NFL star Adrian Peterson's child abuse charges sparked a national debate this week on whether spanking, hitting or other forms of physical discipline are child abuse or effective methods of punishment. Peterson and his supporters have suggested that a parent's personal decision to spank their child is a result of culture and upbringing, and not physical abuse. But decades of research suggests spanking can cause more harm than good, leaving children with lasting problems that far outweigh a parent's immediate disciplinary needs.
Health professionals and children's activists have long decried the use of physical punishment on children. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive in 2006 that branded physical punishment “legalized violence against children” and called for legal and educational efforts aimed at ending the practice. The findings received support from 192 countries, but not the U.S.
Peterson, the star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, turned himself in to authorities early Saturday in Texas after reports that he had harmed his child "with criminal negligence or recklessly," a felony charge of child abuse. His lawyer said Peterson used "a switch to spank his son" and discipline him. Peterson compared the punishment to the discipline he received as a child in a statement posted on his Twitter feed Monday.
"Deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives," he wrote. "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's supporters have also linked the incident to their own upbringings and disciplinary methods. Fellow NFL star Reggie Bush, a running back for the Detroit Lions, said this week he "definitely would discipline" his one-year-old daughter for bad behavior. "I discipline her and I'd say every person is different, you know, and I definitely will use my best judgment to discipline her, depending on the situation, on what happened, and also, I definitely will try to, um, will obviously not leave bruises or anything like that on her, but I definitely would discipline her harshly, depending on what, again, what the situation is," Bush said in an interview on the New York-based WFAN-FM "Boomer & Carton" radio show Tuesday.
Proponents of spanking insist that a light, but firm touch can result in more productive and responsible adults.
"Properly understood and administered, spanking is most effective as a deterrent to undesirable behavior for younger preschoolers," wrote Dr. Jared Pingleton, a clinical psychologist and counseling director for Focus on the Family, a Christian nonprofit organization, in an op-ed for Time this week. "That’s because reasoning and taking away privileges often simply don’t work with kids in that age range."
But a wide range of research suggests there's no benefit to physical discipline. More than 80 studies on spanking and other forms of physical punishment have concluded that there are no positive associations with hitting children, regardless of the age of the child. Instead, the opposite is true. The research shows that causing pain can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children, according to the American Psychological Association.
"It’s a very controversial area even though the research is extremely telling and very clear and consistent about the negative effects on children,” Sandra Graham-Bermann, PhD, a psychology professor and principal investigator for the Child Violence and Trauma Laboratory at the University of Michigan, told the American Psychological Association in 2012. “People get frustrated and hit their kids. Maybe they don’t see there are other options.”
Around the world, physical discipline has become increasingly unpopular in recent years, with bans against the practice in at least 30 countries. But in the U.S., roughly two-thirds of Americans still approve of parents spanking their kids.
Murray Straus, founder and co-director of the Family Research Lab and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, summarized more than four decades of research on spanking for his book, "The Primordial Violence."
"Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior. But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction, such as time out, explaining, and depriving a child of privileges," Straus said in 2013. "Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school."