In my eight years as Chief Presiding Judge on the juvenile bench in Fulton County, Georgia, one of the largest court systems in the nation dealing with Family Law, I have heard thousands of heart-wrenching cases, many involving heinous crimes perpetrated on kids. The emotional and physical abuse can be utterly unconscionable. But I have also occasionally seen, both in my courtroom and on my show, good people standing in front of me who shouldn't be there. A moment of rage or anger has transformed routine parental discipline into child abuse.
With the December 1 trial date tentatively set for Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for charges of reckless or negligent injury towards his 4-year-old son when he whipped him with a switch last May, child discipline will again be part of the national conversation. When does punishment go too far?
Unfortunately, the law is maddeningly murky when it comes to defining what's acceptable discipline and what is illegal behavior. In the court system, abuse can be subjective and rest largely at the discretion of the judge presiding that day. The way in which parents choose to discipline their kids is often generational or cultural, but when does it turn criminal? For me, the line has always been when a child is injured. Some of the worse forms of abuse often don't leave physical scars. Traumatizing kids with verbal attacks or locking them in a basement without food or a toilet isn't reasonable punishment; it's abuse.
I fully support a parent's right to punish their kid the way he or she sees fit. I think when we start legislating or imposing guidelines for how parents can discipline their kids we get into a dangerous area. Where it becomes problematic is where discipline becomes abuse.
Abuse isn't unique to a poor community or an African-American community and it's not just a southern issue. It's a national issue. Some of the most tragic cases I've seen are when an otherwise good parent loses control. The really teachable moment in this case is that parents should never discipline when they are angry. This is when parents often cross the line and wind up seriously injuring their child.
I don't know Adrian Peterson's state of mind when he whipped his son, but I would bet money that he didn't intend to seriously harm him. In fact, the reported text messages that Peterson apparently sent to the boy's mom suggest how he realized that he went too far. Adults are often completely unaware of their own strength and how much force they are exerting on their kid until it's too late.
I was spanked and whipped as a kid too. I chose not to use any corporal punishment on my own kids because I thought it was counterintuitive. How can I hit my boys and then tell my kids then not to hit another child? Maybe it was also because I saw so many cases of child abuse in my courtroom. I chose punishment, taking away privileges, instead of physical discipline with my children. But I would defend the right of a parent to discipline as they see fit.
However, my advice for parents is never to act in the moment. Physically remove yourself from your kids. Go into another room. Take a moment to clear your head. I understand that this is not always realistic. There are parents or caregivers who are working double shifts, exhausted and at the end of their rope. They may not want to take five minutes to step outside and take deep breaths. But it's critical to gain composure by separating yourself from the child. Let the rage pass so you don't harm your kid in a way that you will ultimately regret.
Judge Hatchett airs weekdays on WEtv