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Corporal Punishment At Home And At School

Adrian Peterson on the field, without a helmet
Adrian Peterson. Photo by Joe Bielawa

If Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson happened to have been a teacher, rather than a parent, in Montgomery County, Texas, there is almost no chance he would have been prosecuted.

That’s because Texas is one of 19 states in which corporal punishment is permitted in schools.

Peterson was released on bond last Saturday after a grand jury indicted him for injury to a child due to his alleged use of a “switch” to spank his young son. He now faces felony charges, and he released an official statement expressing remorse this week.

Yet teachers and principals in Texas, and in other states with similar laws, have the right to administer legalized beatings to small people. Acting as judge, jury and executioner, as it were, teachers can use wooden paddles or rulers to mete out such punishment for both discipline and deterrence.

That sounds a lot like the arguments in favor of the death penalty. And it’s not a coincidence that the states that allow teachers this leeway are largely the same ones that still put adult convicts to death.

But when Peterson allegedly crossed a line using what he called a switch (a traditional name for a stick stripped of twigs and leaves used to administer a spanking or a beating) to spank his 4-year-old boy, he may have committed a felony. If something seems amiss here, it should.

I am not in any way trying to justify Peterson’s behavior. He was a 217-pound football player administering a beating to a small child and calling it justice. It was anything but.

The law sends a mixed message. We ritualize violence and actually do call it justice. Then we wonder why some people don’t get the message that it not okay to strike a child, or a romantic partner or spouse. Funny how violent punishment is seldom inflicted, however, on anyone bigger than the punishers - unless the punishers have weapons or the force of law behind them.

When I was 6 years old, my mother once used her slipper across to my rear end to discipline me. She was beside herself with worry because I had gone to a friend’s house after school without telling her where I would be. When she found out I was safe, she was so overcome with relief that she broke her slipper on my backside. The footwear got the worst of it, and no one at the time would have called it child abuse.

But it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

Violence is not a necessary component of child-rearing. Information from the Network of Care in Montgomery County, Texas, points out that “Corporal punishment is not an effective method of managing behavior,” and that “At best, corporal punishment has only a temporary effect on behavior.” Overall, corporal punishment does more harm than good. Arguments that there are no effective alternatives ring hollow.

Violence is not a necessary component of justice, either. Many countries, from Canada to Poland, have recognized this. Those that have outlawed physical discipline in the home have universally outlawed it in schools too, and there is broad overlap between countries that have outlawed violence as a penalty for children and those that have abandoned the death penalty for adults.

We are trying hard to stamp out domestic violence, but we are ultimately aiming in the wrong place. We should be trying to stamp out violence of all sorts, beginning with that administered by authority figures seeking to assert their power. When we institute and enforce a cultural shift that makes it clear violence is an unacceptable means of addressing a problem, it will be infinitely easier to isolate, stigmatize and punish those who use violence against those closest to them.

Maybe when principals in Texas give up the right to use the paddle and the ruler for discipline, we can convince parents there to abandon the switch.

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