Peterson case raises debate on spanking

Adrian Peterson will face charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child on Wednesday. His case has prompted debate on spanking – when, how it is done and how much is appropriate, if at all.

Yes, Adrian Peterson said, the allegation that he struck his young son with a branch is true. No, he does not believe he committed a crime.

This type of discipline, he said, is how his parents punished him. The charge of child abuse, Peterson said, does not apply because he meant the boy no harm.

Peterson’s stance is startling, at least for much of the country where corporal punishment has been largely cast aside. Usually off-the-field incidents in the news involving NFL players produce downplays or denials from the accused.

Peterson’s argument is likely to surface again this week, when his case goes before a judge in Texas. Peterson has support from people in areas where severely spanking children is still a generational and cultural practice, including some of his peers around the league. But his use of a switch and belt to spank his 4-year-old son for misbehavior has also prompted harsh rebukes, even from disciplinarians who believe boundaries were crossed. He is on paid leave from the Minnesota Vikings until the case is resolved.

The case has sparked discussion — and reflection — from athletes and others who say they were disciplined in the same way. Some are revisiting how they feel about the act, and it prompted others to talk about how spanking affected them — in good ways and bad.

Hall of Fame wide receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter voiced an emotional epiphany about his changed view of corporal punishment since being raised in a poor seven-child family in Ohio.

“It’s the 21st century. My mom was wrong. She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me,” Carter said on the network’s pregame show shortly after Peterson was indicted. “And I promised my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what they want to do.”

Though 31 states have outlawed corporal punishment in schools, all 50 states allow parents to hit their children as a reasonable means of discipline. But the definition of what’s reasonable has been contracting, said Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minnesota.

“A quarter of a century ago what Mr. Peterson allegedly did to his son probably wouldn’t have resulted in a prosecution in many parts of the country. Today it almost always would,” Vieth said. “It’s not so much that judges or legislators are changing the law. It’s the jurors themselves. Reasonable force is really in the eyes of the community: What do they regard as acceptable?”

Vieth added: “Most parents just don’t hit their children at that level anymore.”

The most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for the 2009-2010 school year revealed an estimate of 184,527 students disciplined by corporal punishment in the 19 states where it’s legal. That’s a 17 percent decline from the 2005-06 survey and a 32 percent drop from the estimate for 2003-04.

“Generally the research supports that parents are less inclined to hit their children, and when they do they’re inclined to be less egregious than perhaps their parents or grandparents were,” Vieth said. “The research says the more you hit and the longer you hit and the more severe you hit your children, the greater the risk factors are for poor outcomes of life.”

Peterson rose to the highest level of his profession — and even now, he and his family are still talking about their disciplinary methods.

“I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury. No one can understand the hurt that I feel for my son and for the harm I caused him. My goal is always to teach my son right from wrong, and that’s what I tried to do that day,” Peterson said in a statement released after the indictment.

Peterson’s mother, Bonita Jackson, described herself and Peterson’s father, Nelson Peterson, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle as “big disciplinarians” who used hands, switches and belts to spank the children they raised in Palestine, Texas.

“Most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes,” Jackson told the newspaper. “But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world.”

Several other NFL players have also weighed in.

“I feel like I’m a better person for it. I had direction under my family,” said Vikings fullback Jerome Felton. “My mother cared about me a lot, and I know people that didn’t have parents that cared and didn’t discipline them that turned out a lot different than I did.”

Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin also spoke out. “I went to a private school. They’d pray for you. But at the same time, they’d pull out that big wooden paddle with the three holes. You tell me: Getting hit with a wooden stick, what’s the difference?”

Of the top 12 player-producing states, seven are among the 19 that allow corporal punishment in schools: Florida, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and North Carolina.

Corporal punishment is typically more common in less-educated and lower-income areas. In the so-called Bible Belt, literal interpretation of a verse from Proverbs (“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them”) has been an influence on conservative Christian parents. But race is also a factor, experts say.

“You can date it from slavery, where black kids’ lives were dependent on doing what the master ordered,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. “That becomes culturally embedded as family and child-rearing tradition, and it can carry over even into circumstances where it may not be as appropriate but it is still there.”

Edwards, a consultant on player and organizational development for the San Francisco 49ers who has also periodically advised the NFL on various sociological issues, was physically disciplined often by his parents raising him in East St. Louis, Illinois.

“They were always emphatic: I’m going to beat you now so that the cops don’t kill you in the street tomorrow,” Edwards said.


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