The Whooping Takes a Beating: Adrian Peterson and the Corporal Punishment Debate

Comic from The Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1938
Comic from The Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1938 –The Boston Globe

Late last week came the news that Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of negligent injury to his 4-year-old son. On Monday afternoon, Peterson issued an apology, setting the table for debate over a practice central to growing up as a black child in this country.

My mother is from Albany, Georgia. Her mother was a high school dietician. Her father was a steelworker. She, along with her siblings, had her share of spankings, usually doled out by my grandmother. Failure to make it home on time, acting out in school, fighting, and a host of other infractions could – and usually did – merit a beating. In the 1970s, my mother moved to Malden, where she eventually had me.

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Growing up, I got beatings every now and again. I was generally a good kid, but also one who just couldn’t resist the urge to bend the rules. My encounters with the belt came after talks and other punishments failed to deter me from whatever behavior had become an issue. None of them were long, and none of them came without a discussion as to why. My mother never took her anger out on me, and after the beatings were done, things returned to normal between us. As someone who experienced corporal punishment and learned from both my lectures and my licks, I understand the distinction. I’m not alone.

NFL veteran free agent Donté Stallworth offered his two cents. Stallworth’s words aren’t important, or right, for the reasons he intended. But he is completely correct.

Corporal punishment is as central to American parenting as graham crackers. According to research conducted by The University of Texas at Austin, 89 percent of black parents admit to spanking, paddling, beating or whooping their children at some point.

At first glance, that such a large percentage of black parents own up to corporal punishment appears to represent consensus – at least within this community – that the practice is acceptable. But whether it takes the form of a whooping or a spanking or a beating, corporal punishment is nowhere near the consensus-wielding monolith these numbers suggest. Ask a few more questions, and the lockstep breaks down into a mosh pit of opinion and nuance.

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Do you use the hand? Some say that makes it personal, while others say that children come to hate the object used, making the hand a no-go. If you decide to employ an object, which to use? Paddles, books, extension cords, switches, and belts are all common, but beyond their availability, it’s tough to get a gauge on why any are used, much less preferred. The preferences continue to break down as questions pile up. Age, number of spanks, spank-worthy offenses, and settings paint the practice as less agreed-upon, passed-down canon and more as-you-like-it rule of thumb.

The ‘why?’ for black parents, however, is a bit more concrete. In communities with increasingly scarce educational and occupational opportunities, black parents have long held themselves as the strongest – if not last – line of defense between their offspring and a life cut short, interrupted by prison, or dogged by missed chances.

The police are understandably seen as either ill-equipped or unwilling to lend proper help, instead comprising one side of an often adversarial relationship within the communities they serve. When viewed along color lines, the educational game in the United States has shown itself rigged. Black neighborhoods are breeding grounds for malaise and malcontent; black parents, likely raised on the belt, switch, or wooden spoon themselves, cling to the practice as a weapon in their arsenal of parenting techniques.

Then there are the success stories – of the kids who built impressive lives and careers in spite of enduring childhood whoopings, or because of the discipline instilled by those whoopings. Many upstanding community members who feared the switch in their formative years will present themselves as a feather in the cap of corporal punishment. Those who feared the belt and still wound up incarcerated or without opportunity see their failure chalked up to some other mitigating factor. Maybe some parents learned that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. Maybe some learned a hard head makes a soft ass. What is important is that they learned.

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On September 12, Adrian Peterson, professional freak of nature, shedder of tackles and defier of convention, was indicted on charges of negligent injury to a child. Peterson was booked, and released on $15,000 bond. The NFL deactivated him for Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots.

Peterson is alleged to have hit his own four-year-old son repeatedly with a switch, resulting in numerous injuries. The cuts and bruises to the child’s buttocks, back, legs, scrotum, and arms, were discovered by a physician back in May. Peterson explained to the child’s mother: “daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.’’ The “biggie heart’’ element of Peterson’s message appears to have been lost on Peterson’s son, who is said to have feared that “Daddy Peterson’’ would punch him in the face if he told anyone about the beating.

