As a family therapist I have spent the past decade working with children who are victims of abuse and their caregivers. I have worked with many families in many situations including foster parents, adoptive parents and relative caregivers attempting to give a better life to victims of child abuse. I have also worked to reunify many children with their biological parents who may have been the original perpetrators of abuse. I am also a football fan. My opinion on the recent events concerning Minnesota Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson is not one that I have seen broadly shared in what is a contentious debate going on in the public, in the media, and on the internet, and probably not what you would expect.
For those unaware of the controversy, Peterson has been indicted in Texas for an incident where he struck his 4 year old son repeatedly with a wooden switch leaving significant marks and bleeding. Peterson has not denied the events. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on this type of extreme punishment. The basic opinions I have seen expressed are somewhere between “I would never do that to a child. This piece of shit should rot in jail” and “He was just trying to be a good parent. I was disciplined that way and I’m a better person for it.” As a clinician with expertise in this area, I can tell you that the research is very clear on physical discipline having virtually no positive effect on behavior but great emotional costs to the child and to the relationship.
Using physical punishment, whether it be spanking with an open hand or more severe methods teaches several concepts to children:
1. You should attempt to solve problems through violence
2. If you have power over another person, you should use it to control that person through the threat of physical and/or emotional assault
3. Parents should be feared
If these are not lessons you want your child to learn, then alternative forms of discipline would be more effective in guiding their behavior.
So do I condemn Adrian Peterson and his actions? Do I think he should be thrown out of football and locked up? No, not at all. From as much information as I have been able to gather, Peterson was disciplining his child in the way that he thought was appropriate based on the way his parents disciplined him. His actions, as disturbing as I and others might view them, appear to be the actions of a father trying to raise his kids well, but lacking the knowledge to do so. It’s a problem of ignorance, not intent, and the solution to ignorance is education not incarceration.
Where I live and where I grew up, corporal punishment was not the standard parenting approach. But in large portions of the United States, what Adrian Peterson did is considered not just acceptable but a community expectation of good parenting. That’s not okay with me, I would like to change it for the reasons stated above. But I don’t think that arresting every one of those parents is necessarily in the best interest of their children.* In fact, incarcerating adults for bad parenting is a lot like spanking a child as a punishment for hitting.
What my experience working with children and families has taught me above all else is that children need their parents. I have been involved in many cases where it became apparent that being home with a parent that had many flaws and questionable practices was a much better placement for a child than being with an excellent foster parent who has good intentions but will always lack the sense of permanency and belonging of being with true family.
Something else I have seen in my work is that our country faces an epidemic of absent fathers, particularly in lower socio-economic communities. Taking one more father away from his children is not the solution to this problem. Adrian Peterson has stated:
“I have learned a lot and have had to reevaluate how I discipline my son going forward. 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.
Many successful adults will tell similar stories, but virtually all of those stories share the common factor of how much they knew that the person providing the discipline loved them and wanted them to do right. I would argue that it is that sense of having a loving and committed caregiver and not the violent acts themselves that has set these adults on the right path.
If Adrian Peterson is willing to learn from his mistakes and recommit himself to being the best parent he can be, then I certainly want him to do just that. And I hope that he can take what he has learned and use his place in society to reach out to as many parents like him as he can to share what he has learned.
*Actual laws on corporal punishment vary from state to state. In Texas, where this incident occurred, the act of hitting a child with an instrument such as a switch or paddle is not illegal in itself, however it is not allowed to leave a mark on the child. The offense Peterson is charged with is eligible for 2 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.