Portrait of the Author  


Misconception of Child Abuse and Discipline in the United States


Excerpts from an Essay by Kieu Tran
Undergraduate, University of Colorado at Boulder



There is a deep misunderstanding in the way Westerners define child abuse and the way Asians understand it. In Eastern languages, there is no such phrase as "child abuse," and even if there were statistics on child abuse, I am sure the that the rate of child abuse would be very low.

But to American (1) parents, such actions are considered abusive and are not allowed by law. The American concept of child abuse has affected most Asian parents living in the United States. The stereotype held by most American people is that Asian parents always hit their children. This stereotype also affects Asians. When Asians first arrive in the United States, they do not realize that it is against the law to discipline children by striking them, even if they have reason to do so. Simultaneously, Asian children are taught at school about child abuse and that adults, even their parents, have no right to hurt or strike them. If they happen to be physically punished at home by their parents, they may tell their friends or teachers when they go to school. Of course, the teachers will report the "abuse" to the police. These parents will be questioned or brought into court for trial. I know some Vietnamese parents who were questioned by social workers because they applied strict punishment to their children. The consequence of such action is that the bond between parents and children falls apart. The children have a misconception of punishment; they think that their parents hate them. As a result, Asian parents feel discouraged and desperate, since they think they have lost their authority to raise their children.

"A Measure of Freedom" by Jade Snow Wong relates to my topic. Wong wanted to be more like an American, but her parents really didn't like the way she changed -- they didn't want her to assimilate into American culture. She thought that her old culture didn't work in America. Her parents were really upset. They tried to stop her from being Americanized, but she adapted to Western culture by going out with an American boy, getting a job, and going to a community college. Her parents worried that, if Wong became Americanized, then their other children would be Americanized, and they would lose their Chinese heritage. Wong rebelled against this attitude, and said to her parents, "This is America, not China!...Both of you should understand that I am growing up to be a woman in a society greatly different from the one you knew in China" (33). Although Wong didn't talk about child abuse, this story relates to what I think happens to Vietnamese families in America. In the Vietnamese traditional culture, there is a very close bond between parents and children in the family. They love each other, and they support and help each other. The children are followers, because they submit to and obey the advice of their parents. But in America, Asian children have to adapt to a different structure outside of their families. (2)

But in Western modern society, such roles are different. Should we, Vietnamese parents and children, change our roles and assimilate when it comes to discipline? Or should we maintain the traditional way of discipline which we believe is effective but goes against Western values and beliefs?

Physical punishment in Asian traditions is not considered child abuse. In Vietnam, it is the traditional way of raising children, and is a part of Vietnamese culture that has existed for many years. Physical punishment does not work in America, but it does in Vietnam. I want to focus on differences between abuse, punishment, and discipline. Punishment by striking a child does not qualify as abuse. Vietnamese parents should discipline their children if they are bad. However, what consequences and problems will Asian parents face if they discipline or punish their children in America?

In Vietnam, the family structure plays a very important part in society, and means a lot to each individual. With the influence of Confucianism and Buddhist philosophy, the Vietnamese family structure is very unique: the family seems like a little community within a greater community. Both parents and children know how to maintain their own roles and responsibilities in the family. Parents, especially the father, have the ultimate authority or power over the children. They act as supporters to assist their children to fit into the social structure. There is always the hierarchy in the family and between the relationship of parents and children. Parents seem somewhat more serious than friendly and always apply a strict discipline to the children, but are always prepared to give encouragement and advice. When they have to use disciplinary means, they do not hesitate to apply harsh punishments, like striking, without interference from police, relatives, or neighbors. In Vietnam, there are no social workers. Other members of the family, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. also can punish naughty children. In turn, the obligation of children is to submit, obey, and respect their parents and other relatives. There is no question of hatred between parents and children. Children never talk back because of the strict punishment. They have to accept it when they are wrong or when they make a mistake.

The so-called freedom in the Western culture and customs has destroyed the Vietnamese family structure very quickly. As soon as families come to the U.S., both parents have to go out looking for jobs to support their family. At the same time, the children spend most of their time at school or with friends. The family has very little time to be together after work and school, in order to discuss family problems or schoolwork. The family no longer consults, advises, encourages, or consoles. As a result, the family bond gradually dissolves. Since the children spend more time outside of the family than with their family, it is natural that they become Americanized quickly. Although Vietnamese parents always try their best to stop their children from becoming Americanized and to maintain their culture as much as possible, it is nearly impossible to do so.

By the time the children grow up, they are affected by the new lifestyle in this modern society, and are influenced in the name of "equality, freedom, and independence." They do not think of the family as an important part of their life anymore. Their parents are just their friends and, as friends, have no more authority over them. If children make mistakes, parents cannot punish them. Moreover, by law, parents cannot strike or hit them. The children's minds are always absorbed with the thoughts expressed by Jade Snow Wong:


Today, we recognized that children are individuals and that parents can no longer demand their unquestioning obedience. Parents should do their best to understand their children, because young people also have their rights.

In addition, the school system does not have much authority to discipline the students. The students are not taught how to follow their elders or how to respect or obey parents. Instead, they are trained to become technicians, specialists, scientists, lawyers, etc. They are rarely taught morals or community values.

Family structure is the only source to stop the children from becoming assimilated and acculturated. Parents expect children to maintain the original culture and traditional customs, in order to maintain their identities. Taking advantage of the little time to be together in the evening, or at night, Vietnamese parents try to motivate and sometimes to discipline their children, but the more they discipline, the more they face, because the law in this country does not permit parents to physically hurt their children.

