On September 11, 2014, a Montgomery County grand jury indicted NFL star running back Adrian Peterson on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. Peterson admitted on May 18 of last year that he repeatedly hit his four year old son with a “switch” he made out of a tree branch. He said he was disciplining his son.
Much has been made of the incident on the news and social media. It has brought to light an important question: What is the difference between discipline and abuse?
The book of Proverbs frequently talks about discipline. For example, wise old King Solomon warns parents: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24).
We see two truths about discipline in that verse. First of all, discipline is done in love. The purpose of discipline is to teach and train – to help a child learn right from wrong. Discipline is good for children. Discipline is love.
The second thing we notice is that, like many other verses in Proverbs, this verse mentions the “rod.” In the Bible, God not only condones physical discipline. He encourages it.
Physical discipline is not abuse. Used properly, a spanking, a slap on the hand or even a switch can help teach a child right from wrong.
But then what is abuse? Where is the line? What is the difference between disciple and abuse?
Discipline is done in love and abuse is done in anger. Discipline is done to help a child learn. Abuse is done to vent or punish. Abuse can take place even if you didn’t hit your child hard or even if you didn’t touch them at all. Any angry response to a child’s misbehavior is a form of abuse. In that sense, every parent, including myself, is guilty of abuse.
When your kid is driving you nuts in the store and you yank him by the arm and yell, “Knock it off; you’re driving me crazy” – you aren’t lovingly and firmly trying to help your child learn. You are angrily venting your frustration.
So when your child pushes your buttons – and he or she will push your buttons at times – take a time out. Send them to their room and tell them you’ll talk about their punishment later. Take time to calm down. Never forget, discipline is done in love. Abuse is done in anger.
There is another difference as well. Discipline hurts, but it does not harm. Discipline needs to sting, but it shouldn’t do any lasting harm. That’s why spankings are often a good form of physical discipline. Most of us have a nice cushion back there. It hurts for a moment, but it does no lasting harm. Again, the purpose of the discipline is not to make them pay for what they did, but rather to help them learn and see there are consequences for improper behavior.
So, was Adrian Peterson guilty of abuse? I can’t say if he acted in anger or love because I can’t look into his heart. The pictures of the scars on his child, however, are telling. Harm seems to have been done.
Before we point a condemning finger, though, remember all the times you were too harsh or lashed out at your kids in anger. All of us as parents need to run to the forgiving arms of our heavenly Father. We are not perfect parents, but we are forgiven parents.