It is impossible to have missed the many news stories in the past few weeks focusing on NFL players beating their loved ones. And, while many have denounced the vicious attacks perpetrated by players against their girlfriends and children, it continues to shock me that they also have so many defenders. I have written previously about Ray Rice and other players who are perpetrators of domestic violence, so my focus here is on the issue of child abuse.
Minnesota Vikings’ star running back Adrian Peterson is facing charges in Texas for felony child abuse based on allegations that he beat his 4-year-old son with a “switch,” or tree branch. Pictures of the boy show a series of bloody gashes and welts from the attack. Peterson told police that “the whooping” he gave his son was what he received as a child. It seems that Peterson may be repeat offender, as he was accused last year of beating another son who he said had been cursing. The boy’s mother, a different woman than the mother of the child beaten with the switch, filed a report with Child Protective Services but no charges were ever brought against Peterson. Although the Vikings initially planned to allow Peterson to play this weekend, he is now suspended, with pay, of course, while the legal case is pending.
While the Vikings have finally acted, Vikings sponsor Radisson has suspended its support for the team, Nike suspended its contract with Peterson, and Target has removed all number 28 Vikings jerseys from its stores, many have rallied behind Peterson’s alleged right to “discipline” his child. People from Peterson’s home town of Palestine, Texas commented that corporal punishment is common in East Texas, is considered a family matter, and wouldn’t impact their support for their hero. NBC NFL analyst Tony Dungy described having grown up with this type of discipline and commented about the need to give players a second chance, implying support for Peterson. Former NBA player, current analyst, and ever-loudmouth Charles Barkley commented on CBS Sports’ “NFL Today” that “I’m from the South. Whipping is … we do that all the time…Every black parent in the South is gonna be in jail under those circumstances. I think we have to be careful letting people dictate how they treat their children.” NFL player Reggie Bush defended Peterson, claiming that he also “harshly disciplines” his 1-year-old daughter.
What galls me more than these supporters’ comments, though, is the fact that people are using this case to debate the merits of corporal punishment. While surely this form of so-called discipline can be administered in less overtly abusive ways than are alleged in the Peterson case, there really is no debate about whether it is the most effective way to punish young people for inappropriate behavior. It is not. Research is very clear about two things: 1) Corporal punishment can result in physical and emotional damage; and 2) there is always a better way to correct misbehavior.
First, numerous studies have documented the physical and emotional harm inflicted when children and teens are spanked, paddled, or beaten with other implements. From hemorrhaging to scarring to increased rates of depression, aggression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, drug and alcohol use, young people who have been spanked often endure long-term physical signs of the abuse. A recent study found children who were regularly spanked, defined as at least once per month for more than three years, had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders. A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that frequent spanking when a child was 3, defined as more than twice in the previous month, was linked to an increased risk for aggressive behavior when the child was 5. Studies have repeatedly shown that persons who were physically punished as children, like Adrian Peterson, are most likely to use those same tactics with their children. Some say that they have learned that violence is an appropriate method of conflict resolution. A Canadian study published in 2012 reviewing two decades of research on the subject found “…no study has found physical punishment to have a long-term positive effect, and most studies have found negative effects.” The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive in 2006 calling physical punishment “legalized violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings through “legislative, administrative, social and educational measures.” Thirty countries have banned physical punishment of children in all settings, including schools and homes. The American Psychological Association (APA) has strongly condemned the practice and supports non-physical forms of punishment.
Even if there are legitimate concerns that these studies do not conclusively prove that corporal punishment is damaging, there is always an alternate way to punish children who misbehave. The APA recommends positive reinforcement for good behavior and calls on parents to engage children in conversations about appropriate ways of resolving conflict. Parents magazine has written that the most effective forms of punishment teach young people how to control their behavior through internal measures.
Defend Adrian Peterson if you will, but can we please stop acting like there is some real debate about the issue of corporal punishment? “I-was-spanked-and-I turned-out-OK” is not a legitimate reason to continue a practice that has been so widely documented as potentially dangerous and for which there are a host of other effective, more peaceful, alternatives.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology