National Football League star Adrian Peterson was indicted recently for child abuse after disciplining his 4-year-old son by hitting him with a switch. The beating was so severe that it left welts on the child's body, including his genitals. Peterson's indictment has unleashed a hailstorm of controversy about the appropriateness of hitting children as punishment for bad behavior.

Here are seven things you need to keep in mind about physical discipline.

1. Honoring your parents doesn't mean doing exactly what they did.

Our parents and grandparents accepted many things that we no longer find acceptable today: Jim Crow laws, smoking and drinking when pregnant, advertising jobs as "Help wanted: Male; Help wanted: Female", and so on. We've come to see that many of these traditions and beliefs were wrong, and we quite reasonably reject them. It is possible to love your parents and reject their traditions or beliefs. It is possible to accept that they were doing what they believed to be right at the time while simultaneously choosing not to do or believe those things.

2. Hitting children teaches them that might makes right.

Parents are physically bigger and stronger than children. They also know more than children and, because their brains are fully developed, they are capable of greater self-control. When a parent tries to get children to behave better by hitting them, that parent is telling them that hitting people who are smaller and weaker than you is an acceptable way of getting what you want from them. Why should it surprise that parent when their children beat up smaller children at school, or grow up to be wife beaters?

3. Adults frequently get out of control when they hit children.

Giving yourself permission to physically discipline your children puts YOU at risk for becoming an abuser. Adrian Peterson is not an isolated case of an adult who lost it while inflicting physical discipline. As adults, we frequently come home frustrated, tired, and angry. We haven't the patience to deal with what our kids may be dishing out. Once you begin hitting the child who is pushing your buttons, you will experience enormous relief. And that pleasant relief can drive you to hit even more, even harder. Peterson admits that he went over the line. Why believe you won't?

The likelihood is that you will go over the line. Pretty soon, you will be giving yourself permission to hit your child for even the slightest infraction because you will have become addicted to that rush of relief you get from hitting someone defenseless. And you won't want to face the fact that you are hitting your child because it feels good.

4. Hitting your children may stop their bad behavior but will damage them and your relationship with them in the long run.

People who believe "sparing the rod spoils the child" typically dismiss the enormous body of research showing that hitting children turns them into angry, resentful adults with psychological and emotional problems. A large meta-analysis of studies on the effects of punishment found that the more physical punishment children receive, the more defiant they are toward parents and authorities, the poorer their relationships with parents, the more likely they are to report hitting a dating partner or spouse. They are also more likely to suffer mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems, and less likely to empathize with others or internalize norms of moral behavior.

A rational person changes his or her beliefs when reality turns out to contradict those beliefs.

The data show that punishment must be age-appropriate, and must be used when appropriate. Mild spanks may be acceptable for children aged 2-6, older children should be disciplined in non-violent ways, and parents with anger issues or abusive tendencies should avoid physical discipline entirely. According to national statistics, nearly 125,000 children were victims of physical abuse serious enough to warrant medical care in 2012, and 42% of those victims were under the age of 6.

Even when using physical punishment on a young child, you must be sure punishment is really called for in the circumstances. I once saw a father and young son (about age five) bicycling along a busy road, the father following the son. The father was beside himself with rage because his son simply would not keep his mind on the road. Everything seemed to distract him. The father finally lost it, pulled his son off his bicycle, and swatted him hard on the bottom. "What you're doing is dangerous", he yelled, "You could be killed! You have to pay attention!" What the father failed to understand is that his young son was not capable of ignoring all of those distractions. His son was getting punished for failing to do something he was incapable of doing. A child that age is more  capable of following someone on a bicycle than leading. The reason for this is biological: Self-control and focus is the function of the brain's frontal lobes, and the frontal lobes are not fully developed or fully connected to the rest of the brain until early adulthood.

5. It is illegal to hit children in over thirty countries worldwide, but entirely legal in the U.S.

Why are we so backward in thinking that aggression against children stamps out aggression in the long run? If hitting children is the surest way to reduce crimes and foster good behavior, then why do we also have the largest prison population in the world?

6. Physical punishment is NOT more prevalent in black communities.

Former NFL star Charles Barkley defended Peterson's actions, claiming, "I'm a black guy ... I'm from the South…Whipping — we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances." 

Yet a recent poll showed that eight out of ten black people and seven out of ten white people approved of physically punishing children. Here is a video of a southern white male judge beating his teenaged daughter while his wife looks on and approves. The good news is that the same poll showed approval ratings for physical punishment declining from 84% in 1986 to 70% in 2012.

7. There are more effective ways of getting the behavior you want.

Let's assume that you as a parent are more interested in shaping your children's behavior than you are in using physical punishment as a means of venting your own anger and frustration. Simply seeing how angry you are is usually frightening enough to a young child. You don't need to compound the fear by getting physical. Seven excellent means of discipline can be found here. Here is a simple way to get the job done:

If you do X, you will be punished. If you do Y instead, you will be rewarded. Which do you choose?

As long as the behaviors and consequences are specific and clear, this approach is a very effective means of shaping behavior. It allows children to feel they have some degree of control over what happens to them, and teaches them to seek and consider choices. It even can work with the oppositional child—children who are particularly defiant and difficult to control.

So do yourself a favor: Use your fully-developed adult brain to figure out clever, non-abusive ways of getting your children to do what you want them to do.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins September 19, 2014

April 28, 2016 - UPDATE ON WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU HIT YOUR KIDS: Fifty years of research involving over 160,000 children shows unequivocally that spanking is not only ineffective as a form of discipline, but is detrimental to the mental health of children and adults. Read more

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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