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Adrian Peterson case brings corporal punishment back into the spotlight

Houston Police Department
A photo showing some of Adrian Peterson's son's injuries, released by the Houston Police Department.

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”?

Dr. Iris Borowsky
Dr. Iris Borowsky

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.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 09/17/2014 - 11:52 am.

    Unfortunate use of scripture

    Of all the Bible verses that have been pulled out of context and applied with unfortunate results, “spare the rod and spoil the child” is right up there.

    I think most of us parents, if we’re honest, gave our kids an occasional swat on the rear if they were engaged in conduct that endangered them or others. It was more of an attention-getter than intentional infliction of pain. But I have never been able to square loving parenthood with the calculated imposition of pain on a helpless child, especially with an instrument such as a strap, switch or hairbrush. The very thought makes me queasy. I wonder how many domestic abusers heard the words “I’m only hitting you because I love you” as children?

    • Submitted by Hal Davis on 09/18/2014 - 02:29 pm.


      It’s unclear that “spare the rod and spoil the child” is from a Bible verse.

      This is from

      The coiner of the version that we use in everyday speech was Samuel Butler, in Hudibras, the satirical poem on the factions involved in the English Civil War, which was first published in 1662:

      Love is a Boy,
      by Poets styl’d,
      Then Spare the Rod,
      and spill the Child.

      [by ‘spill’, Butler did mean spoil – that was an alternative spelling at the time]

      this is probably where Butler took it from. In the King James Version, Proverbs 13:24, we find:

      He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/18/2014 - 05:08 pm.


        This morning’s Times had an opinion piece in which the author (an ordained minister) noted that the Hebrew word translated as “rod” in Proverbs is the same as the one used in Psalm 23: “Thy Rod and thy Staff, they comfort me.” A “rod” in this context was a shepherd’s rod, used to guide the sheep.

        Gives it a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/18/2014 - 06:13 pm.

          Heard that one

          Strikes me that most folks aren’t familiar with actual shepherds. One end is a straight stick for a reason. Shows the danger of deciphering convoluted metaphor.

  2. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 09/17/2014 - 12:24 pm.

    I wonder…

    if it would be possible for the media to stop using these illegally released images.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/17/2014 - 03:33 pm.

    Leading and not entirely fact based

    It’s a good thing they call this section “Second OPINION.” If we’re going to seriously look at corporal punishment, let’s look at it with our eyes wide open. Perhaps there is no room for it in our social framework at this time. However, claiming “overwhelming” evidence that corporal punishment is entirely negative is simply not supported, even by the linked article. The research (a meta analysis of several cases) does not distinguish between mild/moderate corporal punishment and beatings/abuse. It’s very clear that child abuse is negative, that beatings are bad, but corporal punishment isn’t necessarily either of those. It sounds like Adrian Peterson may have committed a crime by the level of punishment he inflicted on his child. Honestly, I have not looked at the pictures other than the one above, to make a decision one way or another. Regardless of what the decision is on what Adrian Peterson did or did not do, it cannot be applied equally to all forms of corporal punishment.

    I have to say that this particular article knocked my opinion of MinnPost as a news organization down about 75%. Though, technically, I suppose, Second Opinion is a “column” and not real news.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/17/2014 - 05:30 pm.


      I think its called second opinion because it corrects erroneous prevailing opinion like the one set forth in your comment.

      The evidence IS overwhelming that spanking or other limited corporal punishment is both ineffective and counter productive. As with a lot of other things, America is nearly alone in the developed world in its belief that corporal punishment is acceptable, and its the scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectual attitudes that we love so much that keeps it that way. Here is another piece that just came out linking to other information about the problems with corporal punishment:

      Obviously, a swat on the butt isn’t going to be nearly as damaging as the sadistic, flesh-ripping beatings administered by Peterson to his four-year old sons. And it is indeed a good thing that people realize that they shouldn’t beat the living tar out of their small children. But the evidence shows that corporal punishment of any kind is not a good practice to use on children.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/29/2014 - 12:47 pm.

