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Crime or Punishment?

The joke, told privately among parents who vacillate between confidence and a certain paranoia, goes something like this: Any day now, HRS will come knocking on my door.

They're generally talking about discipline, a slippery concept that can reduce well-intentioned parents and often-oblivious children to a state of self-doubt and, in some cases, outright fear.

With mixed messages coming from every corner, it's no wonder people are confused about what's best _ not to mention what's legal _ when it comes to teaching kids to act appropriately.

For that matter, who's the authority on what's right?

Clearly, most people would say it's not right to build a cage to incarcerate an active 4-year-old, as a Pinellas County couple has been charged with doing.

Similarly, the average person would not advocate strapping toddlers for extended periods into a car seat set up in the house, which a Polk County couple did last year. Rebecca Blanchard and her husband, Troy, were convicted of third-degree murder after Rebecca's 3-year-old son suffocated while trying to wriggle out of confinement. The couple will be sentenced in July.

But other situations aren't so obviously questionable.

For instance, is it legal to spank a child? If it is, under what conditions is it advisable? Can a parent lock a child in a bedroom for a cooling-off period? If so, for how long? Even if these actions are legal, are they recommended? By whom?

The answers vary.

Many pediatricians and therapists oppose corporal punishment, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has made no a policy statement on the issue of spanking. The organization will be "coming out with something shortly that will provide guidelines on appropriate forms of discipline," said spokeswoman Carolyn Kolbaba.

Meanwhile, the academy hands out written statements declaring that discipline must not physically hurt a child and recommends that punishment involve "brief isolation or restriction of privileges."

In Florida, it is legal to spank or confine a child for short periods of time so everyone can cool off, but there are some rules. Spanking should not result in harm to a child, nor should it be practiced indiscriminately, and any confinement cannot potentially cause injury.

"Clearly, a parent paddling a child would not constitute abuse," HRS spokesman David Adams said. "What our investigators look at is what happened. You used a belt on your child's behind, and you left some red marks. That may not be abuse.

"It's when you cross that reasonable line to using objects, to leaving serious black and blue marks, to open gashes in the skin, to where you hit a child in the face where they're bleeding (or have a) black eye. That's clearly unreasonable and where you're in the area of child abuse.

"Any parent that abuses a child is in the wrong, and if we're called we will investigate, because a child is defenseless."

Adams reminded parents of the various tried-and-true methods of discipline: timeouts, in which a child goes to his room or sits quietly in a chair; placing a toddler in his or her crib or grounding an older child from activities.

"There's 1,000 parents, there's 1,000 theories," Adams said. "If a parent takes a reasonable, rational approach to disciplining a child, they will not have anything to worry about. Not from us. Not from anybody."

The key to "reasonable" is staying in control; if paddling is determined to be the best punishment for unacceptable behavior, it must not be done by an angry parent, he said.

"Parents have to sit and think," he adds. "They have to be very controlled and disciplined. Cages don't work. Using objects to beat your child doesn't work. What works is a lot of self-discipline."

He recommends a buddy system with neighbors, friends and family members who can relieve a stressed situation by lending a hand.

Parents can also call HRS for guidance, without fear of retribution, he said, or consult their doctors on how to handle problems.

HRS policy does not mandate how people should discipline their children; it allows room for individual decisions that vary from person to person, even those within the department itself.

Elaine Fulton-Jones, a regional HRS spokeswoman, never uses physical force to punish her toddler. She thinks such action does more harm than good.

"I talk to a lot of parents who think like I do, that spanking doesn't really accomplish what they want it to," she said. "That's my own personal opinion."

Parents live with a lot of guilt these days, second-guessing their decisions on just about everything, but they can do themselves and their children a favor by using common sense when doling out discipline.

"It's not easy, and this is a complicated world now," Adams says. It's okay to seek help out, to talk to other parents having that problem.

And it helps to keep things in perspective, he said, adding: "Today's nightmare will probably be tomorrow's joy."