Celebrities, athletes, and others rushed to Peterson’s defense. Housed among the comments on social media and elsewhere were the same old retreads: that Peterson’s demise proved, once again, that the ‘wussification’ of America was in full swing. A nation that once found strength in entrusting parents to discipline their children just enough, but not too much, was now a full nanny state, arresting a parent for a parenting decision.

None of these tweets deriding the wussification of the nation included photos of the injuries to the child’s scrotum, or blood visibly seeping from the lash marks on his legs. For in the face of those photos, it would have been especially difficult to beat any of the aforementioned dead horses. Wussification and sissification are words better tweeted when you can pretend you’re not doing so at the expense of an injured and defenseless young child.

Adrian Peterson’s belief in corporal punishment as good parenting was a part of him because it was likely a part of his parents, and theirs, and theirs on back to his ancestors’ days as chattel. His tactics are offshoots of the same branch of what it means to be black as my mother clung to, and her mother, and so on.

But Peterson’s actions appear to be just over-the-top enough, just egregious enough, his child just young enough, to make it hard to say with a straight face that – if wussification means not injuring a child’s scrotum – wusses are not what we should all strive to become. It is hard, even for black parents raised under the threat of a wooden spoon, or paddle, or switch, to not pause and think about whether or not Peterson’s actions really make a whole lot of sense.

Much of the discussion around Peterson’s actions presumes two camps, two teams, two ways of looking at child-rearing. There are the coddling parents whose opposition of corporal punishment is almost hyperbolic. These are the parents who hold their misbehaving children in their arms, reminding them of just how special they are and – perhaps – if the particular behavior was bad enough, order the child to a time out, to be quickly followed by hugs and a juicebox. And then there are those who perpetuate the tradition – the parents who whoop their errant children with an assortment of household objects. These are the people who won’t stand to be wussified, who believe that a child learns from physical punishment, even if the wounds take some time to heal.

Those who oppose all forms of corporal punishment are criticized for not understanding that bad deeds need to be punished in a way that scares the child out of repeating the action. And those who support corporal punishment are criticized for a seemingly brutal practice that is – if not actually child abuse – then a close enough relative that it should be avoided at all costs.

But these two sides have more in common than not. Both share in the desire to raise well-adjusted children, equipped with the tools to succeed in the world beyond the four walls of the home. Both express great fear over the prospect of getting it wrong, and the joy they might feel if they could ever tell they’d gotten it right.

Adrian Peterson’s transgressions will not start the discussion that brings about a consensus. But his actions have exposed the deep, entrenched attitudes over what to do about a black child – or any child – with an attitude.

It is entirely rational to observe the grand total of one’s accomplishments, deem one’s self a success, and then apply the same disciplinary approach with your own children. Though the method may be controversial, the lure of leaving what seems unbroken unfixed may prove too strong. Though I may find Black, White, Hispanic and Asian folks who disagree with the conclusion that my mother’s whoopings made me into the man I am today, few would be able to argue that it wasn’t in part the whoopings that steered me exactly to the place I am today.

Or maybe I turned out well because I grasped what Adrian Peterson wished his children grasped. Maybe I hated the beatings and wished them away before, during, and after, but somehow also grasped and understood the “biggie heart’’ inside the lady holding the belt. Maybe it wasn’t the paddle, the hand, or the wooden spoon that brought me around, and taught me right from wrong. Maybe it was the speech after the beating, the tears in my mother’s eyes when my behavior fell short of her expectations, her pleas for me to change. Maybe my mother, maybe lots of mothers, and their mother’s mothers, and theirs, have just been wrong in thinking that the beatings were what did the trick.

Beatings are designed to teach a lesson that otherwise can’t be taught. The wussification comes when we’re unwilling to take a hard look at our long-held traditions and say, you know what? Maybe enough is enough. Maybe we are smarter than our grandmothers. Maybe we can be.

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