As he faces charges that he abused his child by hitting him with a denuded tree branch (also known as a switch), Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has told the media and the police that he never meant to hurt his son. He was disciplining him the way he was disciplined as a child.
“…(D)eep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives,” Peterson said in a statement posted online. “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”
It seems a convincing case for corporal punishment. Of course, Peterson and others who believe that they were helped—not hurt—by such punishment have no control group. They don’t know how it would have come out had other disciplinary measures been employed. And while 70 percent of Americans believe that corporal punishment is sometimes necessary, most child development experts say hitting kids can hurt them physically and psychologically. Worst of all, repeated spanking could lower a child’s IQ.
Murray Straus, Ph.D., co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, discovered in a wide-ranging study that children who are spanked have lower IQs than those who were not. Not all children wind up with lower IQ scores, he said, but many do. And the more frequent the spanking, the greater the damage to the child’s IQ. His study showed that the IQs of children aged two to four who were not spanked were five points higher four years later than the IQs of those who were.
Another study by Canadian researchers demonstrated more reasons to avoid spanking: Children who are physically disciplined are more likely to experience depression, aggression, anxiety, and are more likely to use alcohol or drugs.
Straus says it’s hard to convince people of the reality of these studies because so many of us were hit by our own parents and see no danger. “We turned out OK,” they reason.
“Most people who were spanked don’t beat up their partners and kids and don’t commit crimes,” Straus says. “When people say this, they are telling the truth, but the implication that there is no harm to spanking is false. I smoked for 20 years and I didn’t get lung cancer. It doesn’t mean that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. It just means I was one of the lucky ones.”
Many parents find that when they spank a child, it gets the child to stop misbehaving. Straus says that’s true. “It does teach them. It does work, and I hate to admit that since I’m morally against spanking, but what the research shows is that it works only in the immediate situation…In the long run, it increases the possibility of misbehavior and it increases the possibility that as an adult, the spanked child will commit crime and violence. It doesn’t mean the child will do those things, but it increases the possibility.”
One of the reasons spanking seems to work, Straus adds, is that parents do it repeatedly, and what kids need more than anything else is a parent who is paying attention to them. The most harmful parent is one who neglects his or her child. “Kids need correction,” he says. “Part of the reason kids who are spanked a lot grow up to be decent people is not because of the spanking, but because people are tending to their misbehavior and correcting it. They grow up well almost despite the spanking.”
Straus says spanking and verbally correcting kids work about equally as well. “Any parent of a two year old will tell you that if you say ‘no, no’ to a child who is misbehaving, the child will stop, but a few minutes later will be doing the same thing again. That’s also true of spanking.” One study showed that 50 percent of kids go back to the behavior in an hour; 80 percent within a day—with either form of discipline. “Regardless of the correction, the probability of a two-year-old repeating a behavior is almost certain,” he adds.
The Best Way for Parents and Grandparents to Discipline
Parents (and grandparents) can correct misbehavior with words. And the correction is most effective, Straus says, when you offer explanation along with your correction. “Don’t touch the stove because you might burn your hand” helps a child understand why the stove is forbidden. “Don’t touch the stove/slap” helps a child understand that mom or dad might hit him.
The percentage of parents that believe that spanking is sometimes necessary has gone down from 96 percent in 1968 to 70 percent in 1995, says Straus. “But it has stayed at 70 percent ever since. That’s a big decrease, but it’s remained steady. And 70 percent means that much more than a majority continues to think that spanking is necessary,” he adds.
But even among people who think it’s OK, there is a subtle shift occurring. “When I was a kid,” Straus says, “most people believed that spanking was not only a means of correcting misbehavior, but they thought it was morally good for the child’s development. People used to say that spanking builds character. Now, many people still believe it is necessary, but something to be avoided. They think it’s best not to spank, but that sometimes you have to.”
He also notes that the frequency of spanking in America has gone way down. Thirty years ago, parents spanked their kids several times a week. They used belts and paddles and continued such punishments into a child’s teen years. Today, the frequency is more like once a week, and the use of belts or paddles has gone way down. And most parents don’t spank kids after age 12.
“Those are big changes for something that people continue to believe in,” says Straus.
Adrian Peterson had the best interest of his son in mind, Straus says. “I have no doubt, because he was taking steps to deal with the child’s bad behavior. He just took the wrong step.”
American parents need more guidance to help them change their disciplinary techniques, Straus says. “You can be a better parent if you don’t spank. And being a better parent—that’s what people are concerned about.”
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.