I certainly know of what cultural lineage football star Adrian Peterson came from when he admitted whipping one of his little sons badly enough to warrant a grand jury indictment for child abuse in Texas last week. I was a fully installed member of the “Welt Generation,” where just about every boy and girl I knew in my 1960s working-class neighborhood in Milwaukee got spanked with hard hands or whipped with a belt or switch.
My last one was in middle school for a transgression I no longer remember, but I recall as vividly as yesterday how I wowed my classmates in the middle-school gym showers with the purple stripes on my back inflicted with my dad’s belt.
“Whoa! Your dad tore you up!” was the refrain, which then spawned a bragging-rights contest over who had been torn up the worst and who got beat the worst for the least offense. The laughter of shared pain in the gym showers soothed the sting of my sores, as we assumed this was an utterly normal rite of passage, one where the ultimate test was whether you could claim with a straight face that you didn’t cry during the whipping.
We joked over which parents wielded the most pain-inflicting weapon. In my house, a piece of fan belt hung on the china cabinet, sliced on an end like a cat o’ nine tails. Other friends talked about how their parents investigated weeping willows, young elms, and thick hedges like Sherlock Holmes for just the right twig, stiff enough to handle, yet flexible enough to flick and cut the air with an angry whoosh of wind.
Intellectually, we now know it never was and no longer should be a joke. In modern times, a host of pediatric studies have discredited corporal punishment as ineffective at best and, at worst, a means to turn children into more aggressive and even abusive adults.
I can attest to that. Even though I vowed as a father not to inflict such pain on my sons, I still spanked them a couple times, to no obvious avail.
Among Americans, I also was not alone. Despite science, we still live in a society steeped in the biblical mythology of spare the rod and spoil the child. Even as absolutely no one justifies the domestic abuse now symbolized by football star Ray Rice’s knocking out of his fiance, an amazing percentage of the nation still justifies hitting children. A 2004 UCLA study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 64 percent of children between 19 months old and 35 months old were spanked. A 2010 Tulane study similarly found a spanking rate of 65 percent. A 2007 study led by University of Virginia researchers found that 85 percent of adolescents say they were slapped or spanked during their childhoods and 51 percent said they were whipped by their mothers with a belt.
So, as a leading researcher on the effects of spanking, Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin, told National Public Radio this week, “What Adrian Peterson did is actually not that uncommon.”
What Peterson did was so common, his team, the Minnesota Vikings, did not know what to do with him. Upon the issuing of the charges of child abuse, deactivated him for last Sunday’s game against the Patriots. But after the Patriots blew out the Vikings, Peterson was reinstated Monday by his desperate-to-win team. General manager Rick Spielman said, “He deserves to play while the legal process plays out.”
But the intellectual side of a more modern America weighed in with outrage. The Radisson hotel chain suspended its sponsorship of the Vikings. Several corporations including Nike, suspended their endorsement deals with Peterson. And Anheuser-Busch, a major NFL advertiser, said it was “disappointed and increasingly concerned” over the league’s handling of off-the-field player violence. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton weighed in, saying the Vikings should have not reinstated Peterson. “Whipping a child to the extent of visible wounds, as has been alleged, should not be tolerated in our state,” Dayton said.
The Vikings got the message. The team reversed itself Wednesday, barring Peterson from play until his court case is addressed.
Peterson, as an individual, clearly needs counseling to work out his anger problems and what are the many demons of his past: an older brother killed on his bicycle by a drunk driver; his father going to prison when Peterson was 7 years old for laundering money from crack cocaine sales; the death a year ago of one of his sons in South Dakota. He has an unspecified number of children with an unclear number of women.
But just as clearly, this incident should be perfect cause for national introspection. Peterson’s behavior is not singularly outrageous. It is an outlier of parenting styles we still strangely condone — especially strange in light of the universal outrage over Ray Rice. Peterson said in a statement that he was only disciplining his son “the way I was disciplined as a child . . . I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”
We should take that statement, and the wounds on his son, as a chance to declare once and for all that spanking a child is wrong and that whipping one into welts is indisputable child abuse.