as always, was my fault; caused by me. 

I am still mystified to this day.  I spend hours sometimes trying to understand.  Gary feels very deeply for his children.  I can’t find any tiniest crack in that.  He genuinely believes he is a wonderful, godly father.  But he also apparently believed however he “disciplined” his children was completely acceptable, even commendable.  If his actions were in response to an action by his children those actions were discipline.  There was nothing else.  When he hit me early in our marriage, he believed he was “disciplining” me.  He tried to tell me he was “spanking” me (never mind the strikes were anatomically inappropriate for “spanking”).  When I told him firmly that I was not his child and if he hit me again I’d call the police, he believed me and never tried it again.  But with his children nothing I could say made any impression.  I was undermining his authority and destroying our family.

I believe the line between discipline and abuse is in motivation more than in the how and how much of physical action; though the how and how much are also relevant.  Definitely, I believe there are also specific actions that qualify as abuse.  But discipline is about training, not punishment.  Discipline understands that there is age-appropriate behavior that sometimes a child is too young to alter (crying when hungry or tired) or that the child needs to be taught to change (how to make the bed, how to politely get a parent’s attention when the parent is on the phone, etc.)  To punish a child in any way for age-appropriate behavior is wrong. 

But even more important, when it comes to abuse, “discipline” because a child has caused personal irritation, interruption, embarrassment, etc. to the parent is abusive because of the motivation.  Spanking a child because they interrupted your TV show is excessive — and in our house it never stopped at spanking.  It’s not spanking if you swing to hit whatever you can reach.  And punching a child is always abuse.  Full adult-strength slaps across the back, shoulders, head, etc. is always abuse and inexcusable.  Slamming a child against the wall, kicking them, throwing them across the room – even if it’s onto an upholstered chair or sofa, is always abuse.  It is not discipline in any way, shape or manner.  Screaming, targeted swearing directed at a person,  and name-calling are abusive.  There is no excuse for this behavior.

 Counselors we went to, and the court system during our divorce, could not or would not distinguish between the common way anyone occasionally blows off steam and abusive rage.  Yes, we would all do well to control ourselves at all times.  But we all miss the boat from time to time.  I know that profanity is common for many people and swearing when you hit your thumb with a hammer is not an abusive act.  That’s what everyone assumed I was talking about.  I could not make anyone understand the difference between the screaming rages, accompanied by the worst profanity Gary knew (from the man who says profanity is sin and was extremely offended by his sons’ use of profanity when they were mad; surprise!) and vile name-calling; as opposed to the garden-variety loss of composure.  Bottom-line, this behavior is abusive and inexcusable.  It is never a disciplinary tool and it exceeds the perameters of “loosing my cool” because it’s been a long day and the kids won’t quit fussing and irritating each other.

“Discipline” is abuse when it is motivated by relieving personal angst.  It is abuse when it “punishes” rather than trains for age-appropriate behavior.  And, legally in most states, it is abuse any time it passes the boundaries of a couple reasonable, controlled swats on the buttocks – period, without exception for “extreme provocation.”