The arrest of a once-popular video blogger who advocated tough-love parenting and her business associate in southwestern Utah has revitalized conversations about when discipline becomes child abuse or neglect.

Ruby Franke vlogged on her “8 Passengers” YouTube channel and enjoyed 2.5 million followers at one time, though her ideas on parenting increasingly drew criticism as being harsh and the channel disappeared for unknown reasons earlier this year, as the Deseret News reported. Her associate, Jodi Hildebrandt, licensed as a clinical mental health expert, was also arrested. The two have been charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse. They remain in custody without bail.

Both were arrested after Franke’s 12-year-old went to the home of one of Hildebrandt’s neighbors in what police described as a malnourished condition, asking for food and water.

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Where is the line between discipline and abuse and how does one know when the line has been crossed? The Deseret News turned to research and interviewed experts.

They were not asked to comment on the Franke and Hildebrandt cases, but rather to address questions of where the line lies between teaching a child to behave and methods that could be abuse or neglect.

“I’m the first to say parenting is difficult,” said Dr. Allison M. Jackson, division chief of the Child & Adolescent Protection Center and a professor at Children’s National Hospital, as well as an associate professor of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“It’s easier to have them than to raise them for most people,“ she said. “I’m not minimizing the challenge that comes with parenting at all. Unfortunately, there are practices categorized as discipline that do the opposite.”

Discipline’s intent

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry have all said abuse and neglect can arise from acts of commission and acts of omission.

The former refers to what’s done that threatens or inflicts physical or emotional harm. The latter is what’s not done, such as failing to provide basics like food, shelter and clothing. Those can create physical or emotional harm, too, experts said.

“Discipline means ‘to teach.’ Harsh methods of discipline, whether physical acts of commission or omission like withholding food, really send a wrong message to children on how to correct behavior as they are developing and learning right from wrong,” Jackson said.

George W. Holden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, is a psychologist who spent much of his career studying parenting, including corporal punishment and how to move parents away from it.

He said the idea behind discipline is helping parents raise children to be well-adjusted and contributing members of society. “Doing that hinges on developing a positive relationship with children so you can work with them and teach them in a way that encourages them to listen to you.”

Discipline kicks in when kids do something a parent or other adult doesn’t want, he said, adding the very need signals a breakdown in effective parenting. “Good parents can raise their children in such a way they don’t have to engage in ‘discipline,’” Holden said.

Jackson thinks parents can lose track of whether they’re trying to teach a child or simply express their own displeasure. “The two things are usually not the same and the impact can be significant if it’s being done to express anger and frustration,” she said.

She also dislikes how “spare the rod and spoil the child,” taken from the Bible, is used to justify physical punishment. “As a person of faith, I know that’s a reference to a shepherd and sheep. A shepherd would never beat his sheep, which were highly valued. He would guide it with the staff, not beat it.”

Painful consequences

The CDC says the consequences of abuse include immediate physical injury or emotional and psychological problems like anxiety and post-traumatic stress. The long-term impact includes increased risk of experiencing or perpetrating future violence or victimization, substance abuse, delayed brain development, lower educational attainment and problems finding and keeping jobs, among others. Chronic abuse, the CDC says, can result in “toxic stress, which can change brain development and increase the risk for problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, and learning, attention and memory difficulties.”

Besides that, spanking or hitting doesn’t do what parents think it does, said Holden, also president of the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children and author of numerous articles on parenting and corporal punishment.

“The child is not thinking, ‘that shows me not to do something.’ He’s feeling pain, is upset, it hurts and why did my parents who say they love me hurt me? Children focus more on the emotional reaction and pain than on the lesson the parent thinks the child is going to learn,” Holden said. “So the child feels anger typically or gets depressed or anxious from repeated experiences of being spanked. Once in a blue moon it’s not going to have that impact, I think.”

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Discipline is a topic with many viewpoints and some controversy. Jackson thinks knowledge about discipline has changed and studies are clear, but many parents haven’t caught up or moved beyond how they were punished when they were kids.

“There’s no research showing positive effects“ of physical discipline, she said. “Zero. It’s harmful. Not only can it escalate to physical abuse, but even for those not going in that direction, children who experience physical punishment are at risk for emotional and behavioral consequences.”

Research on adverse childhood experiences found traumatic experiences can affect someone across their lifespan and also create long-term potential for poor outcomes.

A study that looked at decades of research, published jointly in 2012 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the Journal of the American Medical Association, found “most child physical abuse occurs in the context of punishment.” The report also said that “no study has found that physical punishment enhances developmental health.”

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry noted in 2018 that while physical punishment may elicit a desired behavior in the short-term, consequences down the road could include aggressiveness and bullying, fear of parents, poor self-esteem and “increased risk of depression, anxiety and personality problems.”

