When Does Discipline Become Abuse? -- Some Thoughts on Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson’s attempt to discipline his four-year-old has resulted in a tremendous amount of media coverage, his suspension from the NFL, and a social firestorm of debates all over the internet about child discipline. Here are a few thoughts on the subject…

1) Children need discipline. If we fail to discipline our children, we are abdicating our responsibility as parents because we are failing to teach them that there are consequences for behaviors. As a pastor, I regularly see the destructive results of passive parenting that begins with a reluctance to administer consequences for poor choices and continues in a perpetual cycle where parents bail out and make excuses for grown children who are still making poor choices. And while those parents continue to enable the behaviors they never corrected, they naively wonder why their children never change. Discipline is hard and often painful for both parents and children, but it is essential if we want to see our children mature and become responsible (Hebrews 12:5-11).

2) Different children need different forms of discipline. Some children respond immediately to a look of disapproval or a few stern words. Other children need timeouts or the loss of phone, TV, or videogame privileges. A few won’t change their behavior until they receive a swat on the bottom. In addition, different forms of discipline are appropriate at different seasons of development. We shouldn’t be spanking teenagers or denying babies their rattle privileges. Therefore, as parents, we must consider each child’s personality and stage of development in order to discern what kind(s) of discipline are most appropriate for that particular child. Too often, we settle for the kind of discipline that we received as children or the kind that comes most easily to us. But the problem is…it’s not about us. It’s about our children.

We can also make discipline about us when we use it as a means of releasing our anger. Parents who misuse discipline this way are going to need to save their money…because it’s only a matter of time before their children will need counseling or bail money. While Scripture says we will spoil children if we “spare the rod” (Proverbs 13:24), it also commands parents “not to embitter their children” (Colossians 3:21). And the rod doesn’t have to be a belt, paddle, or switch. The “rod” is used as a symbol of discipline in Scripture, and there are a variety of ways we can teach our children that there are consequences for sin and disobedience without beating the life out of them and driving them to become embittered and rebellious.

3) Excessive discipline is wrong. Period. The media coverage of Adrian Peterson has sparked many online debates about whether or not spanking is an acceptable form of discipline. My grandmother used a willow switch on me, but she never left open wounds. My parents had a paddle engraved with “Heat for the Seat,” but they never left me with bruises. What Adrian Peterson did was wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at these pictures.

I believe it’s OK to spank a child, but it’s not OK to leave open wounds or bruises. I believe it’s OK to ground a child, but it’s not OK to lock that child in his room for two days without food. There is a difference between discipline and abuse, and when we cross the line into abuse, we are often doing nothing more than venting our anger. In this case, we are just as guilty of sin and wrongdoing as the child whose actions ignited our anger in the first place.

Just last week I lost my temper with one of my children. I flipped a plastic plate into the sink and raised my voice. My son cowered under the weight of my actions and words. His eyes watered. His head drooped. I didn’t need a belt or switch. He got the message. But my words and my tone were excessive, so it was essential for me to own my sin and tell my son I was wrong and I overreacted. Hopefully, my son will learn that discipline is necessary and actions have consequences, and from incidents like this one, I also hope he learns that his earthly father is not above sin and that I can humbly admit my sin even as I point out his. But without modeling humility and ownership in the midst of my sin, there is little hope that any form of discipline will be effective in preparing my child for adulthood.

Let me close by saying this… we need more discipline of young people, not less. Discipline is often the most loving thing we can do for our children. But it needs to be done the right way. We must consider the offense and the child’s personality and stage of development. Cookie cutter discipline without parental responsibility is wrong. And discipline should never proceed from anger. When it does, it can easily become abuse that is destructive, not only for parents and their children, but for society as a whole.