Definition: Childhood Physical Abuse

Many of us grew up in a society that accepted the practice of corporal punishment. I have heard many people say that they were spanked as children and that it didn’t hurt them. And it seems that in some cases that might be true. And many of us have heard about those situations where the treatment of a child can clearly by seen as abusive. But where is that middle line. When does a spanking cross the line from being an acceptable form of discipline to being abuse.

For some no hit is acceptable and sadly for others there are no limits. In the book Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned D. J. Besharov  presents a series of questions in Is the Punishment Reasonable?

Punishment whose reasonably foreseeable consequence was or could have been the child’s serious physical injury is "unreasonable" and should be reported. In less severe cases, the following factors are used to decide whether corporal punishment was "reasonable":

  • Was the purpose of the punishment to preserve discipline or to train or educate the child? Or was the punishment primarily for the parent’s gratification or the result of the parent’s uncontrolled rage?
  • Did the child have the capacity to understand or appreciate the corrective purpose of the discipline? (Very young children and mentally disabled children cannot.)
  • Was the punishment appropriate to the child’s misbehavior? (However, no matter how serious a child’s misbehavior, extremely hurtful or injurious punishment is never justified.)
  • Was a less severe but equally effective punishment available?
  • Was the punishment unnecessarily degrading, brutal, or beastly in character or protracted beyond the child’s power to endure?
  • If physical force was used, was it recklessly applied? (Force directed toward a safe part of the body, such as the buttocks, ordinarily is much more reasonable than is force directed toward vulnerable organs, such as the head or genitals.)
  • What I like about the above is that it includes physical abuse that is inclusive of things that are beyond hitting the child. It would include things like forcing a child to stand or kneel motionless for hours at a time. Shoving food down a child’s throat or depriving them of food, burning, pinching grabbing, pushing or throwing them, locking them in a room or closet, shaking a child, twisting an arm or pulling their hair could also be included in this kind of definition.

    There is so much controversy about this whole issue. But what I am more interested here is what defines physical abuse to a child. In looking at the last paragraph I realized after typing it that as a child I experienced every one of them. And I was often told that it was for my own good or that it would hurt them more than it hurt me. I was constantly reminded that I deserved it. And I believed it all.

    This kind of abuse teaches a child that they are worthless. It teaches them to be afraid of the very people they are dependent on to survive. It teaches them to not trust people. It teaches them to be overly compliant and passive or to fight back and become aggressive. It is destructive to the child’s spirit