        According to…

        “The evidence IS overwhelming that spanking or other limited corporal punishment is both ineffective and counter productive.” Show me. You point to an article in Vox, which further points to other websites that supposedly support its opinion. That article goes so far as to link to a supposed statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics…which is NOT on the AAP page, but on a “nospank” website…which conveniently leaves out the fact that the AAP does not recommend against open palmed spanking. There isn’t overwhelming evidence, and in fact, a good bit of evidence that the researchers who state that all forms of corporal punishment are bad reach the conclusion even after specifically excluding one or more forms from their research. There is SOME evidence that has been tainted with poor research methods. As I’ve said, it may very well be that corporal punishment in all its forms is bad–its reported incidence has dropped precipitously throughout the world. However, it’s very clear that, in their zeal to “prove” that a swat on the butt is just as bad as a beating, they’ve weakened the case with lax standards and broad conclusions. You do not help the cause by making a broad statement that has nearly no support in the research (despite the broad conclusions). Regardless, the evidence that can be relied on shows that raising the torches and pitchforks against parents who use corporal punishment won’t help. Making criminals out of parents that could be approached more carefully does nothing but destabilize families and increase the risk of more severe treatment of children. And, in any case, corporal punishment is still overwhelmingly common–more than 90% of toddlers in the US have been spanked. Trying to convince parents that all their children are, as a result, mentally damaged seems a pretty big uphill battle since clearly 94% of kids don’t grow up to be so screwed up. And calls into question just who the control groups are in the studies that link all corporal punishment to mental harm–only 6% of all kids (if that) would be available to be the control group…

  4. Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/18/2014 - 12:07 pm.

    Where to begin?

    Well, I’ll try, for starters, to tame my vitriol a bit, so maybe this will actually get through this time. First off, normalcy. Mr. Kuschel, who or what would your arbitor be? You, public opinion, ever changing societal, pyschological and sociological standards? What a chilling thought.
    Secondly, the insults need to stop, really. In this forum and others I have heard two main arguments from the anti corporal punishment crowd, one, that anyone who was subject to, or practices such is mentally and emotionally damaged, unfit to parent, backwards, a monster, lazy, or uneducated. This is a partial list of course. Two, that anyone can distinguish between a light spank and the despicable acts of abuse described in the Peterson episode. Which is it? Are folks lightly spanking their children included in the list above, is such considered on tbe same level a the latter example? If not, how do you think your denigration will be at all persuasive in getting folks to their behavior, if that is your goal.
    Next, the topic of corporal punishment itself. I think we can all agree that no one, excluding a few outliers is pro abuse. Now, as to lesser acts, here is my personal list of acts I find far more damaging than an occasional, solitary swat on the posterior: 1. Adminstering mind altering pharmaceuticals to children as young as three who exhibit any deviation from the arbitrary “norm” set forth by the pyschological community, school administrators, and parents under the impression that children that aren’t easily manageable and guided must be mentally ill. 2. Children forced to exist on a rigid, pre-planned schedules of organized activity, constantly supervised and controlled scheduled play, and minimal organic interaction with “outside” (meaning unconnected with the parents) children. 3. Constant supervision by parents irrationally paranoid about the dangers of tbe world, constant correction and “guidance” by parents unwilling to allow their children to fail, in short “helicopter” parenting. 4. The constant push of children of younger and younger age into formal education environments, whether the child is ready or not, ostensibly to “prepare them for the rigors of a challenging world of the future”, but in reality only robbing them of a childhood in the present. And 5. Forced indoctrination of one’s child into religious, cultural, social, or political views of any stripe, robbing them of the ability to formulate opinions of their own. I’m sure I could come up with more, but in the interest of space I’ll stop there. I could call folks that engage in these practices monsters, control freaks or worse, or I could accept others have a different view, attempt to persuade them to my side, and accept it if they disagree. I choose the latter.
    Lastly, I could go on for pages but I will simply leave folks with this. If you find yourself on the anti side of this debate, take a close look at the commentary on it here and elsewhere. Look at the language used, the arguments made, from both sides. Then look back at similar commentary on other issues, namely those regarding freedom to live on life as they see fit, lgbt equality, abortion, birth control access. See which side of those debates your commentary resembles. I wont call you hypocritical, as I know your heart is probably in the right place, but the similarities are disturbing to me.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/18/2014 - 07:01 pm.

      Don’t worry

      There are a lot of people who very strongly about having the right to hit their children. It will be a long time before the US catches up to the rest of the western world.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/19/2014 - 10:28 am.

    No debate

    Here is another good read:

    Its legal to hit your children (to varying degrees) but its never a good idea. Don’t pretend there is a justification for it, because there isn’t.

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