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Man pulling girl by her hair ignites web debate on corporal punishment

A Wal-Mart shopper posted photos of a man holding on to a girl's hair while pushing a shopping cart as punishment hoping they would go viral. They did, but is that the best way to spark discussion about corporal punishment?

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Erika Burch posted this photo and others on Facebook of a man holding a young girl by her hair at Wal-Mart in Cleveland, Texas.

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When Erika and Robert Burch saw a man pulling a young girl by the hair through in a Cleveland, Texas, Wal-Mart they told him to stop and he told them to mind their own business.

Ms. Burch snapped several photos of the pair and posted it to her Facebook account, which was then shared 18,000 times. Strangers across the social media site expressed concern and outrage at the treatment of the child. The incident brings up an increasingly prevalent debate about children's rights and whether or not it is acceptable to use physical punishment as a form of discipline – and if the public should weigh in on private family matters.

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Witnesses told WKPRC Channel 2 in Houston that the girl kept wandering off in the store, and the father grabbed her hair and kept her close to discipline her.  (At the time of writing it had not been verified if the man was the girl's father.)

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While the viral photo sparked outrage, corporal punishment remains a fairly common, although still taboo, practice in American families.

"While I do not agree with his methods I'm not judging him either," Don T., who commented on the photo, wrote. "The child probably needed some discipline and he made his choice."

A 2014 poll by The Huffington Post and YouGov find that a majority of respondents (81 percent) are in favor of spanking children as a form of punishment. Other polls show that use of corporal punishment has decreased significantly over the past decades among US families, but many parents admit to ambiguous feelings when it comes to determining the line between discipline and abuse. Opinions on the issue are often influenced by cultural, religious, or socioeconomic factors that make corporal punishment continue to be more or less acceptable across a variety of communities.

Kenneth Dodge of Duke University in Durham, N.C., who has followed hundreds of children in national longitudinal studies from prekindergarten through adulthood, told the Monitor in 2014 that 70 to 80 percent adults were corporally punished as children, but it is the perceived intent of the parent that determines if the punishment will have lasting, damaging effects:

"To the extent that the child understands and appreciates genuinely that the child is loved by the parent, and that even though it hurts, the parent’s intent is to help the child – to the extent that the child understands that, the consequences are not negative," Dodge says. "If the child interprets it as a parent who is out of control, or a parent who does not love the child – a parent being hurtful and hateful – that is the bad message and the mechanism by which [the negative outcome] happens."

National conversations on corporal punishment, which is legal in all 50 states, have been sparked by a variety of incidents, including a court case that denied a Massachusetts couple a foster child on the grounds that they spanked their own children. NFL running back Adrian Peterson drew national attention several years ago when he was arrested on child abuse charges for using a switch on his four-year-old son.

In the Wal-Mart incident, some have criticized the way the Burches tried to intervene in what they felt was a harmful situation for the girl. 

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"People are telling me I'm wrong for stepping up for this little girl, but you can discipline a child without dragging them by the hair on their head, especially in Wal-Mart," Erika Burch told KTRK-TV in Houston.

Several concerned shoppers called the police, who later released a statement saying no one was being charged at present but that police detective division were working with Child Protective Services to investigate if the man exhibited a pattern of abusive behavior.

"Police are concerned at this time for the children who may be in the home with the dad who appeared to have been a little aggressive at the time," Cleveland Police Chief Darrel Broussard told KTRK-TV at a meeting with the family in the video.