The Difference Between Discipline and Abuse

09.02.11 Stories from the news and the park


Jill (not her real name) was newly pregnant with her first baby. Her boyfriend (let’s call him “Jerk”) has a five-year-old son from a previous relationship. Jill and Jerk don’t live together and after “the event in the park,” they never will. Jill, Jerk and Jerk’s little boy were spending a sunny afternoon together picnicking, playing on the playground and tossing a ball back and forth. Jill had never hung out with Jerk and his son together before, because the little boy lived with his mother (Jerk’s ex-girlfriend). Jerk said his ex-girlfriend was a control freak, over protective and wouldn’t let him spend much time with his son.

An old lady slowly crossed the park lawn, with one hand on a cane and the other on her dog’s leash. Jill said she looked close to 80 with her short curly white hair, softly wrinkled face, orthopedic shoes and lace-topped ankle socks. She walked her dog across the lawn in front of Jill and Jerk and at just that moment, the little boy tossed his ball. The dog lunged for the ball and the old lady let go of the leash. Hanging on to her cane, she wobbled a bit, but didn’t fall. Her dog caught the ball, ran back to the old lady and dropped it at her feet, wagging his tail the whole time. The boy, the dog and the old lady were delighted with this impromptu game of catch.

Jerk apparently wasn’t so delighted. He yanked his son’s arm and screamed expletives at him. “What the #*#* did you do that for, idiot? You know better than to throw a #*#*-ing ball in front of a #*#*ing dog. You almost knocked that lady down.” The little boy cried, of course, confused and shocked, which set Jerk off, hurling insults at his son for being a “#*#*ing crybaby.”

Jill had never seen her boyfriend like this before. Sure, he got a little testy at times, but this completely blindsided her. It scared her to see him treat his son that way. She tried to comfort the little boy, but Jerk yelled, “He’s not your son. You stay out of it.” The old lady told Jill and Jerk she was fine, but felt bad her dog had gotten the little boy into so much trouble. “They were just playing, sir.” Everybody in the park was staring at them.

Jerk, now furious and embarrassed, dragged his son off to their car, where he continued scolding him. The old lady put down her cane, took Jill’s hand, patted it and said, “Um, honey…excuse my language, but I expect you’ve heard it before. What the #*#* are you doing with a man like that?” Jill answered, “He’s never been like that before.” The old lady said, “Well, honey, of course he has. And, when a man has a temper like that and treats his own son that way, it won’t be the last time either.”

There have been too many cases of extreme discipline in the news this week. These sad, frightening stories are dangerously common. Parents find themselves at a loss for how to handle their child’s behavior so they inflict harsh, physical or emotional punishment to get their attention. One case involved a Sacramento couple that followed disciplinary guidelines learned from a book. They were convicted of beating their adopted daughter to death for mispronouncing a word. A little boy died after his father locked him in a hot room and refused to give him water for five days. Another case involved a woman now known as “Hot Sauce Mom” who was convicted of child abuse for forcing her child to drink hot sauce, then take freezing showers.

It’s hard to reconcile that these parents thought they were doling out appropriate punishment. At one point we have to assume they felt as protective of their children as any of us do when we’re pregnant or holding our babies in our arms. We have to assume they loved their children. Something, however, went terribly wrong.

For those of you who are pregnant now, It’s inconceivable you’d ever consider hurting your child, much less deliberately inflict pain. You can’t imagine ever being mean, cruel or doing anything to damage your baby’s security and self-esteem. Yet, chances are, someday down the road, something will happen that leads you dangerously close to the edge. You’ll think about it, but hopefully you won’t do it.

Kids can be infuriating. They can do the dumbest, most thoughtless things that trigger deep startling frustration and anger in us. Every parent loses his or her patience. But what makes a good parent different from an abusive one is this: You’ll think first and make different choices. You’ll remember how it felt to carry your child inside you, about how little and powerless they are and how they trust you to protect them. You’ll take a deep breath, walk away and calm down. You’ll call your partner, mother or friend to take over while you collect yourself. You’ll remember that raising a child is all about love and love does not inflict harm.

Jill cried when the old lady took her hand and guided her to a bench. Other people in the park had noticed Jerk ranting at his sobbing son and someone was trying to calm him down. Jill told the old lady, “I just found out I’m pregnant and I haven’t told my boyfriend yet.” The old lady said, “Well, honey, today’s your lucky day. You got to see what kind of dad he is, didn’t you? Now, honey, you have to decide what to do next.” Jill picked up Jerk’s cell phone and called the little boy’s mother to come pick up your son. When she arrived, Jill hailed a taxi and went home. She dumped Jerk, who still doesn’t know about the baby.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post."¨"¨

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