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Spanking and Abuse

According to reports about the Adrian Peterson felony abuse indictment, Peterson’s 4-year-old son pushed another of Peterson’s sons off a video game. Peterson then retrieved a tree branch — called a “switch” — stripped off its leaves, shoved leaves into the boy’s mouth and beat him with his pants down until he bled.

According to a CBS affiliate in Houston, Peterson texted the boy’s mother that she would be “mad at me about his legs. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”

He also reportedly texted that he “felt bad after the fact when I notice the switch was wrapping around hitting I (sic) thigh” and “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed! I start putting them in timeout. N save the whooping for needed memories!”

But the boy reportedly said, “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face,” that his father “likes belts and switches,” that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet,” and that he “has a whooping room.”

Spanking is not against the law in America — although some argue that it should be, as it is in Sweden and some other countries — but, as with most things in life, there are degrees beyond which even something that is generally acceptable, or at least legal, crosses a threshold and becomes not so.

This seems, on its face, from what we now know, a case in which the limits have most likely been exceeded.

Peterson released a statement that read, in part:

“I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child. I also understand after meeting with a psychologist that there are other alternative ways of disciplining a child that may be more appropriate.”

It is good that Peterson met with a psychologist and learned alternative disciplinary methods, but that doesn’t heal the child’s wounds, and the fact that Peterson may have been abused in this way does not make it acceptable to pass on the abuse to his own children.

He continued, setting up an even more dangerous proposition:

“I have learned a lot and have had to re-evaluate how I discipline my son going forward. But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man. I love my son and I will continue to become a better parent and learn from any mistakes I ever make.”

When we promulgate the notion that our success is directly measurable to the violence visited on our bodies as children, we reinforce a societal supposition that pain is an instrument of love, and establish a false binary between the streets and the strap.

I take Peterson at his word that he loves his son, but the drawing of blood isn’t an expression of love. Love doesn’t look like that. That looks like an expression of anger and exasperation that morphs into abuse.

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

But that logic simply doesn’t hold up.

As the nonpartisan research group Child Trends pointed out in a report last year:

“Use of corporal punishment is linked to negative outcomes for children (e.g., delinquency, antisocial behavior, psychological problems, and alcohol and drug abuse), and may be indicative of ineffective parenting. Research also finds that the number of problem behaviors observed in adolescence is related to the amount of spanking a child receives. The greater the age of the child, the stronger the relationship.

“Positive child outcomes are more likely when parents refrain from using spanking and other physical punishment, and instead discipline their children through communication that is firm, reasoned and nurturing. Studies find this type of discipline can foster positive psychological outcomes, such as high self-esteem and cooperation with others, as well as improved achievement in school.”

The group also pointed out just how pervasive the practice is:

“In 2012, according to a nationally representative survey, 77 percent of men, and 65 percent of women 18 to 65 years old agreed that a child sometimes needs a ‘good hard spanking.’ ”

The group continued:

“One of the most frequently used strategies to discipline a child, especially a younger child, is spanking. About 94 percent of parents of children ages 3 to 4 in the United States report having spanked their children in the previous year.”

Spanking is an age-old disciplinary technique, so turning the tide against it may be difficult. Some people even argue that it’s a necessary tool in a parent’s arsenal of options.

I think we need to reconsider that.

Peterson also texted the boy’s mother: “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.” Actually, Peterson did go overboard, and now the legal system will decide if and how he will be punished for it.

(This column originally appeared in the New York Times Sept. 17, 2014 under the title “On Spanking and Abuse“)

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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2 Comments on "Spanking and Abuse"

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