Courage, cowardice, and corporal punishment

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It was refreshing to hear NFL Hall of Famer (and former Viking) Cris Carter’s response to Adrian Peterson’s September arrest for hitting his four-year-old son with a switch. The topic is worth revisiting with today’s news that Peterson had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and will not serve jail time, although he may face additional fines and suspensions from the NFL or the Vikings.

“My mom did the best job she could, raising seven children by herself,” Carter said, a few days after Peterson’s original arrest. “But there are thousands of things I have learned since then, and my mom was wrong. This is the 21st century. My mom was wrong. She did the best she could, but she was wrong. I promised my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what you want.”

In the U.S.A. in 2014, it’s still taboo to criticize your parents’ child-rearing methods, especially if those methods included corporal punishment. That’s why the effects of corporal punishment continue to plague us, and why a reasonable discussion of the facts rarely happens.

The jury is in on corporal punishment, and the verdict is this: It doesn’t work. What it does is make a child more likely to grow up to be a criminal, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a wife beater, or a child abuser.

Parents who received corporal punishment as children have a simple choice: side with your parents, or with your kids. If you don’t reject your parents’ methods of child-rearing, your children will never love or trust you as much as they would otherwise. If you stand up to your parents and reject corporal punishment, your relationship with your own children will be far better.

That’s why Carter’s emotional speech was so refreshing — if painful to listen to. Americans side with their parents by default. It takes courage to do what Carter did: stand up to Mom and Dad (usually Dad) and say “You were wrong.” It takes no courage at all to hit a child because your parents hit you.

Those who approve of corporal punishment (ranging from light spankings to heavy beatings with belts, switches, or extension cords) defend it this way: I’m a wonderful guy, and I was spanked/beaten/”whooped.” Therefore, the spanking/beating/whooping made me a wonderful person.” It’s called a “post hoc” fallacy — assuming that because something occurred before something else, it caused it. You might just as well argue that eating Wheaties or sleeping with a teddy bear made you who you are.

Those who oppose corporal punishment look at it this way: If you’re hitting your kids, maybe you’re not such a wonderful person after all. Millions of people raise their children without corporal punishment, and they turn out just fine.

Your good qualities developed in spite of the hitting, not because of it.

A four-year-old responds to a spanking or a beating with a poisonous cocktail of emotions: fear, mistrust, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, loneliness, self-loathing, a desire to please, and a desire to rebel.

Those last two are contradictory, but they are the two sides of the personality of an abuse victim. They learn to please because they want to escape future beatings. But they also rebel because it is often the only way to get back at the person who hurt them: to become the kind of person their abuser hates. They also have an urge to bully those who are less powerful — younger siblings, smaller kids at school — because that kind of behavior is modeled by their elders. It’s likely that Adrian Peterson’ 4-year-old was mean to his brother for that very reason.

One thing a child does not feel as a result of a spanking: love. Spanking weakens the bond between parent and child, and it forces the child to embrace a contradiction: Those who say they love us hurt us while telling us they are helping us. Many Americans are still stuck defending that contradiction, as the reactions to the Peterson story show.

Peterson, by all accounts, is one of the hardest working athletes in the world. It’s that work ethic that has made him one of the greatest running backs in history.

Adrian Peterson also has a wild streak and a lack of self-control that has led to embarrassment for him and his family. He has five to seven children with multiple partners. It has been reported that he pays child support but is an absent father for the most part. He has been arrested for driving 109 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. He once allegedly pushed a cop who tried to remove him from a nightclub. He admitted to smoking pot after being arrested on the current charges — a baffling lapse of judgment in a “good” man.

It’s possible that Peterson’s desire to win was instilled in him by role models who hit him if he was lazy or defiant. But if the “whoopings” he received really helped him, then he clearly should have received more to rid him of his more dangerous tendencies. Well-adjusted men don’t drive 109 on an urban freeway, or shove cops, or become absent fathers. In reality, the abuse Peterson received probably contributed more to his failures than his successes.

A spanking thrusts a child into a confusing maze: the one you love and rely on for everything hurts you while saying it’s “for your own good.” A small sin results in terrible pain. The punishment does not fit the crime.

