Physical discipline of children: When does punishment become abuse?

Physical discipline of children: When does punishment become abuse?

In this modern, social media-fuelled age, when does a parent's attempts to get their kids to behave cross the line into criminal territory?

FIle photo of child abuse
Photo illustration of child abuse.

SINGAPORE: When her two sons - aged four and six - misbehave, Therese Tay either smacks them on the bum or palm, or chooses to send them to a “naughty corner” to reflect on themselves.

But just like all but one out of 10 parents interviewed by Channel NewsAsia, the 38-year-old is unaware of the point where physical discipline becomes illegal and potentially a criminal act.

“Lawfully and technically, no,” said Ms Tay. “But personally, I think it would be where it is repeated, causes or is likely to cause grave injury, and is not really done to teach the child anything but rather to relieve anger or gain a feeling of power.”

Any act that causes injury to a child - including deliberately causing bruises, cuts and others by actions such as beating, shaking and “excessive discipline” - constitutes physical abuse, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

And under the Children and Young Persons Act, physical abuse - and the causing of “unnecessary” physical pain, suffering or injury - amounts to ill-treatment. This was the charge levelled at a 35-year-old man for beating his son, nine, last year.

The father had held the boy upside down by one leg, hit him with a hanger and kicked him among other acts. A neighbour called the police when he heard a child crying out, thinking it was child abuse. 

Some lawyers, however, acknowledged the legislation as “quite broad” and potentially confusing for the average parent.

“There is no clear demarcation when punishment crosses the line,” said Shashi Nathan, the regional head of dispute resolution and partner at law firm Withers KhattarWong. “What is looked at is whether the punishment is appropriate and reasonable. Obviously when real and long-term harm and physical injury is caused, then the line is clearly crossed.”

Lin Xiaoling, the deputy director of advocacy and public education at the Singapore Children’s Society, said: “There is often a very thin line between discipline and child abuse.

“Rather than debate on where to fix the line before punishment becomes illegal, our focus can instead be on helping families become safer and stronger ... The simple rule to remember is: ‘Every child has the right to feel safe all the time.'”

Child abuse
File picture of a bruise on a child's arm.


When he first heard of the case of the father imprisoned for ill-treating his son, veteran family lawyer Rajan Chettiar said he was “a little taken aback”.

“Such behaviour was very common during the days when I was a kid - which is about 40 years ago,” he said. “Now, this is seen as child abuse and illegal.”

All the parents Channel NewsAsia spoke to were physically punished by their own parents too - whether by hand, cane, ruler or belt - and one said: “In those days, it was quite normal for my sister and I to be beaten into submission.”

“My siblings and I grew up perfectly fine,” said Michelle Ang, editor of The New Age Parents online magazine and community. “Now we are older, we understand it was my mother’s way of teaching us right from wrong. We don’t blame her for the ‘hurt’ she inflicted, because we know it comes from good intentions.

“Of course, not everyone who grew up being caned by their parents might feel the same way as me and my siblings, because we all receive and internalise these experiences differently.”

Yet what was once a strictly private family affair can easily spill into the open today, when filmed and uploaded to social media.

Last month, a child was videoed kneeling and being slapped in a car park - prompting outrage online as well as MSF and police investigations. And earlier this year, a Facebook clip of a man caning and kicking a boy also sparked polarising debate over whether it was plain abuse. 

“I do see today’s parents taking a softer approach when it comes to disciplining children,” said Ms Ang. “This could be why, when such cases of corporal punishments get leaked on social media, they generate a stronger reaction from the public.”

Asked for their thoughts on potentially being filmed punishing their children, one parent said: “If this saves a kid from abusive parents, then it’s not a bad thing at all. And if you’re not unreasonable, then you should have nothing to fear.”

But another slammed the practice, saying there are “too many keyboard warriors sharing incidents where there is usually more than meets the eye”.

Ms Tay commented: “People need to do less of the showing - on social media - and more of the doing, for example approaching the family and asking if they can help (or) asking what’s wrong.”

Crime generic (1)
Photo illustration of an assault. (Photo illustration: Ngau Kai Yan)


Parents also revealed their internal safeguards for ensuring they do not cross the line while punishing their kids, with some choosing to restrict the volume or intensity of caning while others make it a point to remind themselves of the purpose - to discipline rather than express anger.

“I try to keep my emotions in check and be rational,” said a mother of two daughters. “And verbal warnings are given before any caning, to make sure the child understands the next course of action will be the cane if she doesn’t behave.”

Said Ms Lin of the Children’s Society: “Many parents' intention may be to discipline their child, but asserting power using brute force means one can easily cross the line, simply because the child is much smaller and weaker than the adult.

“There are alternatives to physical punishment when it comes to discipline,” she added. “We urge parents to explore and try other methods and logical consequences, including withdrawal of privilege, reasoning and explaining.”

Speaking in her personal capacity, Ms Ang said: “I don’t think corporal punishment is totally wrong or should be banished or totally frowned upon. How a parent chooses to discipline their child is their choice – and not for me to judge or intervene, unless it crosses the line of unlawful territory.”

Should a member of the public be worried about a child's safety, there is a range of reporting options (see below) - but MSF noted that in the event a life is in danger, people should immediately call the police.

“The urgent question to ask ourselves is: ‘Could this child be in danger, whether now or later?’” Ms Lin advised. “And the next is: ‘Should I be worried that the child could possibly be harmed, in any way?’

“Injuries could both be seen and unseen. So if we are unsure, it is always safer to tell or ask someone who can help.”

She said: “Informing the authorities of a case does not mean an immediate report. It can be to voice out your concern and seek advice on what to do next … Don't wait until it becomes too late.

“Families, neighbours, schools, agencies, the public. We all make up the village that keeps our children safe."

To report concerns over a child's safety, the public can dial MSF’s Child Protective Service Helpline (1800 777 000) or ComCare Call (1800 222 0000).

They can also contact any of the Child Protection Specialist Centres (Big Love, HEART@Fei Yue and Safe Space), Family Violence Specialist Centres (PAVE, TRANS SAFE Centre and Care Corner Project StART) or visit

Children who need support can call Tinkle Friend (1800 2744 788).

Source: CNA/jo