Discipline, Parenting Styles and Abuse

People often ask if a particular parent-child interaction is just a parenting style (which may be different from another parent’s style), a form of discipline intended to teach the child and correct inappropriate behavior (which may be, in part, influenced by the parent’s cultural background) or child abuse. It is not always easy to answer, especially when we don’t know all the facts.

Parenting Style

Parenting style refers to the many ways parents interact with their child. This can be things like allowing a child to call a parent by their first name, eating together as a family, giving an allowance for doing chores, and other day-to-day types of rules. Parenting styles probably aren’t harming a child, though there may be some ways that the style is not the most effective approach to interacting with the child.


Discipline is the system of teaching a child what is and is not appropriate behavior. Sometimes it means praising good behavior or correcting bad behavior, and the goal is to guide the child in the right direction. There are many ways to discipline children; many times discipline is age-appropriate and effective, especially if parents have learned tools for positive discipline and are consistent with children.

Most of us would like to have a very clear sense of the line between what is abuse and what is not. Sometimes that line is clear – for example, sexual contact between an adult and a child is never appropriate and is always child abuse. Many times it is not so clear, and whether an action is appropriate discipline or child abuse often depends on the severity, duration, and age-appropriateness of the behavior, as well as the impact it has on the child.

When Does Discipline Cross The Line?

One way to tell the difference between discipline and abuse is to examine what role a parent’s anger is playing in the administering of a punishment. It’s normal for a parent to feel angry and frustrated. But when a parent’s need to express his or her own anger, rather than the need to teach the child, is what’s driving the form and style of punishment, that’s an indicator that a parent is in danger of crossing a line.

That’s why we recommend that before punishing a child, a parent take time to cool down. Providing discipline in a calm, clear way helps the child understand that there is good reasoning behind the punishment and builds respect for the parent’s judgment.

Discipline does not need to be physical. There are many ways to teach children without running the risk of hurting a child. Some examples of non-physical discipline are taking away privileges and time-outs. What is important to remember is that parents need to be mindful in deciding on appropriate discipline methods before they interact with their children, so that their actions are not a “fly off the handle” behavior.

Alternatives to Physical Discipline

Real-Life Examples

Pennsylvania now defines child abuse as acts or failures to act that are done intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly. So when does discipline cross the line to abuse?

EXAMPLE 1: Acting Knowingly

A child lies to his parent to avoid punishment for stealing. The parent discovers the lie and tells the child to run outside for an hour, as punishment. For many parents, especially those who grew up in strict, authoritarian or military families, exercise is a form of discipline. But if the child has a medical condition that would make the running dangerous (asthma, for example) or the weather is too hot to make running a long distance safe (a risk for dehydration), or if the child is too young to be outside unsupervised for the period of the run (this depends on the particular situation, neighborhood, ability of child and other factors), then what the parents consider punishment might become abusive. Pennsylvania defines abuse as acting, or failing to act, intentionally, knowingly or recklessly in ways that harm, or risk harm to, a child. Acts are done knowingly when you are aware that circumstances exist that make it practically certain that your action (requiring the running) will cause the harmful result (a child passing out, or even dying from exhaustion).

EXAMPLE 2: Acting Recklessly

A father is enraged at his teenage daughter. As they argue, he picks up a chair and throws it across the room toward the child. His daughter moves, and the chair misses her. While she was not injured, the possibility of injury was present. Dad acted recklessly in this situation.

EXAMPLE 3: Acting Intentionally

Mom is trying to get her 6-year-old to stop cursing. She has tried a number of different strategies with no improvement. Finally, she puts hot sauce on the child’s tongue and holds her hand over his mouth, refusing to give him water. She intentionally harms the child. Even though her goal was to correct misbehavior, her actions may prove to be abusive.

Every situation is different, but it’s always best – because you want to be a positive parent – to respond to your child in a way that provides loving guidance and teaching, instead of a way that is abusive (or potentially abusive).

What About Culture?

Culture is not just ethnic or racial background. It also includes gender, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, age, religion, education or occupation and geographic region.

Parenting is very culturally influenced. Ways to discipline, expectations of children, roles of parents and extended family, and community responsibility for children are just some of the aspects of parenting that are often based on the parents’ culture.

Here are some parenting practices – often contradictory – that may be seen in particular cultures:

  • Making a child stand in a corner, or having a child kneel on uncooked rice.
  • Keeping a newborn home for at least 40 days versus taking a newborn out a few days after birth.
  • Young adults who live with parents/grandparents (not just for economic reasons, but because children do not leave home until they are well into adulthood in some cultures) versus teens/young adults who move into separate housing when they finish school.
  • Feeding a child with a spoon until he is almost 2 years old, or encouraging the child to feed himself by about 8 months.

Most of these practices would not be considered abusive, unless they were taken to severe or extreme limits. Though members of a different culture the parent’s might see them as “wrong” or “bad,” the way the parent is interacting with the child is probably not dangerous.

Learning about a family’s cultural background can go a long way in understanding a parent’s style and means of discipline. This is especially true for immigrant families who are not familiar with American views on what is good parenting. Many times parents are very willing to adapt some of their practices to the culture around them, while retaining some of their traditional parenting style.

Remember: While there are many ways of parenting around the world, this does NOT mean that anything goes, as long as it’s “cultural.” Parents must adapt their parenting practices to what is acceptable in the dominant culture around them, and some things are considered abusive in every culture.

Cultures are not homogeneous and the person who is defining “culture” may be benefiting from the behavior. Sometimes people who abuse children blame their behavior on a cultural background as a way of justifying the abuse.

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