Peterson’s life reflects perfectly the split personality of the abuse victim. They may seem perfect on the surface, but maintaining that appearance requires repression of the negative feelings they have from being hit for the relatively minor offenses of their childhood.

Those negative feelings usually find an outlet. Some victims will develop a secret life where they break the rules, or they may toe the line for a while and then snap one day. You wonder why so many religious people turn out to be hypocrites? Why so many who rail against immorality get caught with their pants down? In many cases, it’s because their repression of childhood trauma finally gets the best of them. They eventually give in to the rebellious instincts that originated in abuse. They flip the bird to their fathers (it’s usually the fathers) by doing the one thing Daddy hated the most. Or they feel so bad about themselves that they act like the bad person they believe they are.

The grownup’s reasoning makes no sense to the child. It takes an adult’s self-deception to claim that a beating with a switch can teach a child to be nice. Not surprisingly, religion often plays a role, as it has throughout history to justify brutality while professing love. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” (a paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24) has been used for millennia to defend corporal punishment of children. Religious apologists for corporal punishment will tell you the sinful nature of a 4-year-old only responds to a good smack, although those millions of upstanding citizens who weren’t hit may beg to differ.

Adrian Peterson thinks of himself as a man of God, as his Twitter feed shows. The day the news of his arrest came out, he posted this, which sounds like a drunken mashup of poorly-remembered Bible verses and sermons by spirit-filled TV preachers: “People understand that if you are on God’s course and suppose to have that position and man decides to remove you know that God will remove everyone to place you rightfully! You matter! Its your season! Weapons may form but won’t prosper! God has you covered don’t stress or worry!”

Peterson was arrested for felony child abuse because the 4-year-old boy was left with “extensive cuts and bruising” on his legs, buttocks, back, and scrotum. How God factored in is anybody’s guess, but it seems likely that Peterson lost control to the point where a spanking became a beating, and a “whooping” became a clear case of abuse.

This is the danger you face when you try to rationalize spanking.

Spanking and other forms of abuse are not really about getting children to behave. They are more often about a parent attempting to assert control.

For many, the repressed anger at their own parents comes out when they have children of their own. The inability to control the child leads to an irrational emotional response: impatience, frustration, anger. Suddenly, you lose it, because your lack of control over your child reminds you of your lack of control over your abuser. As you hit the child, your repressed anger comes out and you behave as if you’re hitting your abuser rather than a helpless child, or you’re hitting yourself for never living up to your father’s expectations, or you’re just hitting because you’re miserable.

Peterson came off in his grand jury testimony as reasonable, saying he talks with his kids before and after hitting them — which is apparently a routine occurrence: He estimated that he ‘swatted’ his son ’10 to 15′ times, but said he wasn’t sure because he doesn’t “ever count how many pops I give my kids.”

From Peterson’s text messages to the boy’s mother, it sounded like he had some regrets, but in his testimony he used the “post hoc” logic, saying he would never “eliminate whooping my kids . . . because I know how being spanked has helped me in my life.”

He did express a sense of limits, though: “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.” A switch, on the other hand? Not so bad, apparently.

The disconnect — an extension cord crosses the line, but a tree branch does not — is evident in the reactions of those who say Peterson “went too far.” To them, Peterson’s actions are on the unacceptable end of a continuum that stretches from “good” hitting (spankings) to bad (abuse). The obvious question, which no one wants to answer, is “Where is the line?” Telling someone they crossed the line is telling them they’re raising their children wrong — another taboo in our culture.

It’s a taboo that needs to be broken. It’s time to agree that the line is not between good hitting and bad hitting, but between hitting and not hitting. Hitting your kids is wrong. You never need to do it, and it causes more harm than it prevents. If it were really necessary, there wouldn’t be countless good people who were never hit by their parents.

Even if you have a nice heart-to-heart before and after an extensive “whooping,” as Peterson claims he did, I’m not sure if a cold and calculated beating “for your own good” is any better than a slap that comes after dad reaches the end of his rope and lashes out in frustration.

I have a vivid memory of that sort of calculated spanking — one of a handful of times my parents used corporal punishment on me. I was probably about four years old — around the age of Adrian Peterson’s son. I was playing with a boy I had just met, who taught me a game I had never learned. The game was called “Catch the n—–.”

