Outrage over Adrian Peterson masks deeper acceptance of corporal punishment

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been banned from his team in connection with child abuse charges for extreme corporal punishment. But, within limits, the practice is legal in all 50 states. 

Jeff Curry/USA TODAY/AP
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson looks on during the Vikings' NFL football game in St. Louis Sept. 7.

The Adrian Peterson case is dramatically illustrating why the line between corporal punishment and child abuse has long been – and remains – so hard to draw in American society and law.

After days of back-and-forth indecision, the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday decided to ban their star running back from all team activities until legal proceedings are resolved. He was arrested last week on charges of child abuse for allegedly hitting his 4-year-old son with a wooden stick known as a “switch” in May. Also on Wednesday, the mounting public outcry caused Nike to suspend its endorsement contract with Peterson.

But in a Twitter statement addressing the accusations, Peterson's defense of his actions struck a deep cultural chord. He said he had been disciplined the same way as a child, and that “the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”

Research has consistently shown that corporal punishment, such as repeated spanking, has long-lasting negative consequences, ranging from increased likelihood for psychiatric disorders to poor academic performance. But Peterson's statement resonates with many Americans and highlights why states have found it hard to pass laws against corporal punishment.

These negative effects of corporal punishment “in medium to heavy doses, have been so well studied,” says Alan Kazdin, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “But what is there to do? What is there to say? It’s embedded in our culture.”

Thirty-eight countries have banned corporal punishment, which is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” The US has signed but not ratified the convention. Corporal punishment is legal in the United States, and laws governing it vary from state to state.

Nineteen states allow corporal punishment in public and private schools. In the domestic setting, the practice is legal in all 50 states. For example, in Texas, where Peterson is facing charges, a parent can use “reasonable discipline” when doling out corporal punishment, according to Scott McCown, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law and the director of the Children’s Rights Clinic.

Legal action is taken only when parental actions are deemed to have moved beyond “reasonable discipline” and have caused physical injury to a child beyond pain or that requires medical attention, Professor McCown says.

But he says authorities will not address most cases of parental discipline involving corporal punishment because they are deemed to be within “community standards” of being “reasonable.” While Texas laws differ between cities and regions, he says authorities typically step in only if it can be proved the child sustained lasting injuries.

“If it goes beyond the pain of corporal punishment into something else, then it’s a crime,” he says.

Peterson has expressed remorse. “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,” he said in his statement.

But American cultural norms make it hard for lawmakers to take a tougher stand against physically disciplining children, says Frank Vandervort, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor and president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. The prevailing US view, he says, is that government should not intervene in how parents raise their children.

“When these issues come up repeatedly, we hear, ‘Well, this is how I was raised. My parents hit me and look at how I turned out,’ ” he says, adding that most people parent in the same style they were parented.

Still, experts overwhelmingly agree that legal corporal punishment is detrimental to children.

“Every major organization that looks at these questions have all said that children who are physically disciplined are more likely to have bad outcomes in the long term of their lives,” Professor Vandervort says. “We are very much an outlier from the rest of the world in this question.”

Adds Yale's Kazdin, “This is an international issue. It’s not just about football.”

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