On the late afternoon of Sept. 12, the Twitter world ignited, lighting up like Las Vegas on the weekend of an Ali fight. There was one question that continued to flood those feeds: “What is a switch?”
This surfaced because Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child, his 4-year-old son. Peterson is out of football indefinitely and has been placed on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list. His legal team is pushing for a trial date this year.
Peterson, 29, said he beat his son with a “switch,” which is something I am familiar with.
A switch is not a tree branch, it is a thinner part of a tree branch. In past generations, children were forced to retrieve the switch for their discipline. Part of the psychological aspect of the punishment was the parent, guardian, or family member sending the child out to pick the weapon that would cause them such discomfort; the punishment likely would be worse if the child returned with a flimsy switch, forcing the adult to find a suitable one.
After seeing photos of Peterson’s son following the spanking, I think it was borderline child abuse. I haven’t heard of too many 4-year-olds in my youth being beaten with a switch. That type of discipline was usually reserved for a more rambunctious age, but there is obviously a cultural difference between those who have never heard of punishment by switch and those who have.
These differences also might be racially divided and separated by class. I was never whipped with a switch, but I heard enough stories from family members and friends that I understood the practice.
Peterson sent text messages practically bragging about disciplining his son and the manner in which he inflicted the pain.
What was surprising is Peterson doesn’t come from a generation of switch victims. The punishment of Peterson’s generation is generally timeouts, getting grounded, or denial of luxuries such as cellphones and iPads.
Peterson’s actions and comments are indicative of someone who faced corporal punishment himself as a child. And the question parents ask is whether they should subject their child to the same discipline they received, or have we advanced from the days of belts, extension cords, rulers, and switches?
“A lot of times [people like Peterson] were products of homes that were not healthy,” said Peniel Joseph, a history professor at Tufts University. “A lot of times they come from dysfunctional homes and they have reproduced the pattern. To protect our families at times, we have inadvertently caused some damage. Hopefully we can start undoing and untangling that.”
Although many in mainstream society were searching for the definition of a switch, there were those of us who knew exactly what Peterson used — as well as perhaps his mentality and motivation. There needs to be a better understanding of the cultural difference between those who perhaps were reared differently than most, and some of those play in the NFL.
We have seen both sides of discipline: the parent who puts their arm around a misbehaving child or the parent chasing his or her child around a store.
“These are just indications that there is a big cultural divide on what officially people might call corporal punishment,” said Dr. Todd Boyd, Southern California professor of cinematic arts and noted social commentator. “[If] there’s certainly an issue of domestic abuse, of child abuse, these are serious issues that need to be addressed. [The genesis of a switch] was an idea, in most cases, to instill a certain understanding that what their parents were doing for them was in the interest of keeping something far worse from happening to them at the hands of the police, for instance. These are some of the reasons people would say why they were doing it.”
Is Peterson a child abuser? That’s uncertain, but what is certain is the philosophical divide that causes some to judge too quickly, especially when they haven’t been exposed to other cultures or races.
The job of educating mainstream society is too big for even the NFL.
“It is strange to me that people are trying to get the NFL to change these things when the focus should be on the laws and other such things in society,” Boyd said. “The NFL is in the business of providing entertainment. They don’t have any expertise in these issues. That’s not what they do. If people want to change these things, the place to have that conversation is not the NFL. As ridiculous as it is to ask Marvel Comics to legislate, this is equally ridiculous to ask the NFL.”
The question is not whether Peterson should deserve to care for his kids again; it is whether he disciplined his child fueled by tradition, ignorance, or both. There were plenty of folks, like me, who didn’t have to research the term “switch.” There are plenty of folks, like me, who received whippings that in today’s society may have been viewed as borderline abuse.
And there are plenty of us who appreciate the efforts of our parents and their desire to ensure we cooperated and were model citizens. Yet we would not inflict the same punishment on our own children. We’ve grown. We’ve learned and we’ve experienced.
Some of us tell stories of past spankings with pride and glee, as if to express gratification that we survived such discipline, holding on to those childhood memories because in reflection, we clearly see the purpose of those punishments.
Hopefully Peterson understands that the old school is old. Those days are gone and in some ways, thankfully. But perhaps this incident will teach us that not everyone grew up the same and perhaps therapy and education are the best way to deal with Peterson’s fate and future.
• Derrick Jackson: Adrian Peterson an outlier of American parenting
• The Word: Why we call it ‘whooping,’ not child abuse
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.