My parents, who were liberal evangelicals (back when there was such a thing), caught me chasing after the boy, yelling “You’re the n—–! You’re the n—–!” and they took me back to my room, where they asked me if they knew what a n—– was. I said I didn’t. They said it was a bad word for a black person, and that even though I didn’t know, they were going to spank me anyway, just so I learned.

Even then, at five years old, I felt the injustice of it — which is probably why I remember it so vividly. I also knew that I didn’t need the spanking to learn. As soon as they told me what the word meant, I knew it was wrong. They had modeled that for me already, as they would continue to do throughout my childhood. On the other hand, though, they were modeling something else: that confusing contradiction that it’s okay to hit the ones you love.

I know now that my parents loved us unconditionally, but I also know that I questioned their love when I was a child. Throughout most of my youth I was lonely and afraid — of my parents and of the God they had told me about, the God who loved me but would punish me eternally if I failed to believe the right things with the right amount of “blessed assurance.” It was not unlike the spankings: punishment out of proportion to the crime.

My parents were good liberals, but they were very conservative in some ways, like their intense hatred of drinking and smoking. When I grew up and moved out, I took up both habits with a vengeance. I won’t go so far as to blame them for the choices I made, or the lost decade of my life, but I do think I would have made wiser choices if I’d had a stronger sense of unconditional love.

There was always something missing in our relationship, right up to the death of my dad in 2000 and mom last year. It may be that the spankings had something to do with the fact that I never felt particularly close to them, even after I’d forgiven them for the spankings and the damaging religious indoctrination.

A cloud hung over our early years together — the fear that I would be spanked again for what seemed a small infraction, the sadness and isolation I felt, believing that I was not good inside, even if I acted good outside. The parent-child bonds were never as close as those I saw in other families.

I believe now that my self-destructive behavior was in part a compulsion to get back at my parents by being as different from them as I could be. Fortunately my wounds were not as deep as some people’s, and my reactions not as dangerous or harmful.

I don’t tell the story to throw my parents under the bus, but to stand with Cris Carter and break the taboo by saying, “My mom and dad were wrong. They did the best they could, but they were wrong.” I also know that if they were still here they would agree that they were wrong, and they would admit it, and would probably approve of my telling this story. They were products of their time. It was the late 1960s, but they were older when they had kids, and their child-rearing philosophy was a mixture of behaviorism, Dr. Spock, and the Book of Proverbs. That doesn’t excuse what they did, but it puts it in perspective.

To paraphrase Cris Carter, though, this is the 21st century, and there are a thousand things we should’ve learned by now. I’m doubtful that we will, because of the strength of those taboos, but maybe this incident will at least start a conversation.

I feel bad for Adrian Peterson. I sincerely believe he didn’t know what he was doing — in the sense that what he was doing was weakening his bond with his child, and making it more likely that his son will inflict harm on himself or others. Peterson was a victim too and caught up in what Freud called the “repetition compulsion.” It’s a fancy term for the cycle of violence. We tend to treat our spouses as our parents treated each other, and we tend to treat our children as we were treated.

Ray Rice, violent cops, abusers of all descriptions — most of them were victims of corporal punishment and were compelled to respond with violence to their lack of control. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but it puts them in perspective, and it makes it clear that our society will never grow up until we face the reality that corporal punishment not only doesn’t work, but harms countless people in countless ways.

If you’re a parent who received corporal punishment, you can continue the cycle, or you can break it. Breaking it means criticizing the ones who raised you, admitting that they were wrong for hitting you. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them or forgive them, or that you don’t believe they were doing the best they could. But breaking the cycle takes courage. Continuing the cycle is the coward’s way out.

The alternative to rejecting your parents’ methods is to convince yourself that spanking isn’t that bad — or that it’s good — and to treat your kids the same way your parents treated you. Know this, though: With every blow, you are making your child less likely to do what you say. You are making your child less likely to behave in school, and on the bus, and in church, and at Grandma’s house. You are making your child more likely to rebel, and to become the kind of person you despise, because that is your child’s only way to get back at you, and because you are modeling violent reaction to problems.

Worst of all, for you anyway, you are making your child less likely to love you.

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