What is the difference between discipline and child abuse?
And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.Hebrews 12:5-11
Before we can properly understand child abuse we must first understand what is meant by discipline. Parents are to discipline their children the way that God disciplines His children. First, God’s discipline has a purpose. He is seeking to make us holy and guide us into wisdom and life. The author of Hebrews speaks of how earthly fathers can discipline their child based upon their own whims. He is very clear that God is not that way. God’s discipline is always purposeful. Second, God’s discipline is always restorative not punitive. God is not exacting revenge upon His children. He is seeking to bring about a restored relationship with His children.
In light of this, we can conclude that discipline should be purposeful and restorative. What this means is that we cannot simply punish our children because they are annoying us or because we are aggravated. We must have a God-honoring purpose, our child’s holiness, not our own personal grievances or pet peeves. We also must ensure that our discipline is used to restore the relationship with our child and direct them on the right path.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.Ephesians 6:1-4
Children must submit to their parents instruction, but parents must teach their children to follow Jesus Christ. Parents can easily exasperate their children. This can be done by not clearly teaching a child what is expected, not giving the child what they need to perform what is expected, or expecting something beyond the child’s ability. This can also be done by constantly changing what is right and wrong or what is expected of your child. When we begin to provoke our children to wrath, we have moved beyond biblical discipline and have now moved into child abuse. A clear indication of abuse is when punishment is purely punitive and has no restorative or corrective measure in mind.
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.Proverbs 13:24
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.Proverbs 22:15
Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.Proverbs 23:13-14
The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.Proverbs 29:15
Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.Proverbs 29:17
The Bible is clear that discipline is to be instructive, corrective, and restorative. Part of this discipline will be spanking. Notice that locking a child in their room, withholding food or shelter, slapping across the face, etc. are never mentioned. These things move well beyond the Bible’s instructions on discipline.
When does spanking become child abuse? When spanking is punitive, not restorative, or when spanking is provoking your child to wrath as discussed above. Spanking is also abuse when we are physically damaging our child (scarring, broken bones, etc.) However, as Proverbs points out, we can also be abusing our child when we refuse to discipline them or correct them. Sometimes, not spanking your child is hateful and abusive. (Eli not correcting his sons is a great example of this.)
The bottom line in Scripture is that we are to discipline our children in order to correct them and restore them so that they might be holy.