Adrian Peterson and Corporal Punishment

Adrian Peterson is now coming back to the Minnesota Vikings two days after he was charged with child abuse for using a wooden switch to spank his 4-year-old son, and the star running back said Monday he is not a child abuser and wants “everyone to understand how sorry I feel about the hurt I have brought to my child.”

Peterson faces an initial court appearance in Conroe, Texas, on Wednesday on a charge of reckless or negligent injury to a child, which carries penalties of up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, said he will try to delay the arraignment until next week after Hardin returns from a vacation out of the country.

Corporal punishment is legal in Texas and non-deadly force against a child by a parent or guardian is permissible. But the punishment is abusive if it causes injury. A blow that leaves a bruise, welt or swelling, or requires medical attention, could be judged abusive. The guidelines also say use of an instrument “is cause for concern.”

Hardin said Peterson used a switch because that was the way he was brought up by his parents in Palestine, Texas, and the NFL star agreed.

“I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen,” Peterson said. “I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child. I also understand after meeting with a psychologist that there are other alternative ways of disciplining a child that may be more appropriate.” [Source: 9/16/14]

Regardless of how you define child abuse, does the fact that your own parents abused you excuse you of doing the same?

No way. Philosophically speaking, we all have free will. The root of free will is the choice to think. Before having a child, it seems reasonable to think about some appropriate and justified methods for setting limits on your child. Just because somebody did something wrong to you doesn’t mean you have to do the same. When you know something wrong or questionable was done to you by your parents, you have the power to say — once you’re a parent yourself — it all stops here.

People are free to think and make different choices. This is particularly true in today’s world, when many different viewpoints, attitudes and strategies about rearing young children are available to parents.

There is no such thing as a perfect parent, if “perfect” is defined as infallible. But the fact of being infallible does not excuse you from thinking.

My best guess about Peterson, psychologically speaking? From the limited facts available at this time, I would say that he probably was never convinced that he should discipline his own child any differently from the way he was raised. He probably assumed and felt, “It was good enough for me. So it’s good enough for my child.” It might be darker than that. It might come out that he’s a full-fledged abuser or, more likely, we’ll probably never know the full truth.

One fact seems plainly obvious: He got busted, his career is in jeopardy, and he’s remorseful in that context. Only now, that his actions have had career and legal consequences, is he questioning his prior practice of using a wooden switch to discipline his child.

It’s possible, though in my opinion highly doubtful, that Peterson really has had a change of mind from one meeting with a psychologist. The psychologist probably told him things that he already knew, knowledge that is widely available (if not always utilized).

A lot of reason for this problem about abusing children is a false alternative in people’s minds. One side of the alternative says, “Reason with the child and let him do whatever he wants.” The other side says, “Go for the switch.”

Actually, you don’t have to choose from one of these awful two alternatives. You can reason with a child — on whatever level he or she is capable; and you can set the terms and requirements required in a household, consistently enforcing them.

You can say, “this is the rule,” all the while enforcing it, and you can also say why it’s a rule. One need not exclude the other.

Childhood is not a place where children should learn fear or how to be controlled by a whip. Yes, they ought to learn respect for rational authority. But they also need to learn the if-then connections, the logical reasons for the requirements and the negative consequences if they fail to follow them. Independent thought, not blind obedience or fear, is one central purpose of childhood. The ultimate authority is not some parent or person, but objective reality; and reason is our only means for ever understanding and respecting it.

Childhood is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. In a democracy, you’d give the child an equal vote on everything that happens. That’s plainly absurd. But it’s not a dictatorship, either. Rules should make sense and should be consistent.

There’s never a reason to raise a weapon against a child. The minute you do so, you’re not merely and unnecessarily frightening or terrorizing a child. You’re also sending the child the message, “Reason doesn’t work. People cannot solve problems through persuasion or non-violent methods.”

Granted, there are criminals and terrorists in the world who will not attempt to solve problems that way. (Read the headlines.) We sometimes have to respond to such people with violence, even overwhelming violence if that’s what’s required to make them stop. But no child poses a threat anything like a homicidal killer or a bomb-wielding terrorist. There are liars and manipulators in the world, as well, and you cannot grant the courtesy of reason to such people. But do you want to send your young child the message that this is the way it has to be? That’s the only way initiating violence against a child would ever make sense.

In his legal defense, Peterson will probably claim he had no choice but to hit his child with a switch, because that’s what his parents did to him. He’s already testing the waters on this tactic as a way to restore his career reputation along with the respect and loyalty of his fans. But to advance such an argument, if he does, is an insult to all the parents who had similar childhoods (or worse) and have exercised the intelligence, integrity and responsibility to go another route when raising their own children.

Somebody can be a great football player, but a lousy person. Can you still admire the person out-of-context? Vikings fans will have to answer this question for themselves. To me, I don’t see how you can completely disintegrate or separate the two.

Although Peterson will not likely say this in public or in court, some will claim that it’s good to raise a child in an environment of fear. “Children aren’t afraid today. Many kids are entitled brats. I was afraid of my parents.” Unquestionably, some young people are entitled brats. But violence won’t solve that problem. A little accountability and consequences for their actions would go a long way. Kids grow into brats because nobody holds them accountable for anything; not because they don’t get physically beaten and bruised. And if accountability doesn’t work, fear and violence will not scare them into being rational and self-responsible.

Even with adults, violence is never justified as something that one initiates against another. The only justified use of violence is retaliation against its use, or to stop an imminent threat. As difficult as children can be, there’s no basis for taking out a switch or a paddle against a child. To do so is a confession that one has no other ideas, and one doesn’t wish to put the energy into setting rational limits on a child, and taking the time to help a child learn the skills and necessity of reason.

It will be interesting, but (I have a hunch) not especially uplifting, to watch how this case plays out in court and the media.

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