Adrian Peterson: The hand, the switch, and other parental spanking lines

The child abuse charges against Adrian Peterson's and have rekindled the spanking discussion among parents. While most agree that what this father did was wrong, there are a wide variety of opinions about corporal punishment.

Tom Gannam/AP
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson warms up for an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

The child abuse charges against Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson, and his resulting suspension, have resurfaced a discussion among parents: How to discipline children, specifically the role of spanking.

According to reports, after a brief suspension from Sunday’s game, Mr. Peterson was once again suspended from all team activities overnight on Tuesday. Peterson was indicted in Texas last week for using a switch to spank his 4-year-old son, and now additional accusations against the pro-football player have surfaced claiming abuse of another of his children.

When reading through initial reports, and seeing the two words “switch” (the old-fashioned term for “tree branch”) and “child” I was tempted to oversimplify the case. Was his indictment over spanking? Hardly.

Photos of the boy’s injuries, which included other bruises from his spanking, have become public in recent days, and the mother of the child has asked those pictures be removed from reports as a matter of privacy for the family.

As details have unfolded, it now appears that Peterson’s case will likely hinge on when does discipline administered by a parent become child abuse.

In the court of public opinion, multiple sources have come out boldly against his actions, vilifying him and others who use any form of corporal punishment.

The Peterson case has also spurred a more nuanced discussion on corporal punishment, in which a parent uses their hand to strike a child for the sake of administering discipline. According to reports, this kind of punishment is legal in many states, and finds more – or less – acceptance depending on where you live.

ESPN commentator Cris Carter issued an emotional response to news of Peterson’s actions, pointing to his own childhood with a mother who struck her children for discipline, and saying that he has learned since that it is not the way to raise a child.

The extremes of the Peterson case seem to remove it from the basic discussion of whether or not to deliver a swat on the bottom to kids, but it does highlight the fact that spanking is still considered corporal punishment, and whether the country as a whole may be moving away from physical force as an acceptable means of punishment.

As a new parent to a young toddler, I have not yet seriously considered what forms of discipline I will use. But this case prompted me to check views on spanking with my own parenting network on Facebook. This network includes parents of newborns and teenagers, those who identify strongly with Judeo/Christian faith backgrounds as well as those who are indifferent to religious influences, and a couple of child psychologists. 

Of the parents that weighed in, there was a clear agreement across the board that the NFL player’s actions were wrong, and a father hitting a child in anger – and to the extent that Peterson did – is never appropriate, even if used as discipline. 

But there was far less agreement over whether or not to spank, and how.

Recent studies indicate that spanking does not effectively reinforce discipline and instead instills fear in young kids. Similarly, other reports have cited studies that that that yelling at children has the same, ineffective, results

Meanwhile, among my parenting friends, some remember being spanked as a child, with what they consider no ill effects, and some still practice spanking because they consider it an effective discipline tool.

Everyone agreed that striking a child anywhere other than the bottom was entirely off limits.

However, those among the group who supported spanking had different views on what works, where the act of spanking should happen, and in what time frame.

For some, the hand is the only acceptable means of spanking, for it can’t leave a mark. For others, a spoon or similar implement was seen as acceptable, since – as one mother explained – hands are meant for showing love. 

Some said that spanking needs to happen in private with an explanation to the child as to why they are being spanked, while another suggested that a child should be spanked the same number of times as their age.

Regardless of the details surrounding the proposed punishment, the one thing lacking from discussion among my network were parents who identified with and supported "whooping" a child with force enough to harm with the intent of setting them straight. In this group, the biggest focus, hands down, was showing love to kids.

Discipline is clearly important for every child to learn. But how to show love through discipline remains a difficult topic for many parents. Hopefully, the debate prompted by the Peterson case will help clarify what's right, what's effective, and what constitutes abuse. 

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