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When Does Discipline Turn Into Child Abuse?

When I read of NFL running back Adrian Peterson recently being indicted on child abuse charges for beating, or more accurately, flogging, his 4-year-old son with a “switch,” I was immediately reminded of an incident that took place a few months ago, while returning from a business trip to the island of Curacao.

I was sitting in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport at Gate 23. With me were no less than 20 adults, waiting for our flight to Colorado, herding around a source of electricity, where our laptops and iPhones gained new life after being drained on a long flight over the Caribbean Sea.

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I heard him before I saw him. The voice came closer, and at first I didn’t make much of it, until I could finally make out what it was he was saying. “Stop crying! Stop crying! I told you to stop crying!” As the man got closer, he continued to yell at this frail, blonde-haired boy, about 2 years old, who clung to the man’s hip and shoulder, a man who was now threatening the child with "a whoopin’."

The father walked into the bathroom with the child, where I thought perhaps he would change the child’s pants. Being a mother myself, I know this scenario from personal experience — wet pants, tears, loss of parental patience. The man was obviously overreacting, and I felt a twinge of sorrow for the little boy who was being spoken to so harshly but returned to my work. But no sooner did the man enter the airport bathroom did I hear sounds like slapping. I looked up from my computer and heard it again. Bare hand against bare skin. Over and over. It took me a moment to register the sound, and convince myself that, yes, this is what I was hearing. The man, inside the apparent safety of the men’s bathroom, was beating his toddler son.

The adults all around me, young and old, turned their heads away, trying their best to ignore what we knew was about to take place.

The father’s voice grew louder than ever as he “disciplined” the boy, now attracting the attention of everyone at Gate 23. The businessmen beside and across from me turned their heads to the crying, slapping and shouting coming from across the hall. Just as I was closing my laptop to fully assess the situation, the father and son came out.

The man was in his late 20s, slender, about 6 feet tall. The boy sniffled and wiped his sleeve beneath his nose, while being dragged back to the spot from which they came. At the sound of his continued whimpering, the young father bent at the waist, grabbed the boy by the face, squeezed it hard and said, “I told you to stop crying!”

The man yanked the child’s arm and pulled him back into the bathroom. “You want to feel again what it feels like to be whooped?” he screamed, the threat booming off the tiles of the restroom.

By this time I understood exactly what was happening, the entire boarding area knew. The adults all around me, young and old, turned their heads away, trying their best to ignore what we knew was about to take place. But I couldn't ignore it. As a mother, my instinct was to do something to defend the boy inside who was himself defenseless against the rage of a man five times his size.

Without a thought of what exactly to do, and my heart racing with fear of breaking some unspoken rule of female politeness and parental politics, I ran towards the men’s restroom and entered.

I found the father just beyond the door, bent over his son.

“Please don’t hit your child,” I blurted out, the words leaving my lips before I could even contemplate a strategy.

He turned his face up toward me, pinched red with anger. “What did you just say?”

“You don’t have to hit your child.’”

The man stood up and stepped toward me, as close as he could get without touching me, unashamed at what he had done. “You’re damn right I whoop my son. Now he knows how to act in public. How else am I supposed to get him to listen?”

“Be kind to him, love him,” I said, my voice quivering.

I was scared because I had just experienced, firsthand, the reality that children are being beaten every day, and there was little I could do to stop it.

I glanced to the child. The little boy was looking at me with sunken, red-rimmed eyes like I was an alien, clearly confused at what was happening. “It’s alright,” I whispered to him, instinctively reaching out, hoping he would understand.

“Pfft, please,” the man said, trying to dismiss me. “What do you know about raising kids anyway?”

“I have two sons of my own.”

“Well, I have three and I whoop ’em all. Don’t tell me I don’t have no right to whoop my own kids. Maybe you should whoop yours.”

With that he let the boy go, who ran away, his father trudging after him down the hallway, away from Gate 23.

I sat back down, opened my laptop and burst into tears, shaken by the confrontation. I was scared for the boy and what his life now and in the future might hold. And I was scared because I had just experienced, firsthand, the reality that children are being beaten every day, and there was little I could do to stop it when hidden beyond the doors of bathrooms, bedroom and homes across the United States.

I think of the situation of Adrian Peterson. How that little boy must have screamed and protested as his father, a 217-pound, 6-foot, 1-inch running back — barred down on him with a branch — onto the bare skin of a 35-pound boy, “tearing up that butt,” as Peterson said, until he broke the skin.

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I am not a perfect parent. I don’t pretend to hold a higher moral authority over anyone. But it does feel as though the basic human rights of children is something we should all be able to agree on, despite economic, cultural or geographic convention.

Do we stand up, as uncomfortable as it can be, and step forward to protect those who cannot protect themselves? Or keep our eyes, ears and mouths shut in the name of parental rights until it all goes away?

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