To spank, or not to spank? I recently had that conversation with a young engaged couple, and the issue has hit the headlines once again with the indictment of the Minnesota Vikings’ star running back, Adrian Peterson, on felony child abuse charges. Peterson maintains that he had no intention of abusing or harming his 4-year-old son. He was only disciplining him for misbehavior, in the manner he himself had been disciplined as a child — with a switch. But pictures of the boy’s injuries went viral on the Internet, and few, it seems, would agree that this was merely run-of-the-mill discipline.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Peterson’s mother, Bonita Jackson, defended her son: “I don’t care what anybody says, most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes. But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world. When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, it’s about love. You want to make them understand that they did wrong.” Jackson maintains, as does Peterson himself, that her son loves his children and wants to do right as a father by all of them.
It’s not my intent to play judge and jury in the Peterson case, but to reflect on what we might learn from it with respect to the larger issue of physically disciplining our children. An ABC News Poll reported that about 2/3 of American parents support spanking in principle, and about 1/2 actually do it; the percentages are higher in southern states. But parents vary tremendously in their methods, attitudes, and motivations, from a simple swat with an open hand, calmly administered to the backside, to angry interventions that leave welts and bruises. As suggested by Jackson’s comments, harm may be done even when it’s not initially intended.
And as reported by the American Psychological Association, the bulk of the research on child discipline suggests that at best, spanking may be unnecessary or ineffective, and at worst, harmful, physically and emotionally. Even those researchers who support a limited role for spanking view it as something of a last resort, never to be done in anger or retaliation.
So: is it okay to spank kids or not?
Let’s start with this. I do not believe, as some do, that any form of spanking automatically constitutes abuse. There are parents who, in the context of an ongoing loving and attentive relationship, know how to use physical discipline to instill a respect for boundaries without provoking their children’s fear, hatred, or desire for revenge.
And most parents, I think, know that it’s unwise to discipline a child when you’re out of control emotionally. But who among us is the best or most sober judge of whether we’re in control? Emotions tend to be self-justifying; what may begin as legitimate indignation at a child’s misbehavior can escalate with terrifying speed, until we find ourselves disciplining “a little more than we meant.”
The question is, why even go there in the first place? Non-violent methods of discipline, applied consistently and correctly, suffice for the vast majority of situations, while violent methods put the well-being of both the child and the relationship at risk. In the short-term view, yes, it is possible to use physical methods of discipline to stop certain undesirable behaviors. But what do you risk in the long-term?
I sometimes ask parents of young children to use their imaginations. Picture your child as a teenager in trouble. Picture what kind of relationship you’d want to have with your teen. Do you want them to be able to confide in you, seek your advice, come to you for help? I’ve never had a parent say, “Nope, don’t care about that.”
But then comes the next question: “What are you doing to help build that relationship now?” The fact is, that kind of trust won’t magically appear by itself; it has to be cultivated over the long haul. And there are never any guarantees. But anything that incites fear or resentment isn’t likely to get you the relationship you want.
Adrian Peterson sees himself as a loving father and not an abuser. On the basis of the visual evidence, I doubt that the law will agree. But I take it that what he means to say is that he really does love his children, and that he isn’t the horrible monster that some would make him out to be.
For the sake of Peterson’s little boy, the way forward is not to portray the man in one-dimension, as if the abuse stands for the whole of his character. Help him to be the loving father he says he is, and to learn that love should never mean violence.