Commentary: U.S. must ban corporal punishment

Commentary: U.S. must ban corporal punishment

The reaction — from outrage to outright support — to the news involving Minnesota Vikings football player Adrian Peterson says a lot about how we, as a society, view our children.

In September, Peterson was indicted for using a “switch” to discipline his 4-year-old, reportedly raising welts on the boy’s legs, buttocks and scrotum. At the time, Peterson indicated it was the way he was disciplined as a child.

His perspective is not unique. Surveys show that 70 to 90 percent of Americans believe physical punishment is an acceptable form of discipline. Is it? And is physical discipline the same as physical abuse?

Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under the treaty, member nations agree to “protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse ... while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person.” To date, every U.N. member country but three — Somalia, South Sudan and the United States — has ratified the treaty.

There is little research that shows spanking, hitting or slapping a child actually improves behavior. In fact, a growing body of evidence connects physical abuse of a child to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and behaviors that may lead to chronic psychiatric difficulties, including violent or criminal behavior, in adolescence and adulthood.

Granted, physical discipline and physical abuse are not necessarily the same. Slapping a child’s hand away from a hot stove to prevent injury isn’t the same as intentionally burning a child’s hand to “teach a lesson.”

While “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is ingrained in the American culture, hitting or physically disciplining children does little other than to teach them that it is OK to react aggressively when upset or frustrated. Spanking a 3-year-old — something nearly half of American parents admit doing — teaches that behavior to the child. Children who are spanked at age 3 exhibit increased risk for higher levels of aggression and developmental delays in their vocabulary scores just two years later.

The line between discipline and abuse is not as blurry as you might think. Too often, that line is crossed with tragic results. In 2012, more than 124,000 children were victims of reported physical abuse. Nearly 600 of those children died.

The United States could starkly illuminate that blurry line by ratifying the U.N. treaty and by joining more than 30 other countries that have outlawed corporal punishment.

Until the 1960s, we didn’t encourage women to have prenatal checks. It was the 1970s before we mandated that children ride in car seats. In the 1980s, we began requiring bicycle helmets for children, and in the 1990s we learned to put infants on their backs to sleep.

We took these steps to keep our children safe because we learned that by not doing so, our children could be harmed and even die. Perhaps it is time to make a similar change in how we discipline our children.

That change won’t mean judging families on how they have parented in the past. Most families do the best they can to parent their children and keep them safe. To overcome the cycle of violence that has often been handed down for generations, families need support and access to programs that teach noncoercive, nonviolent strategies for disciplining and teaching children. Those programs, including one developed at the CARES Institute, already exist here in South Jersey and around the United States.

Adrian Peterson has publicly stated he won’t ever again use a switch to punish his children. It’s a lesson he learned too late in life, but one we can start teaching our children today.

Melissa Runyon, Ph.D., is the treatment services director at the Child Abuse Research, Education and Service Institute of the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.

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Date Published: Tuesday, December 9, 2014 - 17:30
Source URL: Courier-Post