Learning From Adrian Peterson: The Difference Between Spanking and Abuse

The NFL is determined to teach us some life lessons this season, isn’t it? Just imagine: players in a violent game being violent off the field as well. Who would have guessed? This is one reason why I called for the NFL to implement company-wide anti-violence training for players and administration. They clearly need it.

This time, it’s Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson who is in trouble. He was indicted by a grand jury in Texas on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child for an incident that occurred last May when he used a switch to hit his four year son. The boy had cuts and bruises (which could clearly be seen in photos) to his back, buttocks, ankles and legs. Peterson’s attorney issued a statement saying, “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas.”

It’s been interesting to watch the controversy that erupted as a result of Peterson’s arrest and the release of the picture of his son’s injuries.

Photo by Ulrica - http://flic.kr/p/8whD9T

Photo by Ulrica – http://flic.kr/p/8whD9T

Passions both for and against are running extremely high. Part of the problem with the debate is that, perhaps without realizing it, people are arguing about two separate issues. The first issue is whether or not this was abuse (which it was) versus spanking (which is what Peterson is claiming). The second issue is about the ethics and merits of spanking.

If you look up the definition of “physical abuse,” you’ll have to agree that what the pictures of the boy’s injuries show is abuse. Both the free online medical dictionary and the Child Welfare Information Gateway (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) state that physical abuse is “any act resulting in a non-accidental physical injury.” The medical dictionary includes “the results of unreasonable punishment” in their definition while The Child Welfare agency includes “striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child” in their explanation.

Was the punishment unreasonable? The “whooping” (Peterson’s word) was for the boy pushing his sibling in an argument over a video game. That sure seems like an unreasonable punishment to me because it doesn’t fit the crime. Four year olds struggle with impulse control and pushing is not uncommon. This is not acceptable behavior, so consequences do need to be given. I would suggest things like time-out, apologizing to the other child, and not allowing the boy to play the game. But hitting a four year old with a switch? No.

But don’t just take my word for it. Against all odds, the state of Texas seems to agree with me and, quite frankly, I can hardly believe it! After all, it’s Texas, where football is a religion and anything goes. As a family psychologist in Texas, I am intimately familiar with what the state does and does not consider abuse and, most of the time, we do not agree. I have heard police officers tell children that it is fine for their parents to hit them with an open hand, closed fist, belt and other things even if they draw blood or leave a mark. So, for Texas to actually take legal action in this case, it had to be pretty bad.

But let’s pretend that it wasn’t abuse but was instead a spanking. Would that have been ok? Although attitudes towards spanking do appear to be changing, Americans still strongly believe in it. Arguments I’ve heard in favor range from “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and “I was spanked; look how well I turned out” (which is what Peterson is saying) to “Sometimes it’s the only thing that works” and “Parents today are too lenient; there would be fewer people in jail if they were spanked more often.” The problem with these sentiments is that the research doesn’t support them.

Hundreds of studies on spanking spanning at least 75 years have not found that physical punishment improves children’s behavior in the long-term. Instead, kids just learn not to get caught. Moreover, spanking appears to have unintended outcomes. Research shows that spanking makes it likely that children will be more defiant and aggressive and puts them at greater risk for mental health issues and for physically abusing others. If you see someone use violence as a way to control another’s behavior, chances are you will too (which is what Peterson mentioned about how he was raised). That’s why it always astonishes me when people use spanking as a way to teach children that they shouldn’t hit. The logical conclusion: only hit those who are less powerful than you.

One of the biggest problems with spanking though is that there is a fine line between punishment and abuse and clearly, some people don’t know where that line is. TV host Sean Hannity took off his belt and repeatedly slammed it against his desk to demonstrate how he was hit as a kid. He was trying to say that this was acceptable behavior but I guarantee that if you do that to a stranger, you will be arrested for assault. If Peterson had “whooped” an adult with a switch, he would be facing assault charges. So if it’s illegal when done to an adult, what makes it acceptable to do to a child? And if people cannot determine where to draw the line between abuse and spanking, then why even go there at all?

If found guilty, Peterson could be sentenced to as many as two years in state jail, as well as a $10,000 fine although probation is an option if he has no prior criminal record. However, it’s more likely that, given his high profile and the fact that it’s Texas, Peterson probably will go free. None of these options satisfy me. He doesn’t need jail nor should he go scot free. What if instead there was a radical solution that could actually teach him something?

Part of the problem is that Peterson clearly had no idea of how to actually discipline (which comes from the Latin root to teach) his child and went with the kind of punishment he knew. Since this will not be the last time he will need to correct one of his children, perhaps it’s time he learned different methods. A good parenting class could show him a variety of disciplinary techniques, including redirection, time-out, natural consequences, and positive discipline strategies. He could then take that information and teach others (starting with fellow NFL player Reggie Bush who said he will discipline his one year old daughter “harshly” if need be) how to be better parents. This sounds like an overall winning solution to me. Peterson could change lives for the better and the NFL could get good press. They both need it.

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