Adrian Peterson, the NFL running back, has been indicted for injuring his 4-year-old son. According to sources in law enforcement, Peterson used a tree branch to discipline the boy, leaving cuts and bruises. Peterson’s lawyer says his client meant no harm. “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son,” says the attorney. “He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas.”
Of course he did. I know all about Peterson’s world. I grew up in East Texas, about 40 miles from where he struck his son. I was never hit with what Peterson calls a “switch.” My parents didn’t believe in corporal punishment. But the public schools did. That’s where I was paddled.
My public elementary school began every day with a Christian prayer over the loudspeaker. By sixth grade, kids were getting paddled.
I can tell you what kids learn from being hit. They learn about hitting, and about you.
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I wasn’t paddled until junior high. I stood, as instructed, with my hands against a desk in the principal’s office. I don’t remember what I was hit with, how many times, or whether the principal did the deed. I wasn’t looking.
When somebody’s hitting you, what you think about is being hit. And that’s what you remember afterward. Every child absorbs this differently. Some kids think they deserve it. (Presumably this includes the boys who made paddles in wood shop.) Others get upset. Others, like me, feel nothing but contempt. But all of us think about the hitting. We remember the punishment, not the crime.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has looked at research on child development, or who has reflected on parental experience. You start out thinking that you’re going to teach your child a lesson. You talk, or you gesture, or you spank, or you withhold. You’re trying to convey a message. But your kid doesn’t focus on the message. He focuses on you. What he experiences is the talking, the gesturing, the spanking, or the withholding. That’s what he learns. You’re not an instructor. You’re a model.
Study after study documents this pattern. It suffuses every interaction between adults and children: love, cooperation, exploitation, violence. The strongest predictor of whether a child thinks it’s OK to hit kids, and whether he'll grow up to do so, is how often he’s been disciplined that way. Light spanking isn’t as bad as wielding a tree branch. But it’s part of the continuum. Researchers call this the “hidden curriculum”: Corporal punishment teaches itself.
Peterson isn’t a monster. Nor are the millions of parents who spank their children every day. Raising kids can be frustrating. You try so hard to make them behave, but they just don’t listen. You hope a spanking will get their attention, and it does. But they’re not listening to your words. They’re listening to the switch, or the belt, or the sting of your palm. With every blow, you’re losing contact. Remember that the next time you raise your hand.