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Adrian Peterson, Culture, and Why Wrong is Still Wrong

Corporal punishment is wrong. Brutal corporal punishment of the kind Adrian Peterson is suspected of wielding against a 4 year-old child is both wrong and thankfully illegal.

But what about cultural norms- like the one espoused by Charles Barkley recently- that claim acceptance for ‘whipping,’ and imply that an unfair standard could be wielded against a traditionally oppressed minority? The answer is that those concerns are understandable. But ultimately they are excuses. And cultural excuses do not legally or morally excuse child abuse.

I was spanked (and occasionally, although rarely, worse). It was the wrong thing to do. I hold no resentment against my parents for it; they were doing the best they could with the resources and insight they had at the time. They have been honorable, loving and supportive otherwise, and gave us the tools we needed to navigate life in a largely healthy and successful manner. But the fact remains: Hitting us was unnecessary, and ultimately did more harm than good.

I have friends who remain conflicted about the value of spanking (either in terms of how it influenced them or how it might be appropriate for their children). One concern I hear is that the choice to spank could lead them to be considered ‘criminals.’ Or, if they were spanked, that their parents- most of whom were loving and decent otherwise- could be considered ‘criminal’ in retrospect.

But the issue is not a legal one when it comes to spanking within limits. This remains lawful in all states and will likely continue as such. The ‘limits’ are usually that visible marks may not be left. Generally, you can cause pain or discomfort with a hand or an object such as a paddle, but you cannot significantly bruise or scar your child.

Many of us had parents who did bruise or scar us, though. Often, they were decent, loving parents in every other important respect. But if they exceeded the limits of what is criminal today, they were dreadfully wrong, period. Of course they’re not in danger of criminal liability in most cases, and in most cases they shouldn’t be. But we can still acknowledge their failings, albeit in the context of a very different life. For those of us who were spanked within legal limits, in a planned, non-angry context (the ‘gold standard’ for corporal punishment), we can be confident and thankful that we were, in all likelihood, not deeply or permanently harmed by the experience.

Regardless, that experience is not necessary. And the risks outweigh the benefits.

The bottom line seems to be that there is conflicting evidence on whether spanking is hurtful and leads to more aggression, anger, dysfunction, etc. But I know of no evidence suggesting that hitting children has measurably positive outcomes, particularly in light of the physical and psychological risks (my mentor Victor Vieth wrote a great law review article on the subject).

What lingers in distinct cultural and groups and minorities, of course, is this uncomfortable notion: A form of discipline that many among them have practiced for ages will now be criminalized by the majority population. Particularly since that majority lacks a pattern of respect and fair-dealing with the minority, this is understandable. To some in minority communities (many of which are disadvantaged and disenfranchised), the threat of a powerful and moneyed majority seeking to criminalize them further for what’s always been done strikes them as unseemly, to say the least. There are also members of strict religious communities who cite scripture in support of hitting children. They, too, will understandably be concerned about a secular majority imposing its views on them despite what they believe is God-ordained.

I don’t blame either group one bit.

But still, hitting children is wrong. Objectively and essentially so. In extreme forms, like the one doled out to a toddler by Peterson, it’s rightfully condemned and legally prohibited. In mild forms, it will likely not be criminalized in the U.S. for a long time, if ever. But either way, it should be condemned and phased out permanently, regardless of cultural identity or religious imperative. The reason is simple: There is one thing which must trump cultural or religious sentiment- the welfare of individual children.