Abused children sometimes become abusers themselves. “Abuse can cause injury, loss of custody, arrest, jail time and even the death of a child,” the group wrote.

Corporal punishment remains common. The 2021 American Family Survey showed a decline in support of spanking from a high of 54% in the 2015 survey to 47%. More than one-third of parents polled oppose spanking. The nationally representative survey was conducted by YouGov for Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

“We know children learn best in environments where they feel safe, and where they trust the people that are trying to teach them. Those are the strategies that we should be using to discipline children. There’s no evidence that scaring a child and making them feel pain is going to help them learn,” Elizabeth T. Gershoff, professor and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin and author on many corporal punishment articles, said then.

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Men supported spanking more than women did, at 52% versus 42%. And age mattered, with more support for spanking and physical discipline among older parents than among younger parents.

Gershoff said parents often note they were spanked and turned out fine which might be cognitive dissonance, “when you go through something difficult and later kind of justify it,” she said.

Food as punishment

Experts see problems with punishing a child by withholding supper. Holden calls it “weaponizing food” and said it’s a bad idea. “There are so many potential psychological consequences if food is being manipulated with the child, like obesity and eating disorders. It’s a bad idea to introduce using food in any way that is not positive and healthy.”

Jackson is more blunt. “Withholding of food would really fall into the realm of a form of child abuse that many characterize as torture,” she said. “There are not a lot of legal statutes that use that terminology. From a medical perspective, it can include an extreme single incident but also chronic repetitive physical abuse over time coupled with emotional abuse and neglect, which is where food withholding might come into play.”

Sometimes children are hungry because a family is poor, she added. “I’m not suggesting the criminalization of poverty at all. But withholding food, not spreading it thin for everyone, but because of misbehavior or perceived misbehavior is abusive on an emotional and physical level.”

How does forgetting to bring lunch to school compare to forgetting to take a book that’s due? And if a parent wouldn’t bring the book, should she bring the food?

“It depends,” said Holden. The first time a child makes a mistake like that, the parent should help out, but also do some problem-solving: How do I help my child avoid this in the future? Maybe put the item — or a reminder — by the door. And talk through solutions with the child.

Jackson agreed that letting a child have some natural consequences is an effective method of discipline. Natural consequences are good because some things must be learned on one’s own, she said.

“That is still very different than a child does something wrong and the punishment is you don’t get to eat dinner and you go to your room. Everyone else is eating. One fits the crime: You were not attentive to what you needed to take to school today. You just don’t have that today, you will eat when you get home,” said Jackson. “That’s connected to what the child didn’t do. The idea of denying access to food that’s at home and singling them out is emotionally abusive, degrading and humiliating,” she added.

If food is chronically withheld for disciplinary purposes, she said it’s not unreasonable a child might develop real issues with eating.

A different approach

“Positive parenting” is 100 years old and making a resurgence, said Holden, who notes it goes by many names, including gentle parenting and cooperative discipline. The overriding philosophy is developing a cooperative and healthy parent-child relationship. “You’re not looking for immediate compliance. It’s having a warm, loving, positive relationship and out of that relationship, children will behave because they want to do what their parents want,” he said.

A key part is being proactive, anticipating problems and making adjustments.

Holden believes some discipline issues arise because adults don’t understand child development and what children of different ages are and aren’t capable of. For instance, young children can’t regulate their emotions. They need a lot of help, so having appropriate expectations is vital.

Slapping the hand of a young child for touching something is pointless, since that child is not developmentally able to resist. “He will be in a couple of years, but for now I need to remove the item,” Holden said.

Children frequently can’t control their emotions, so there’s little point in escalating it with “Stop that! Pull yourself together!” Instead, said Holden, hold a child and calm her down, talking quietly about her behavior, what is problematic and how she can behave differently in the future. Teach instead of punish.

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People worry that the gentle approach lets children run amok. Holden said children do need guidelines and setting them is a parent’s job. “You do need to say no. But that doesn’t mean punishment or deprivation of food, which is terrible for a child. Focus on the long-term picture of developing a mature, caring individual who is sensitive to other people and empathetic. Do that through modeling appropriate behavior.”

Sometimes, he added, “It’s a challenge to make that shift.”

The CDC lists effective discipline to teach better behavior instead of focusing on punishing “bad” behavior. That includes:

  • Natural consequences, as long as they are safe. As calls letting a child touch a hot burner a good example of a bad natural consequence.
  • Logical consequences, imposed by parents and directly related to the behavior that triggered the consequence.
  • Time outs.
  • Collaboration and proactive solutions, including working with the child to prevent the behavior in the future.
  • Positive consequences for being good.

Jackson recommends asking a child’s pediatrician for help if a parent struggles with a child’s behavior or doesn’t know how to manage.

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