Health

Adrian Peterson’s Child Abuse Allegations Reopen Debate Over Corporal Punishment

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson

The National Football League’s bad week is just getting worse. Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings’ star running back, is facing a felony charge for “reckless or negligent injury to a child” and will not play in Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots. The indictment was handed down on Friday by a Texas grand jury convened by prosecutors concerned about an incident that occurred earlier this summer.

According to law enforcement officials, Peterson allegedly beat his four-year-old child with part of a tree branch as punishment for misbehaving in May. The child was left with cuts and bruises on his back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum. The football player maintains that he didn’t do anything wrong and was appropriately disciplining his child with a “whooping.” Peterson’s attorney says that he is “a loving father” who simply uses the same parenting techniques that he once “experienced as a child growing up in east Texas.”

Indeed, for many Americans, the line between corporal punishment and child abuse is blurry. There are no federal laws banning spanking. Nineteen states still allow schools to hit kids as punishment for misbehaving — mostly in the South — and Peterson’s home state of Texas is particularly fond of the paddle. Just this week, a Texas mother complained that her son received corporal punishment at school that left him bruised.

Proponents of corporal punishment say it’s an important method of discipline that can be more effective than other types of punishment. “A lot of parents, particularly in the south, think of it as a good technique to use. They were reared that way so they’ve developed this fundamental belief that spanking is the way to teach people right or wrong,” Southern Methodist University Professor George Holden, who recently conducted a study of parents’ disciplinary habits, told the Washington Post in April.

Peterson seems to fall in this camp. “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right,” he allegedly texted his son’s mother after the incident in question.

But opponents of the practice cite studies that have found a link between corporal punishment and an increased risk of mental health issues, bullying, and physical aggression toward others. Other research has found that physical punishments aren’t actually effective compared to other punishments, like time-outs and the removal of privileges. Indeed, there’s an element of irony when you consider that kids are supposed to learn not to hit other people by being hit by their parents. (Peterson says he gave his son the “switch” after the child pushed another one of Peterson’s children off a video game.)

The use of corporal punishment has declined in the United States over the past several decades — while 94 percent of parents approved of the practice in 1968, support dropped to around 50 percent by 1999 — but remains somewhat prevalent throughout the world. According to a report recently released by UNICEF documenting the scope of violence against children, six in ten kids are subjected to corporal punishment by their caregivers. But, UNICEF notes, “the most severe forms of corporal punishment — hitting a child on the head, ears or face or hitting a child hard and repeatedly — are less common over all.”

UNICEF’s distinction speaks to one of the biggest challenges when it comes to corporal punishment: How do you define it? Is hitting a child with a hand better than hitting a child with a belt or a switch? Medical experts acknowledge that determining what counts as child abuse in a society where some parents opt for physical punishment can be confusing.

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines corporal punishment as “the application of some form of physical pain in response to undesirable behavior” and acknowledges that many American parents choose to spank their kids. While the AAP doesn’t condemn spanking, its policy statement does go on to clarify that more extreme forms of physical punishment — “striking a child with an object, striking a child on parts of the body other than the buttocks or extremities, striking a child with such intensity that marks lasting more than a few minutes occur, pulling a child’s hair, jerking a child by the arm, shaking a child, and physical punishment delivered in anger with intent to cause pain” — are unacceptable and should never be used. The doctors’ group also recommends that corporal punishment should be abolished in schools.

If one line is “no physical objects,” another line is “no lasting physical marks.” Many state laws permit parents to spank their kids as long as they don’t cause bodily injury or leave any marks behind. In a 1992 survey of primary care doctors and pediatricians, the majority of them said that “striking of the child’s buttocks or hand with an open hand… leaving no mark except transient redness” is acceptable.

Peterson’s attorney says the football star “deeply regrets the unintentional injury,” and Sports Illustrated suggests that Peterson may end up being charged with “negligent” abuse of a child. A finding of “negligence” would mean that Peterson should have been aware that his actions posed harm to his child, but ultimately wasn’t acting with pre-meditated knowledge that he was going to hurt his son. Texas’ criminal justice system will likely be particularly open to that argument, considering the state’s support for corporal punishment.

The Minnesota Vikings player’s legal issues come on the heels of continued controversy over former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was dropped from the team after evidence of Rice punching his then-fiancee came to light. That incidence has sparked a larger conversation about how the NFL deals with violence against women, as well as whether the league hands out appropriate punishments for the football players who are accused of crimes. Peterson’s indictment will test the NFL’s new policy of cracking down on players like Rice who haven’t been legally convicted of wrongdoing.