Spare the Rod, Respect the Child: Avoiding the Line Between Discipline and Abuse

2014 1022 child st(Image: Camille)Over the past two seasons, the National Football League (NFL) has sparked public debate and even outrage over several social issues related to violence: bullying, domestic violence and child abuse.

While the NFL likely regrets the lingering association of the league with violence spilling over into the players’ lives – something the NFL has worked hard to overcome since the Michael Vick conviction for animal abuse – each of these incidences offers powerful and important lessons about much more than football.

First, we must acknowledge the violent nature of football itself, and how the popularity of football in this country reflects a fairly cavalier attitude about violence in our culture. Recently, reports of the lingering effects of concussions have begun to open the door to confronting the violence that is central to the sport.

Next, then, as we confront how the NFL deals with non-sport issues such as bullying, domestic violence and child abuse, we must also take stock of how the greater US public views and deals with these problems.

The most recent controversy, Adrian Peterson’s physical punishment of his 4-year-old son, represents much more than poor judgment by Peterson, something reflected in Peterson’s own reaction to the event: “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.”

Peterson may well believe his central claim that he is not a child abuser. And it is true that the distinctions and justification posed by Peterson are reflected in the attitudes of many parents across the United States. In other words, Peterson’s perspective is “normal”: the idea that parental choices about discipline are the domain of the parents alone. However, the normality of this stance doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be seriously troubled by it – and by the terms of the debate around the issue.

For example, widespread public legitimacy has been granted to advocates of the idea that there are “appropriate” ways that adults can hit children.

Moreover, this “legitimacy” translates into policy: Corporal punishment not only remains common in homes across the United States but also remains legal in nearly half the states’ public schools. In both settings, many people justify spankings as distinct from abuse, and then further justify the practices through reference to their own experiences as children, as well as the words of scripture.

In my own childhood, I was subjected to large amounts of secondhand smoke, no use of seatbelts and no helmet when riding my bicycle; I survived, even thrived. But none of that justifies ignoring the need to avoid those practices myself, when I had my daughter. The same holds for corporal punishment of children.

We have decades of research showing that any level of corporal punishment is less effective than other disciplinary techniques, and that corporal punishment often has extremely negative consequences.

Referring to over 60 years of research on corporal punishment, the American Psychological Association has concluded: “‘Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use,’ [Dr. Elizabeth Thompson] Gershoff writes.”

We must reject our tolerance for adults hitting children, whether in our homes or in our schools.