If you've been paying attention to the news, you probably know that Minnesota Viking's running back Adrian Peterson has been charged with child abuse. As the story has been reported, Peterson readily admitted to police that he used a switch (a branch) to discipline his 4-year-old son while the boy was visiting him in Texas last May.
At the time, in text messages to the child's mother in Minnesota, Peterson wrote:
"felt bad after the fact when I notice the switch was wrapping around hitting I (sic) thigh” [...] “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!"
And in a later message: “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.”
When the child returned to Minnesota, his mother took him to a doctor who contacted child protective services.
An attorney for Adrian Peterson issued a predictable statement explaining that Peterson never intended to harm his child, adding that Peterson used the same discipline that was used with Peterson during his own childhood.
Photos of the child's injuries leave no question that Peterson crossed the line into abuse. And whether or not a parent realizes that their actions constitute abuse is irrelevant to determining abuse, so the charges seem entirely appropriate in this case. Yet in judging Peterson or any parent on a moral level, I would also take their personal experience and understanding of discipline into account, at least somewhat.
I'm not talking here about parents or guardians who tie up children and beat them, chain them, break bones or starve them. I see whipping with a switch differently from these other forms of abuse.
Whipping with a switch was, for a long time, a common and accepted practice in the US, and it's still an accepted practice in some social subgroups. Some people sincerely believe that it represents appropriate--even good discipline--because it's what they experienced personally as children and because they don't appreciate the damage it can cause to a child. I'd also go so far as to say that there are plenty of forms of emotional abuse that could do as much if not more lasting harm to a child, while putting a parent at absolutely no risk for child abuse charges.
I don't mean to single out Alec Baldwin for scorn. I'm just trying to make a point about how we judge abusive behavior. And it isn't just physical violence or vicious words that can be abusive. There are other ways to do substantial psychological harm to a child. For example, while some don't view it as abuse, I regard parental alienation as a form of abusive behavior because of the danger it poses to a child's healthy emotional development. Still, my view in these situations is that the parents need help, and they may be in need of court ordered help. It is not my inclination to employ punishment of the parent as a first response, despite my view that such behavior is abusive and destructive to the child.
Returning now to Peterson, I'm not being an apologist for physical child abuse. In fact, I'm opposed to all corporal punishment of children. I don't believe in spanking. Period. But the psychologist in me distinguishes between criminal sadistic or rageful violence and criminality due to ignorance about discipline.
If Peterson is found guilty or pleads guilty, a period of supervised visitation, parenting education and a fine could be appropriate contingent upon a recommendations in a psych evaluation. The sentence should be rehabilitative rather than vengefully punitive. The latter would convey exactly the wrong message to a parent whose discipline crosses the line through ignorance. I also don't think Peterson should permanently lose his professional livelihood, which may happen because the charges have emerged in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal. Little doubt that the NFL leadership doesn't want to be accused again of going soft on criminally violent behavior, at least not in the near future.
I know I could have gone the safe route in this post, morally condemning Peterson as a horrible person who deserves our limitless scorn, but that really would have been dishonest on my part. I'd be ignoring what I know as a clinician who appreciates how challenging parenting can be for some well-meaning parents who need education and therapeutic intervention to help them parent more humanely and effectively. These goals are definitely in the best interests of the child.