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To spank or not spank? Answer depends on who you are, where you live and if your parents did

Kelly Wallace | 9/16/2014, 8:38 a.m.
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has led to a robust debate about whether hitting, ...
A child is spanked in Germany circa 1935 (Photo credit/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R79742 / CC-BY-SA)

— The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has led to a robust debate about whether hitting, spanking or any other form of corporal punishment is justified and effective in dealing with children.

It has also revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using any kind of physical force to try to teach kids right from wrong.

Peterson, through his attorney, has admitted disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch -- taking an approach to discipline along the lines of what "he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas," said the attorney, Rusty Hardin.

In a written statement Monday posted on his Twitter feed, the star running back for the Minnesota Vikings touted his parents' approach as one of the reasons he has reached the professional heights he has.

"Deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives," he wrote.

"I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man."

Children who are spanked or given other physical punishments like Peterson apparently was when he was a kid are more likely to spank their own kids, said Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has been studying corporal punishment for 15 years.

"We call that intergenerational transmission because our parents are one of our main examples of how to parent," said Gershoff, known as one of the leading researchers on spanking. "So parents do what parents did to them and that's what Adrian Peterson is saying."

Gershoff, who has done a systematic analysis of the hundreds of studies exploring the effects of corporal punishment, said the research shows that spanking is more common among African Americans than among other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, including whites, Latinos and Asian Americans.

"There are people who say it might be a legacy of slavery, which is a very sad thing to think about but it's possible that having lived for centuries with a culture of violence being kind of (used) against them that they kind of keep it going unfortunately."

Parenting advocate Asadah Kirkland, author of the anti-spanking book "Beating Black Kids," also points to a belief held by some African Americans that using physical force to discipline children helps to protect them from the violence of the wider world.

She calls it "The Beloved Syndrome," referring to a movie about slavery starring Oprah Winfrey.

"If you remember the movie, Oprah Winfrey actually kills her children because she saw the slave master coming and instead of letting him get them, she ended up killing her own children," she said. "That's drastic but it comes from that mentality, but it's not real. It's a myth."

Kirkland, who gives workshops to African Americans encouraging them not to discipline with their hands, said the thinking is that if you beat your children, they will be more prepared for any potential "beating up" they'll face in life.