One of the National Football League’s most talented players, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, was charged with child abuse and suspended by the NFL after hitting his son with a switch. He explained that he disciplined his son the way he was disciplined as a child.
The incident has led to a polarizing national debate about the use of corporal punishment. Is hitting a child sometimes justifiable for disciplinary purposes, or is it always abusive? The current debate places focus on the rights of adults. These questions, however, miss the point. Hitting children is ineffective as a discipline strategy and, research tells us, harms children. We should take the opportunity now to shift the debate to include a child-centered understanding of corporal punishment and abuse. From a child’s vantage point, our policies should aim both to stop children from being hit as a means of discipline and to help adults be good parents.
Importantly, the current national debate overlooks the complexity of child abuse. Over the last 20 years, I have represented many children who have been abused by their parents. While their individual experiences differ significantly, I can say with confidence that children are best served when we help parents to be good parents. Even when children need protection from their parents, they most often still have a strong feeling of connection to them. So while it is imperative that we call out parenting practices that hurt children, it is also important to intervene compassionately.
The original criminal charges of felony injury to a child against Peterson and the NFL decision to suspend him without pay for the rest of the season should raise difficult questions for all of us because approximately 70 percent of American adults support corporal punishment. Arguments in support of corporal punishment revolve around the idea that we should not tell other parents how to raise their children because parenting practices reflect core values of religion, culture and family history. And our current legal response to the use of corporal punishment sends a mixed message: adults can hit children as long as they do not hit too hard and leave a physical mark. The message inherent in the use of corporal punishment is that hitting another person is acceptable. We are not drawing a line that makes sense for families.
Even when corporal punishment does not leave physical marks, it negatively impacts children. Research shows that such punishment activates the stress response system in children. Its use impairs the parent-child relationship and is associated with worse mental health outcomes for children. The government spends millions of dollars to provide treatment for children who have been exposed to trauma either through direct abuse or by witnessing others being hit. Yet our legal system continues to maintain this ambiguous line attempting to differentiate spanking from abuse. A child-centered perspective leaves little room for debate: corporal punishment harms children.
Because so many Americans support the use of corporal punishment, it seems unjust to prosecute and suspend Peterson. Instead, his case should galvanize us to devote resources to ensure parents are provided with information about the harms associated with the use of physical discipline. It is time for a public campaign against the use of corporal punishment.