Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson leaves court accompanied by his wife, Ashley Brown Peterson, in Conroe, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. A judge tentatively set a Dec. 1 trial date for Peterson on a charge of felony child abuse for using a wooden switch to discipline his 4-year-old son earlier this year. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Billy Smith II)

When men hit women, it is behavior that is universally condemned. But when adults hit children —  ostensibly to discipline them, at home and in school — the reaction is too often different, with many people calling the behavior acceptable. Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina, looks at this issue in the following post, which appeared on The Conversation website, a new independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. This post is part of a global series, “Domestic violence and sports,” which examines how different sports across the world are dealing with the issues of family violence and respect for women


By Paul Thomas

The world of sports has struggled recently with controversies surrounding football player Ray Rice’s domestic violence case and the arrest of hockey player Slava Voynov on suspicion of domestic violence. But what has not been a matter of debate is where the line is for men hitting women. The media and the public have been nearly uniform in rallying around the idea that no man should ever hit a woman. For example, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote:

So this is not just about [Rice’s now-wife Janay] Palmer, but about all our mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers and friends and the violence against them that is still too common and too commonly ignored.

However, after it was revealed that Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson had been indicted for injuring his 4-year-old son, the debate took a different turn. Barely a week after posting the words above based on his own experiences with domestic violence, Pitts offered a much different view of spanking, in substance and tone:

No, I don’t believe all spanking is abuse … A parent must be loving, accessible, involved, but also an authority figure, the one who sets limits and imposes real and painful consequences for kids who flout them.

Pitts offered what has become the distinctly different view of adults hitting children: my parents spanked me and I turned out fine, which is exactly the explanation Peterson offered for his actions that left his son bruised.

I grew up in the rural South in the 1960s, and my parents smoked heavily with my sister and me in the house and car (windows up). We also were not secured with seat belts. We rode bicycles without wearing helmets. Like many white children of our time and region, we were raised in an environment of racist language and beliefs.  That I turned out fine does not justify those practices, just as my parents spanking me does not justify corporal punishment of any kind or degree. As Jessica Samakow of the Huffington Post highlights:

The word ‘debate’ should be left out of the spanking conversation, because the science against it is so clearly one-sided.

When drawing a line between spanking and abuse, Pitts noted research on corporal punishment: “A 2001 study by Dr. Diana Baumrind — a psychologist who opposes spanking — found that mild to moderate corporal punishment causes no lasting harm,” he wrote. But his point is incomplete because even so-called “mild corporal punishment,” while possibly not harmful, is recognized as ineffective when compared to alternative practices.

Referring to more than 60 years of research on corporal punishment, Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University concluded:

Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use.

Corporal punishment remains a part of homes and parenting in the United States, but it also continues to be allowed in public schools by law in 19 states. As  this blog, The Answer Sheet, reported:

According to an analysis of federal data from 2009-2010, the Children’s Defense Fund reported in 2014 that 838 children were hit on average each day in public school, based on a 180-day school year, which would be 150,840 instances of corporal punishment a year.

Over the past two seasons the National Football League has raised public awareness about bullying, domestic violence, and child abuse. But we have mostly failed to acknowledge the cultural embrace of violence in the United States, often for entertainment, and our willingness to tolerate aggressive behavior against children that we don’t accept among adults.

“Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want,” lamented author Barbara Kingsolver in an essay on child-rearing.

The personal and professional consequences facing Rice and Peterson remain in question and worthy of debate. But corporal punishment itself  is not.  There should be no debate about hitting children. It’s just wrong.