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04/24/2014 11:58 EDT | Updated 06/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Spanking Your Kids Doesn't Make You a Child Abuser

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Apparently, I'm a victim of child abuse. And a child abuser. How did that escape me? At least I might be, if you believe a new study that redefines what it means to be abused -- and an abuser.

According to the study, made public in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on April 22, of the 23,000 adult Canadians surveyed, 32 per cent identified themselves as being victims of child abuse or exposed to violence by parents, step-parents, grandparents or other adults in authority in their homes.

Which would make me an abused child. Here's how:

When I was about four years old I had beautiful, long, chestnut hair, which I hated to have washed. We had an old, claw-foot bathtub and one of those old-fashioned rubber showers that you stuck on the end of the bathtub faucet so you could rinse your hair.

Usually, I would lean over the tub for the lather, rinse, repeat. It involved being a bit of a contortionist, but it avoided getting shampoo in my eyes.

But on this day, I was in the tub getting my hair washed and I was having an epic meltdown.

I remember it vividly: My mother had folded a washcloth and was trying to hold it over my eyes to prevent shampoo from seeping in. But I was having none of it. I screamed and yelled and cried. And, in a moment of what can only be described as sheer frustration, my mother brought down her arms and the wet cloth came unfolded and struck me across the cheek.

That's the moment that I stopped crying, and my mother started.

She hadn't meant for it to happen. Even at four, I knew that. But she was devastated.

Of course there were intentional hits -- smacked hands to warn me to put down the cookie or stay away from the filthy ashtray, and whacks on the backside as I whizzed down the hall, around the banister and up the stairs to my bedroom; a direct result of my smart mouth that never knew when to quit.

These were punishments delivered by parents who believed that sometimes, a short, sharp message is what it takes to get a child's attention.

I don't consider that abuse. I consider it discipline. But I'm sure the researchers would disagree.

The study looked at three different categories: Being slapped in the head, face or ears or being hit with something hard a minimum of three times; being grabbed, pushed or shoved or having something thrown at them a minimum of three times; and being kicked, bit, punched, burned or physically attacked at least once.

And so, although there was never anything even close to the kind of "physical attack" outlined in their criteria, I'd squeak into their category of abused child.

By the same token, I would also be an abuser.

While I can't drum up a single, specific incident of pulling my daughter away from something other than danger (which doesn't count), I can tell you with near-certainty that I did. I'm sure I gave her a tap or two on the hand. And I know I spanked her backside.

What I can tell you for certain is each of the times I used corporal punishment, it was in those moments that I failed most as a parent.

But does that make me an abuser? Not according to the Criminal Code of Canada, which allows a parent, teacher or other person standing in the place of a parent to "use force as a way to correct behaviour, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances."

Which is why studies such as this one, are so fundamentally flawed. They take the grievous issue of child abuse, which few would argue is acceptable, and liken it to the far more divisive issue of corporal punishment.

Whatever your stance on using physical means to correct a child's behaviour may be, few would argue there is a long stretch between a swat on a naughty toddler's backside to slapping a defiant tween's face. And there's an even bigger leap from that slap to punching, biting or burning another human being, regardless of their age or provocation. Then there is the abuse few of us can comprehend, frequently suffered by children at the hands of the adults who should have loved and protected them -- actions -- crimes -- for which there are, quite simply, no excuses.

People who beat their children fundamentally lack parenting and coping skills. Parents who spank their children do it in moments of exhaustion and weakness. Parents who beat their children act as though they have done nothing wrong and that the child is at fault. A parent who has ever spanked a child will tell you that they acted out and lost control in a way that they would never have tolerated from wayward offspring.

It's a disservice to label individuals who were spanked a handful of times in their life as "abused children." We don't even know how that question was posed. And it's disrespectful to every child who has ever suffered the nightmare of physical abuse at the hands of a "loved-one" to say that a kid whose parent yanked them down a toy aisle or out of a grocery store or restaurant mid-tantrum as much a victim as they are.

As with all things, context is what's important here. And looking at the criteria in this study, it seems a lot of context is missing.

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