By Jane Han
NEW YORK ― For Korean parents, tapping a child’s hand may not be regarded as a big deal, just a mild form of punishment. But in the U.S., taking the same action can result in a child being taken away from parents or guardians ― one clear example showing just how strict child abuse laws are here.
But experts say many Koreans in the U.S. still practice Korean-style hands-on discipline, ultimately landing themselves in legal trouble.
``It’s surprising how many moms and dads get into a huge mess for doing something that they think is so ordinary,’’ said Park Hae-young, clinical counselor at the Korea American Family Service Center in Los Angeles.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), 4,400 child abuse and neglect cases were reported in the first half of 2010, of which roughly half involved Korean families.
Were these abuse cases the kind where a child was brutally beaten or tortured? Sure, some may have been. But many, by traditional Korean standards, were actually considered to be the result of commonly practiced disciplinary measures.
For example, having a child kneel down with both arms raised or lightly slapping a child’s palm with a pen or ruler probably won’t get anyone arrested in Korea. In the U.S, it’s a possibility.
``A ruler, pen or any object for that matter is considered a weapon, which will lead to bigger legal consequences for parents,’’ says Park, adding that the Korean culture of ``hoecholi’’ (a stick used exclusively to discipline children) is one thing unacceptable by American standards.
She explained that Korean parents often lean toward raising their kids the way they were raised. Therefore, the cultural difference in disciplinary standards comes off as strange and unnatural.
Another new thing, especially for first-generation Korean immigrants, is Americans’ proactive and quick responses to suspicious activities.
Most child abuse or neglect cases are reported by school teachers, neighbors and passers-by.
``In Korea, it’s a general rule of thumb not to intervene in another family’s business. But here, people aren’t afraid to take action about something that doesn’t look right,’’ said Grace Yoon, executive director of Korean American Family Service Center in New York.
A neighbor may contact the police after seeing a child left home alone; a teacher is likely to become suspicious if a student comes to school with a bruise; and even a random passer-by may call the authorities if a child is seen sitting alone in a car.
``New York City is a hub of immigrants, so we see a lot of cases where people don’t even realize that certain things are considered abuse or neglect,’’ she said.
Parents are often shocked when they find out that they’ve been reported ― and shocked again at the consequences.
Once a child abuse or neglect report is made, social services officials launch a thorough investigation that can last weeks. Depending on the situation, the case may go to court and a child may be temporarily placed in foster care.
Parents are sometimes required to take a two- to three-month counseling program, which teaches everything from anger management to communication, before they can be reunited with their children.
``It’s an opportunity to learn about parenting in a whole new way,’’ said Yoon, who added that Korean parents find it a tough task to find an ideal balance between Korean and American-style discipline.
Instead of using physical punishment, parents are advised to introduce other methods for discipline, such as time-outs or grounding.
Parenting is already hard enough, but Korean moms and dads in the U.S. have an additional task to be careful not to cross the line.
``Even parents fighting in front of their kids is considered child abuse, so really, there is a lot to be cautious about,’’ said Park.