When I was growing up in the 1950s, corporal punishment was not only commonplace, it was an accepted adjunct to raising good, obedient children.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” may have been a euphemism for “child beating” even back then. But spanking was considered an important part of child rearing, and few parents would have thought that it was abuse, much less unnecessary.
Taking a rod to a child’s backside — or a razor strop, or a paddle — might be stretching the point. But it was considered to be a parent’s absolute right to discipline his child any way he saw fit — even if that meant leaving marks on the child’s body.
Times have changed and striking a child anywhere for any reason can get you in trouble with state child service authorities. Some may think we’ve gone too far in protecting children while interfering with the right of parents to raise their child by their own lights.
If you believe that, allow me to introduce you to Adrian Peterson.
Peterson is not only star running back for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. He is the best back of his generation, a marvel of speed, power, and shiftiness. Yesterday, authorities in Texas handed down an indictment of Peterson for child abuse.
His unsettling and sometimes shocking explanations for beating his son with a tree branch because he misbehaved remind us that socioeconomic and cultural differences in parental attitudes toward child rearing are still with us, despite efforts to eradicate child beating disguised as “discipline.”
The “whooping” – as Peterson put it when interviewed by police – occurred in Spring, Texas, in May. Peterson’s son had pushed another one of Peterson’s children off of a motorbike video game. As punishment, Peterson grabbed a tree branch – which he consistently referred to as a “switch” – removed the leaves and struck the child repeatedly.
The beating allegedly resulted in numerous injuries to the child, including cuts and bruises to the child’s back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the child’s hands. Peterson then texted the boy’s mother, saying that one wound in particular would make her “mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”
Peterson also allegedly said via text message to the child’s mother that he “felt bad after the fact when I notice the switch was wrapping around hitting I (sic) thigh” and also acknowledged the injury to the child’s scrotum in a text message, saying, “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed! I start putting them in timeout. N save the whooping for needed memories!”
In further text messages, Peterson allegedly said, “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.”
According to police reports, the child, however, had a slightly different story, telling authorities that “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face.” The child also expressed worry that Peterson would punch him in the face if the child reported the incident to authorities. He also said that he had been hit by a belt and that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet.” He added that Peterson put leaves in his mouth when he was being hit with the switch while his pants were down. The child told his mother that Peterson “likes belts and switches” and “has a whooping room.”
It seems apparent that Adrian Peterson experienced similar beatings as a child and was only “whooping” his son as he had been “whooped” as a boy. This becomes clear with Peterson’s bewilderment at thinking that anyone thought his intentions and motivations were anything but legal and proper.
Peterson, when contacted by police, admitted that he had “whooped” his son on the backside with a switch as a form of punishment, and then, in fact, produced a switch similar to the one with which he hit the child. Peterson also admitted that he administered two different “whoopings” to his son during the visit to Texas, the other being a punishment for the 4-year-old scratching the face of a 5-year-old.
In an interview with Houston police, Peterson was very matter-of-fact and calm about the incident, appearing to believe he had done nothing wrong and reiterating how much he cared about his son and only used “whoopings” or “spankings” as a last resort. He offered up information that the police didn’t have and was incredulous when asked if some of the numerous wounds and marks on the child were from an extension cord, saying, “Oh, no, I’d never hit my child with an extension cord. I remember how it feels to get whooped with an extension cord. I’d never do that.”
Peterson also said, “Anytime I spank my kids, I talk to them before, let them know what they did, and of course after.” Peterson also expressed regret that his son did not cry – because then, Peterson said, he would have known that the switch was doing more damage than intended. He didn’t realize the “tip of the switch and the ridges of the switch were wrapping around [the child’s] legs.” Peterson also acknowledged that this was administered directly to the child’s skin and with the child’s pants pulled down.
It would be a mistake to ascribe this attitude to black America only. It is more a product of one’s socioeconomic strata and tradition than a condition based on race. From what I can discover, Peterson grew up in a lower middle class home with loving parents. While his parents divorced when Adrian was seven and his father was convicted and given an eight-year sentence for money laundering when he was thirteen, Peterson maintained close contact with his father, even speaking to him before every game in high school despite him being in prison.
This doesn’t sound like someone who was beaten up by his father on a regular basis. No doubt, the beatings occurred when he had seriously transgressed, but Peterson evidently learned that “whoopings,” if given with loving intent, were acceptable.
Are we more enlightened if we disapprove of Peterson’s actions? Clearly, Peterson’s beatings crossed the line — not even close. But understanding the cultural chasm between the world of Peterson’s upbringing and our own notions of child rearing today explains the athlete’s astonishment that anyone could believe him to be a child abuser.
Peterson’s ideas of child raising are not only old fashioned and outmoded, they are potentially dangerous to children. But how else do you raise a child except by using your own experiences from how you were raised yourself? You spank your child — or use a switch on him — because that’s what your dad did to you when you misbehaved.
There are no required courses for parenting. There’s no school parents must attend in order to have a child. There isn’t a gene or instinct that tells us how to raise children. There is only what we know based on how our parents raised us.
For Adrian Peterson — and probably millions like him — this ignorance about what constitutes child abuse is paid for by the children who are on the receiving end of “whoopings.”