The indictment of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on child-abuse charges for using a “switch” — a tree branch stripped of its leaves — to discipline his 4-year-old son has brought the issue of corporal punishment back into the national spotlight.
Texas police photos show the boy’s body with welts, cuts and bruises. Through various statements, Peterson has indicated remorse for his actions and insisted he didn’t mean to harm his son.
“I am not a perfect parent,” Peterson said in a statement issued Monday, “but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”
“Regardless of what others think, however, I love my son very much and I will continue to try to become a better father and person,” he added.
Peterson has defended using the switch on his son by noting that he was disciplined in a similar manner when he was a child. And although he says he has begun to talk with a psychologist about “alternative ways of disciplining a child that may be more appropriate,” he doesn’t seem convinced that those other methods are as effective.
“I have learned a lot and have had to re-evaluate how I discipline my son going forward,” he wrote in Monday’s statement. “But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man. I love my son and I will continue to become a better parent and learn from any mistakes I ever make.”
As I’ve noted here before, studies suggest that up to 80 percent of parents in the United States discipline their children — even, astoundingly, infants less than 3 months old — with corporal punishment, striking them with a hand, a belt, a switch or some other object. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that not only is corporal punishment ineffective as a disciplinary tool, it’s also harmful to the child’s development and can leave long-term emotional and psychological “scars.”
Why do so many people continue to defend its use? To get some answers, I spoke with Dr. Iris Borowsky, a pediatrician and director of the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota. This is an edited version of that interview.
MinnPost: What does the research say about the effectiveness of corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool?
Iris Borowsky: The research shows that, first of all, corporal punishment is humiliating and demeaning to both parent and child. It often lowers self-esteem and morale. And children with low self-esteem are more likely to repeat the misbehavior, which leads to more spanking. So it can make things worse instead of better. Second, spanking sets a violent example. It teaches children that hitting is a way to solve problems. Research has shown that children who are spanked are more likely to use physical force against their siblings and peers — and later against their own spouse and children.
MP: Why, then, do so many parents continue to have the attitude of “spare the rod, spoil the child”?
IB: Many parents experienced spanking themselves, so that’s what they know. We know that we model behavior that we learned ourselves. But we learn other techniques that are more effective. Research has shown — and this is research that has been done in children and teens in all types of cultural and economic circumstances — that authoritative parenting offers the type of environment that is associated with the best outcomes in children. Authoritative parenting [which is different than authoritarian parenting] is a style that is warm and involved but also firm and consistent in establishing and enforcing limits that are developmentally appropriate. It includes nonviolent means of discipline.
MP: Many parents claim their decision to spank their child is done out of love and “for the child’s own good,” but doesn’t the evidence show that corporal punishment is done out of anger?
IB: Yes. Spanking is usually done in the heat of anger. The parent is angry and frightened and they can’t think of any strategies right then, so they simply lash out. We know that parents have more strength, and that the combination of strength and less control because you’re angry can lead to injury. It can lead to battering and child abuse. In fact, most cases of child abuse were attempts to discipline by means of physical punishment that got out of control.
MP: What are the parents thinking at that moment?
IB: When a child misbehaves, spanking is an easy response. It’s easy to do. It requires little thought on the part of the parents. It also can seem to work. The child may stop misbehaving. But we also know there are other nonviolent techniques that stop misbehavior just as well, if not better, and that are not associated with the shame and humiliation of spanking.
MP: Can spanking lead to long-term problems for the child?
IB: Yes. There has been research showing that it can lead to problems in adulthood. The more children are hit, the more anger they report as adults, the more they hit their own children when they are parents, the more likely they are to approve of hitting their spouse and to actually hit their spouse. Also, it’s been associated with greater marital conflict. And research has shown that being spanked as a child can lead to other problems, such as depression and chemical abuse and more aggressive and violent behavior.
MP: What can parents do instead? What do you recommend?
IB: When I think about different parenting techniques or tools, I think about a pyramid. At the bottom are ways to nurture your child and prevent misbehavior — like time in, or catching your child being good. That’s where parents want to spend most of their time. It’s spending fun time together, really listening to your children, and having high expectations that are developmentally appropriate — that is, expecting the right behavior and praising your child when you see it. It’s also being a trusting person for your child, someone they can trust and count on. It’s helping your child learn how to calm down and touch gently, those kinds of things. And it’s being a good role model as well, showing how when you’re faced with conflict, you remain calm and talk it out.
Next on the pyramid is teaching your child how to manage conflict and be responsible. The word discipline means to teach or instruct. It doesn’t mean to punish. So set and explain rules — including what will happen if the rules are broken — but tell your child what to do, not just what not to do. Use charts to track good behavior, and then reward good behavior, such as with time with you. Again, focus on the positive. Say no when you need to. And be consistent.
MP: And always be aware of what the child is developmentally able to do.
IB: Absolutely. Your expectations should be developmentally appropriate. Even with the strategy of time out, until a child is about 3 years old, they’re not going to understand what that means. Sometimes there is a behavior that is very annoying, but it’s what children that age do. So if you’re able to ignore it, as soon as the child does something positive, pay attention to that.
And, finally — at the top of pyramid — there are going to be times, no matter how much prevention that you do, there are going to be times when your child misbehaves. Give natural consequences. If a child doesn’t wear a coat, they end up being cold. That’s a natural consequence that teaches them what it means. There are also logical consequences, things that a parent does calmly, immediately, so that the child knows it’s connected to their behavior. If you ride your bike into the street when you were told not to, then it will be taken away for the morning. Those kinds of things. Taking away a privilege, giving a stern verbal reprimand, and then giving a time out.
A time out is not supposed to be a punishment for bad behavior, by the way. It’s really an “OK, let’s all take a time out and calm down.” Parent included. Then come back together and perhaps talk about what happened. Use it as a teachable moment.
MP: Do most parents spank their children because they just don’t know what else to do?
IB: I don’t think any parent wants to spank their child. It’s something that can happen when parents become angry because that is what they know and experienced as a child and because they don’t have other parenting tools in their toolkit to use.
MP: If we see someone using corporal punishment on their child, how should we intercede?
IB: That’s a good question because I think that happens to all of us. An initial good strategy is to show empathy. Acknowledge how hard it is to raise a child. Say, “Wow, that looks hard. Is there anything I can do to help?” As a pediatrician, after hearing the parent’s story about what’s going on in their home and in their relationship with their child and about the types of behaviors they are finding challenging, I’ll ask what other strategies they have tried. Often, I can help them build on what they’ve already tried and give them more tools to, hopefully, increase their effectiveness.
So talk from your own experience, if you have it, about how hard parenting is and what challenges you faced yourself and what you found to be effective. And suggest that they talk with their pediatric provider. [A great local online resource for parents, Borowsky said, is Minnesota Parent Knows.]
MP: Much of the discussion that’s arisen around the Adrian Peterson case suggests that corporal punishment may be a generational thing. If so, it seems time — past time — for that cycle to be broken.
IB: Yes. It is generational. Violence begets more violence. The research shows that. The good news is we can break the cycle.