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Kids Suing Parents: Bringing Back Old Fashioned Discipline

— March 14, 2014

The legal world (as well as social media) has been ablaze as a result of 18-year-old Rachel Canning’s attempt to sue her parents for living expenses. Shortly after Rachel’s lawsuit became public, there have been some reports that 80’s television star “Mr. T” was sued by a man claiming to be his son, under the grounds that Mr. T’s abandonment of him as a boy caused him to become a gang member.

Rachel Canning claims that her parents were abusive and that their behavior forced her to move out of her parent’s home to a friend’s house. The parents, on the other hand, allege that Rachel refused to follow household rules. She stayed out late, came home intoxicated, and was disrespectful to her parents.

The judge in this case denied the teen’s motion for immediate support, but further motions, including money for college tuition, are pending. This story has been trending worldwide. In Mr. T’s case, his alleged son, now in his 20’s, filed a lawsuit for $5.4 million dollars. It was dismissed in 2013 because the filing fee was not paid in a timely manner.

The question is, what does this say about America, and how we discipline our kids?

A phenomenon that appears to be increasing is the fear of arrest as a result of disciplining your child. The threat is of “Mom, Dad, if you touch me, I will call DCF/child protective services/the police.” As a result, many parents back down, and children are taught that they can misbehave without consequences. Additionally, they have learned to manipulate the system, with the clear message that threats can produce the desired consequences.

There is a very clear line between child abuse and discipline. Child abuse involves beating, burning, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. If a mother burns her child’s hand with an iron, that is abuse. If a father hits his son with a baseball bat, that is abuse. But spanking your child is NOT abuse.

The criminal justice system has had to adapt to cultural differences that child rearing presents. While many American families utilize techniques such as having the child sit in a corner, or be in “time out,” many families from other countries are more physical in their methods of discipline. Having been raised in a Caribbean household, I was acutely aware of my boundaries, as well as the uncomfortable consequences for misbehavior.

This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other. Many sociologists have studied the area, coming to varied conclusions. The key is, every child is different. Some children respond to privileges being revoked; others may need more forceful reinforcement. But a parent should never be in fear of their children or fearful to discipline them.

Fortunately, the judge saw through Rachel’s attempt to avoid the consequences of her actions. Her parents clearly told the court that if she returned to the family home, her tuition and all of her expenses would be paid. Today, the attorney for the Cannings announced that Rachel moved back into the family home. However, the lawsuit is still pending.

From a legal perspective, hopefully this will not set a nasty trend for kids to use the legal system to get around the authority of their parents or punish their parents for whatever shortcomings they may have.

On a social perspective, this is a tragic situation for the Canning family. Having your personal affairs paraded through the media is certainly difficult, and it is clear this family is broken. Hopefully this family seeks counseling because, at the end of the day, they are tied by blood.

And always will be.

The author Melba Pearson is an attorney in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.

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