The image of Adrian Peterson’s son’s legs has ignited a welcome cultural conversation. This is unusual. Most of these contrived “conversations” are efforts to take one headline and shoehorn it into a narrative that liberals want to advance, usually about race and racism. Those “conversations” are never truthful.
But the discussion of a 4-year-old boy’s wounds has elicited some brutally honest commentary.
Writing for CNN, Steven Holmes blasted what he regards as excessive tolerance for spanking and child abuse in the black community. He dispatches the “I was whipped and I turned out all right” excuse. Holmes cites the abundant research showing that “spanking inhibits the learning process. … It leads to anger, depression, violence and alcohol and drug abuse. It breeds hostility toward authority … and spawns other antisocial behaviors.” Physical punishment, he continues, “is associated with legions of sullen, angry, violence-prone boys.”
Peterson advanced the “mean streets” argument. “I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents.” Holmes replies: “That may have been true for Peterson. But what also could be true is that the streets may not have been so mean if they were not populated by so many kids who are angry at the world because, among other things, they were spanked.”
Physical punishment is almost as common among whites. Some conservatives defend spanking because they see critics as liberals who seek to undermine authority across the board. Doubtless, some are — and some liberal parenting approaches are enough to make you want to take a switch to the adult! (“Dylan, how would you feel if someone cut (SET ITAL) your (END ITAL) fingers with scissors?”)
But to quote Mother Teresa on the subject of abortion, “Don’t resort to violence.” Of course there’s a difference between a swat on the bottom and a beating with a tree branch or electrical wire. But, frankly, why would anyone defend using violence to teach children right from wrong? We don’t do it with puppies and kittens anymore, for heaven’s sake.
Some research suggests that 66 percent of parents admit to striking their children, and 30 percent of those say they’ve spanked children as young as 1 year old. Picture a 1-year-old, just struggling to get to his feet, wobbling between the coffee table and the sofa. Is there no way, other than violence, to teach him not to pull the cat’s tail?
This is not to deny that kids can be extremely provoking, and that they are in dire need of limit setting. There is no harder job. When one of our sons was having behavior problems, we enrolled in a course for parents of children with autistic spectrum disorders. We thought we had tried everything (except hitting, of course). We hadn’t. Kids with this condition, we were told, don’t distinguish between good attention and bad attention. Acting out gets the notice they crave, even if it’s in the form of a reprimand or a timeout.
One way to cope was to “catch them being good ” and then praise them lavishly. Their need for attention would be filled up with approval. Working toward rewards (tokens for clearing their place, making their beds, putting their shoes in the mud room) that could later be cashed in for prizes helped them plan for the future, delay gratification and receive positive feedback. Did it work 100 percent of the time? Of course not. Did we sometimes resent having to establish these elaborate rituals for tasks that ought to be simple? Yes. But if we had hit the boy, his already fragile ego might never have recovered.
Studies have also shown that verbal abuse can be as damaging as physical violence. Children who are ridiculed or belittled by their parents, dismissed as “stupid” or “idiotic” just for doing childish things, are as prone to negative outcomes as those who are physically assaulted.
Some parents are abusive because they’re bad people. But many well-meaning parents may be harming their children in the misguided belief that hitting or insulting them instills important virtues, or at least does no harm. They might want to think again.
Mona Charen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.