As I see it, in America, the family structure seems to be unimportant. Discipline in the American family does not seem to be strict because the meaning of the term "everyone is equal" influences American families. Parents and children have equal rights. Children can argue, talk back, and even fight for their own rights. There is no hierarchy in the family system. American parents can play two roles at the same time: parents and friends. There is no way that they can physically punish their children, if their children perform badly. They can only talk about their children's mistakes and give verbal advice.

Physical punishment may also mean discipline for the Vietnamese family. Children feel shamed, along with their pain, when they are being punished. Next time, they will remember that, if they do not obey their parents, they will get pain again, so they avoid making mistakes.

This way of disciplining does not exist in American society; it is called child abuse. The Ma family is an example of Vietnamese American discipline problems. They moved to the United States some time ago. Their youngest daughter is 15 years old now. She came with her family, when she was young. She learned English, and was influenced by American customs very quickly. She gained many friends and used to stay over night at her friends' houses on the weekends. She was always on the phone and, of course, she did not do well in school.

Mrs. Ma tried to talk to her daughter and both her parents also resisted punishing her, but she never listened to them. She thought that her parents would not dare beat her, because they were living in America. Her parents saw that she was getting worse and worse and, when they could not endure such behavior any more, Mr. Ma did strike her. She called the police and her father was charged some money and he was warned that, if he struck her again, he would be put in jail. Afterwards, because Mr. Ma struck his daughter again, he was jailed for three days. After his release, he became angry and desperate because he realized he could not discipline his daughter in this country the way he wanted. As a result, he let things go and ignored his daughter. He thought that, sooner or later, his daughter would learn good things through the errors she made.

I feel sorry for Mr. Ma. He was hurt very much and felt ashamed. He never believed that his own daughter could be against him. He felt that he was losing face with his neighbors, friends and relatives. What happened to Mr. Ma could never happen in Vietnam, for that would be against Vietnam traditional culture. Even in Vietnam, if she had called the police, they would not have interfered in the case. American law destroys parental authority.

Pamela Mayhall and Katherine Norgard, the authors of Child Abuse and Neglect: Sharing Responsibility define physical child abuse as a "non-accidental injury inflicted on a child by the child's parent or caretaker" (110). They include common injuries such as, "diaper rash or uncleanness, bite marks, grab marks, belt lashes, ping pong bruises, and lacerated lips" in a list of "primary indicators of physical child abuse," which they define as "injuries of the skin, to the face, head or body" (111). I have heard many cases of child abuse on the news and TV, like the cases of child abuse caused by alcoholic or drug-addicted parents. When American parents have trouble with their bosses, their jobs, bills, and many accumulated problems, they get stressed easily and become desperate. This could cause them to be abusive to their children.

In my opinion, these troubled these parents have suffered from psychological problems and therefore, their emotional behavior is abnormal. They lose their tempers even in minor desperation. In low-income families, the parents are faced with financial destitution that can easily instigate their outrage without any reason. Sometimes, they release their outrage by physically hurting their children. All these acts of violence are considered child abuse. Of course, all these actions are not forgivable, and are quite different from the definition of child punishment.

In conclusion, Vietnamese family structure tends to be a little unique community, while the Western family structure tends to focus more on individualism. In Vietnam, parents must discipline their children, even striking them at times, because that is part of our traditional culture. Any Vietnamese parent who does not discipline their child is considered to be non-traditional. As a result, the concept does not exist in Vietnam, or in other Asian countries.

As Vietnamese children, we must maintain in the family, and respect and obey our elders. We know how hard it is to raise and nurse us. It is true that we are living in America, but we cannot forget that we are Vietnamese: our skin is yellow; our features are forever Vietnamese, so our families must maintain their uniqueness. "Do not substitute the Western philosophy into our traditional culture" (Wong, 34). Have you ever thought what would happen to the order of our households if Vietnamese children started behaving like American children?

Americans should have a clear definition between child abuse and discipline. They should learn and become more sensitive to the problem. Also, American people should improve the field of morality and community beliefs, to avoid breaking down other traditional cultures and customs from other countries.



Mayhall, Pamela D. and Katherine Eastlack Norgard. Child Abuse and Neglect: Sharing Responsibility NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1983.

Wong, Jade Snow. "A Measure of Freedom."




 "Misconception of Child Abuse and Discipline in the United States" © 1996,1997 by Kieu Tran

This work first appeared in Belonging, a cross-cultural literary journal of undergraduate student works at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Reprinted here by permission of the author.

For more information on Belonging, see Bonnie Richards' "A Rhetoric of Difference:
The Student Literary Magazine as Critical Pedagogy
," published in this issue of STANDARDS.

 Author photo © 1996 by Belonging

and the STANDARDS Editorial Collective





1. Through interactions with the Fall Institute multilingual students, we find that "Americans" are often defined as only those people of European descent living in the United States; there is little or no acknowledgment that "America" is a continent of many cultures and peoples, nor that the great grandparents of the American Indians, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans are included in the populace identified as "American." The limited definition underscores value and belief systems about U.S. politics and cultural norms that are important for understanding immigrant experiences. If American parents strike their children for some good reasons, they may be summoned to court to face the judicial system, or be questioned by social workers.

2. Kieu affords us a glimpse into the biculturalism process for Asian Americans. As she suggests, biculturalism manifests itself as a result of two strong social forces -- Asian family value systems and American mainstream cultures. Within this bicultural orientation, Asian Americans are challenged to develop an individual sense of self as well as a place in a newly adopted culture.





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