Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson's arrest on child abuse charges has sparked a huge debate about corporal punishment, one that exposes deep cultural rifts. I have to admit I've been surprised — no, shocked — at those who've jumped to the 217-pound football player's defense.
Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity said on his show this week, "I don't want to see this guy get a felony. I don't want to see this guy lose his job. ... He deserves parenting classes." Hannity followed up his defense by taking off his belt and slapping the desk to show how he was beaten as a child, and also described being punched in the face by his dad. "I deserved it," he said.
CNN's Don Lemon weighed in, as well. While not condoning what Peterson did, Lemon said, "I have to say that when I was a kid, I would have to go and get the switch off the tree. And if I brought back a switch that wasn't big enough, then my grandmother or my dad or my mom would go get a bigger one."
The pictures of Peterson's 4-year-old son, taken several days after the incident and available online, show blood-encrusted whipping marks on his thighs, both outer and inner. The indictment also describes similar marks on the boy's back, buttocks, ankles and scrotum, and Peterson admits stuffing leaves into the boy's mouth to stifle his screams.
This wasn't discipline. It was a beating by an angry thug who felt entitled to engage in it because the child is his biological offspring. (The man has multiple children — he won't say how many — by multiple women, one of whom was beaten to death at age 2 by another man.) One of Peterson's other children, also 4 at the time, bears a visible scar on his forehead from a "whooping" Peterson administered while the child was confined in a car seat. In that case, officials declined to prosecute the player.
Hannity's and Lemon's stories apparently resonate with large numbers of people. Whole swaths of Americans believe it is perfectly permissible to hit a child — even to use an instrument like a belt, stick, paddle or anything else handy — if the child misbehaves. According to the University of Chicago's General Social Survey (GSS), the overwhelming majority of Americans (about 70 percent in the last survey) believe that "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking."
But when does a spanking become a beating? Both Hannity and Lemon described beatings, not spankings. And while both men claim that the punishment did them "good," the empirical research on corporal punishment is clear and virtually unanimous: It isn't effective in discouraging future bad behavior, is likely to increase the child's own aggressiveness, and produces children who grow into adults with increased violent tendencies and other mental health problems.
Many born-again Christians, who are more likely to defend corporal punishment according to the GSS, point to the Biblical injunctions to justify physical punishment of children found almost exclusively in the Old Testament, especially Proverbs. The New Testament, however, is mostly silent on the issue. In place of admonishment to use the "rod of correction," there are stories of forgiveness, as in the parable of the prodigal son.
According to the GSS, blacks are more likely than whites, Hispanics or Asians to favor corporal punishment. Southerners are more likely than those from the Midwest, West or Northeast to think it's OK to spank, and Republicans are more likely than Democrats to agree.
I'm not going to say it's never permissible to spank a child (though I never received a spanking or spanked my children) — but the rules should be clear. Disciplining a child should never include hitting bare flesh. Nor should it ever involve using anything other than an open hand — certainly no fists, belts, cords, switches, paddles, wood spoons or any other instruments. And there should be some reasonable limits on the number of swats a parent can administer and to how young a child.
Children are vulnerable and need protection — and, unfortunately, that sometimes includes protection from their own parents. Too bad those who have been abused now see the need to defend the abusers.