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The Adrian Peterson case is rebooting national debate on the bounds of child discipline, with recrimination coming fast and fierce from the NFL, sponsors and the legal system. But it's also raising an unsettling question: If physical punishment from a parent is so damaging, why do so many who are disciplined that way grow up to endorse it?
Many adults echo the sentiments of Peterson, who said he disciplined his child the way he was — and it worked on him. "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," Peterson said in a statement about his indictment.
To be sure, many of those same adults draw a moral line between striking a misbehaving child with an object (like the tree switch allegedly used by Peterson on his son) versus an open palm to the backside. But these folks also tend to be products of eras when spanking was the first option for parental corrections — and they cannot fathom all the fuss, they say, when the swift swats they absorbed decades ago taught them life lessons.
"My mom spanked me a couple of times. My dad spanked me once or twice. It got my attention,” said Christopher Robbins, 46, founder of a digital publishing company, Familius, which offers books on parenting.
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“They never hurt me. When our parents got our attention by spanking us, it was with the intent of trying to help us understand what we were doing was inappropriate. In that sense, that probably has helped people to be better,” added Robbins, who cites one childhood transgression that drew a spank: “I said a naughty word.”
“I certainly learned to not do a couple of things because I was spanked. And I do not feel I was done harm because I was spanked. My parents never spanked me prodigiously or did it hard enough that I feel they were being hurtful or mean,” Robbins said. "It should never be done out of anger."
Spanking continues in America — though most experts call such physical punishment ineffective. People who were spanked might continue the cycle because they believe a firm hand makes a better child, or because they haven't learned other coping mechanisms, or because to do otherwise would rebuke their own upbringing and their own parents' love, experts said.
A study of some 2,700 parents, published in March by the University of Michigan, found that nearly a third of 1-year-old children are spanked at least once a month by their mom, dad or both.
And American courts have sided with butt-smacking parents.
- A New York State appeals court dismissed a child neglect case in July against a man who had spanked his 8-year-old son for swearing at an adult during a party at a friend's home. That court called spanking “reasonable use of force.”
- Last October, a federal appeals court ruled a California woman, who spanked her 12-year-old daughter’s backside with a wooden spoon, should not have been labeled a child abuser by social workers, and cautioned that a parent’s right to mete out “reasonable discipline” must be considered.
- A Florida appeals court ruled a lone spank is not domestic violence in 2011. The decision was based on a father who spanked his 14-year-old daughter once on the buttocks because, he said, she had been disrespectful.
Were those rulings thoughtful endorsements of age-old disciplinary tactics?
“Those are legal parameters they’re setting, but the court is not a parenting expert,” said John Mayer, a Chicago-based psychologist who treats adolescents, children, families, and violent patients.
However, even some parents who refuse to lay a disciplinary hand on their youngsters recall with a chuckle how their own parents punitively smacked them for committing juvenile misdeeds or, in other cases, for reasons not even clear.
“I had a good German dad who came up to me, whacked me and walked away, (leaving me wondering), what did I do there?’” Mayer, who is in his 50s, said with a laugh.
As a child, Mayer also attended an all-boys Catholic school where teachers “whacked” students who misbehaved. The psychologist, who is firmly anti-spanking as a parent and clinician, cites that personal history to exemplify the evolution of American disciplinary theory.
“Do we condone corporal punishment in schools now? No. Why? We know better!” Mayer said. “It’s the same thing with parenting. In that era (the 1960s), it was a more primitive time in terms of what we knew about parenting.
“My God, my whole field of psychology and family work and parenting was still in its infancy. But we know more now. We have more sophisticated techniques. One of the things I’m always ballyhooing when I talk to parent groups is about yelling — we know how powerless yelling is. Parents: stop yelling if you want to be powerful. And if you want to be a powerful parent, it’s not going to come from hitting your child.”
For some moms and dads, spanking remains in their disciplinary arsenal, in part, because children are hard-wired to love their parents — and will do so even in the face of physical abuse that exceeds acceptable discipline, said Kathryn Kvols, founder of the International Network of Children and Families, a Gainesville, Florida-based group that has been offering parenting classes for 30 years.
The psychology of parents who spank, in some cases, can be summed up this way, Kvols said: Because we need to believe our parents love us, we will go to extreme lengths to rationalize their behavior and internalize their values.
And that’s why breaking the cycle of physical disciplinary methods can be difficult — no matter how many studies show or experts preach that spanking is bad, Kvols agreed. In short, they will do it because that's how they were raised.
Kvols, herself, was spanked as a child. In decrying the practice, she explains what that discipline did to her.
“The kid learns to fear their parent. But when they need a parent to go talk to, they don’t go to that parent,” said Kvols, who offers parents a course called “Redirecting Children’s Behavior” — a guide to help them eliminate scolding, yelling and threatening as parenting techniques.
“Like for my father — he spanked me, and I shut down toward having a relationship with him,” said Kvols, 62. “I obeyed him. But when I was having trouble with guys or with school, I would never go to him.”