Child discipline is no easy task

First Posted: 5/8/2015

LIMA — The video that went viral of a Baltimore mother punching her teenage child in the head just before he was about to throw a rock at a police officer raised the question of how far can a parent go to discipline a child.

Is punching a child going too far? What if the punches are to the head? What if there are repeated punches?

Questions on the appropriate level of discipline and what may be too far depends on a lot of circumstances. Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers said some may say the Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, went too far but he believes those people would be very few.

It’s a case Lammers said he may not file charges, if he were the prosecutor. Using the Baltimore case, he said he has to look at the factors such as the age of the child, 16; the size of the child, which he towered above his mother; the child’s actions, which were about to throw a rock at a police officer; and whether the child was actually seriously injured, he was not.

“There’s a lot of things that come into play. I would be hard-pressed to file charges on something like that,” Lammers said. “It’s not like she went down there with a ball bat and beat him silly. Most parents would probably say the boy is lucky that’s all Mom did to him.”

In the Baltimore case, Graham was trying to stop her 16-year-old son from throwing a rock at an officer, who she warned the previous day to not go to the protest. Her son was among a group of people throwing rocks in a protest against police over the death of a young black man in police custody. Graham said she feared her son could be killed by a police officer and she wanted to prevent that when she took steps to stop him.

Not a new issue

The Baltimore case reminded some of a comment made 18 years ago by former local Judge Richard Warren when addressing a young man who, with three others, attacked an 80-year-old woman.

“Someone should have kicked your ass up on your shoulders and let [you] know who was in charge back when you were 12 or 13 years old,” Warren said in 1997.

Looking back, the judge said he doesn’t regret saying that. Like the Baltimore mother, Warren said most people were supportive of his comments and told him someone needed to say it.

Warren said he didn’t mean it literally and only was using a statement his father used to say to him when he was in trouble.

“I had loving parents. They made us work and if we were messing around Dad would say if you don’t straighten up I’m going to kick your ass up on your shoulders. We knew he wasn’t going to do it literally. He meant straighten up,” the judge said.

Warren said the Baltimore case brought about many supporting the mother just like he received support for his comments.

Crossing the line

Lammers said he occasionally charges a parent with a crime, usually domestic violence, for going too far with discipline. He once had a parent repeatedly grab a child by the ears to the point the child’s ears were bruised. He said that was overboard. The stepmother was found guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence, he said.

“We see a handful in a given year,” Lammers said.

Judge Glenn Derryberry of Allen County Juvenile Court said discipline of children is not a topic with a lot of absolutes. He said there is a lot to consider such as the age and maturity of the child. From a legal standpoint, the judge said it’s easier to talk about what parents can’t do, such as cause serious physical harm to a child.

“Parents are allowed to use discipline that is reasonable under the circumstances,” he said.

Serious physical harm or the risk of does not necessarily mean putting a child in the hospital. It could include inflicting severe pain or pain that remains several days after the discipline was administered, Derryberry said.

Lima-based child Psychologist Carol Patrick agreed with Derryberry that a lot of circumstances have to be considered while adding that includes the inappropriate behavior that led to the need for discipline.

Physical discipline should be a last resort but that does not mean it is never appropriate, Patrick said.

In the Baltimore case, the mother hitting her child may have been the only way to stop him from throwing a rock at a police officer, and the mother’s conduct only lasted long enough to stop her son from breaking the law something that could be viewed as acceptable, she said.

Patrick cautions, though, corporal punishment should carefully be administered. It should also be administered using a hand rather than a paddle or other object so the parent can feel how hard the child is being struck.

“Anytime a parent gets angry and they start hitting and they are hitting because they are angry that’s when you get to abuse,” she said.

As some general guidelines, she said a swat on the butt can be effective on a child up until about age 5 but beyond that it becomes less effective. For children older than that, grounding or taking away privileges usually is more effective as long as it doesn’t go too far, she said.

Grounding a child for more than a week may be too much and not change the inappropriate behavior, which is the desired result of the discipline, Patrick said.

“At some point the kid is like, ‘I’m grounded for weeks, I’ll do whatever I want,’” she said.

Patrick suggested giving the child a chance to earn back privileges that were taken away. That strategy gives the child a chance to work toward correcting the behavior, she said.

Parents also must be consistent with their punishment and show the child respect. Calling a child names, such as stupid, is not appropriate, she said.

Corporal punishment

Even corporal punishment or punishment that becomes physical, is reasonable under a certain set of circumstances, Derryberry said.

“It’s not unlawful for a parent to slap a kid on the butt to keep a kid from running out on the street into traffic,” Derryberry said.

The judge gave another example that would not be appropriate.

“Do you take a 2 x 4 to a kid under the same circumstances? It’s hard to think that could ever be appropriate,” Derryberry said.

Perhaps the biggest factors to consider, professionals said, is age and maturity. Those decide a lot.

Derryberry said the same discipline for a 2-year-old would not be appropriate or even work for a 16-year-old. But he also said deciding appropriate discipline by age is hard.

“There is no magic age where it all applies,” he said.

Discipline can vary and is something each parent must decide as long as it does not cross the line, Derryberry said.

“It all comes down to what is extensive under the circumstances,” the judge said.

Those who deal with child behavioral problems said there is no one-size-fits-all strategy and parenting is hard. The key is to find a way to correct the bad behavior and prevent it in the future without taking discipline too far or hurting the child.

Patrick also said discipline does not always need to be administered immediately after the misconduct by a child. She said it’s OK to send a child to his or her room while deciding on discipline especially to avoid issuing punishment too strict out of anger.

“We don’t have to have a response for every situation on the tip of our tongue,” she said.

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