Adrian Peterson Hit His Child: What's Wrong With That?

There is a cultural divide regarding the physical discipline of children.

Posted Sep 17, 2014

Minnesota Vikings runningback Adrian Peterson is charged of one count of reckless injury to a child. He hit his four-year old son with a tree branch. He admits as much. He sees it as necessary discipline. He says he didn’t mean to hurt his son.

Courts will decide whether he is legally culpable for his actions. In my mind the moral culpability is clear. Hurting someone who is defenseless is wrong. A slap is one thing. That's a sting. Cuts and bruises on the legs and back of Peterson’s child is something else. That's true harm.

If injuring a vulnerable person isn't reprehensible, I don't know what is. Many commonplace practices are now seen as wrong and hitting a child to the extent to which Peterson did is morally unacceptable. When parents cause harm like this, it isn't that children deserve to be harmed but that the adult couldn't control him or herself. That's something for the adult to deal with, not the child to suffer from.

There is a clear cultural divide over the proper way to discipline children. Former basketball star Charles Barkley says that “every black parent in the South hits their kids.” No doubt Barkley’s comment is an exaggeration. But in my experience, his point is right. There are many adults who hit kids and this isn’t confined to African Americans or Southerners.

I often discuss the use of physical punishment of children in my college classes. Students are nearly always divided on whether it is proper, although my impression is that over the last 20 years, more students now see hitting children as wrong.

The main argument used in favor of hitting children is a variation of the biblical adage, Spare the rod and spoil the child. Children need correction and hitting is the best, if not only way to get results.

But there are other methods of disciplining children. The literature clearly shows that hitting is perhaps the worst method of all. Hitting doesn’t produce moral children; it creates compliant children or bullies.

Children need discipline, but hitting a child isn’t discipline. Call it what it is: child abuse.

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