Discipline or Abuse: Adrian Peterson's situation

Proverbs 13:24

He who spares the rod hates his son,

but he who loves him is careful to discipline him. 


Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed!"
~Allstar Football player Adrian Peterson explaining the wounds his 4 yr old son received


This past week, one of the most popular NFL players, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for child abuse.  His 4 yr old son, was noted to have lacerations and bruises to all of his extremities as well as his genital area.  The response among football fans was varied.  Some were appalled while others noted that using a "switch" for discipline, is common practice in particular cultures.

The basic question in this situation is whether this episode represents severe discipline that is culturally defined or whether it represents abuse.  I want to share a couple of principles that we need to consider before we can understand what is happening in this situation:

1. Abuse is defined by the experience of the victim, not the intentions of the abuser.  The CDC defines child maltreatment (including abuse and neglect) as:  Any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.  The parent need not be malicious in order to abuse a child.

2. Culture often defines acceptable practices as well has parental roles, responsibilities, and relationships.  However, cultures can often cover pathologic practices and behavior.  I often laugh at the fact that I will often choose to go to a movie theater that is not mostly African-American in attendance.  Not because I am afraid or worried about my safety, but because of the time-honored, cultural practice of yelling at the screen and having full voiced conversation during the movie.  I asked someone several years ago if they could quiet down, and he responded "man, you know how we do?".  Although some practices are culturally acceptable, it doesn't mean that they are healthy practices.

3. Physical discipline such as spanking, standing in a corner, etc are not wrong in themselves.  While many child advocates will say it is never appropriate to use spanking, the fact that it was an essential practice in child rearing in most cultures since antiquity makes it somewhat normative.  I know that people argue that it is a primitive response that promotes violence in children, but I think that is very contextual and subjective, depending on  how the physical discipline is administered.


I recognize that most African-American families have a history of the acceptable use of physical discipline.  Because most African-American families were influenced by the African-American Church which was very conservative in its theology, and fundamentalistic in its practices.  Physical discipline was not only encouraged but was considered Biblical!  


However, in this case, the child was wounded including lacerations on his genitalia.  This is not only harmful physically but traumatic both physically and emotionally.  This does not mean that Adrian Peterson is a horrible person and parent, but that these practices that may be intended to discipline his child are actually causing significant injury and harm.  He. like many parents, need to develop healthy strategies for discipline and to understand that discipline is different than "punishment".  Here are several strategies for disciplining our children:


Age appropriate discipline: Don't lecture a toddler or spank a teenager.  Children are not "little adults" but have developing understandings of behaviors and ever-changing motivations.  We wouldn't discipline our 3 year old son who in his attempt to use the potty like daddy, makes a mess.  We applaud his attempt to be a "big boy" and give him directions.  However, if our 17 yr old son is making the same mess, he may be called to clean it up and an appropriate discipline may be cleaning the bathroom everyday for a week.  The action and the age (developmentally) are important in determining discipline.


Believe in your child:  Believe it or not, our children desire your approval and are not conspiring against you.  I know it may feel that way, but study after study has shown that children are highly motivated to please their parents, even through teenage years.  This is the difference between discipline and punishment.  Punishment often results in demonizing the child, (they are bad, evil, angry, attitudinal, etc) and the act of punishment has no redeeming value other than having the child experience pain.  When we give our child the benefit of the doubt, we still seek to discipline them to improve their behavior or understand the consequences of that behavior, but we are not trying to inflict pain for the purpose of inflicting pain.


Consistent Conditioning yields the greatest results:  In my practice, the greatest problem with discipline is that often parents are inconsistent.  They draw the line and then move the line, and then re-establish the line, and the child's behavior is not impacted.  A 9 yr old is told that he must do his school work before he can play video games.  3 days into the rule, the child does half his work but begs to play games.  He is allowed and then 6 days after the rule, his mother receives a note that his work at school is incomplete.  His mother then tries to re-establish the rule on day 7 and the child doesn't complete the work and the mother out of frustration, gives the child a different form of discipline.  The child is conditioned to understand that the rule is arbitrary and not important.  The more consistent your discipline is, the more effective a child's behavior is conditioned.


Does this action cause damage?: If you are hitting a child with objects or your hand that causes bruises and scars, you are causing damage.  This is absolute!  If  your words are personally hurtful (you are stupid, you are horrible, you are just like that loser father/mother, etc), then your are injuring your child.  Allow a few minutes to pass before you discipline.  Respond, but do not react.  If you are angry when you discipline, the more likely significant injury can occur.


I pray for Adrian Peterson and his children.  I believe that his son experienced abuse and that Adrian, like all parents, needs help to develop healthy forms of discipline as opposed to damaging punishment. I believe that the government is acting on behalf of his children in a way that seeks to protect these children.   In the same way that it takes a village to raise a family, it takes a community to develop parents.  Communities and cultures must model healthy ways of discipline and speak out against abuse in the multifaceted manifestations.



I pray that we make a difference


Dr. Mike