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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

My mother was a child abuser. I was, too. In fact, growing up, pretty much every parent I knew abused their kids.

Or so many of Adrian Peterson’s critics would have you believe. Peterson, a star of the Minnesota Vikings, was arrested recently for child abuse after hitting his 4-year-old son with a switch. A “switch,” for those who don’t know, is a long twig. I should know, having been on the receiving end of quite a few. When no switch was available, mom was also known to employ a section of the orange plastic track from my Hot Wheels.

Admittedly, a few of the “child abusers” I knew were bad and neglectful parents back in that era before “parent” was a verb, but most were caring and attentive people who scraped and sacrificed so their kids might have better than they themselves ever did. My own mother — you may take my word for this — was the best mother in the history of mothering, fixer of scrapes, keeper of confidences, stretcher of dollars, listener of prayers, critic of a certain budding writer’s earliest work. And, yes, a spanker of behinds when the owners of said behinds got too outrageously out of line.

I don’t write any of this in defense of Peterson, by the way; I have no idea of the severity of the punishment he gave his child. No, I’m just here to express the sense of dislocation, of sheer, unadulterated “Huh?!?” that comes with hearing that the best mother in the history of mothering was a child abuser. But Peterson’s critics have been very clear.

“Spanking isn’t parenting; it’s child abuse,” goes a headline on CNN’s website.

“Violence is violence,” argues a piece on Bleacher Report.

Sorry, but that’s going to be a hard sell for me — and for the three other people my mom raised successfully, and essentially alone, in the gang- and poverty-ridden slums of Los Angeles. But then, the idealized model of modern mothering now resembles less her example than it does that of a woman I once saw pleading with a child to behave. The child in question, a boy of about four, was frolicking barefoot through the ice cream cooler in the supermarket.

Never raising her voice, his mom reasoned with him. He giggled.

She cajoled him. He ignored her.

She threatened him with a “time out.” He didn’t even look her way.

He was still tiptoeing through the Ben & Jerry’s and she was still begging him not to, as I left the store. This was maybe 25 years ago and I find myself wondering: If she couldn’t stop a 4-year-old from strolling through the ice cream cooler, what in the world did she do when that same child was 13 and ditching school, 14 and using drugs, 15 and getting horizontal with some little girl in his class?

I don’t believe in spanking reflexively. Not every offense merits it. Indeed, most don’t.

I don’t believe in spanking to excess. The idea is to sting, not hurt.

I don’t believe in spanking in anger. Anger leads to loss of control.

And no, I don’t believe all spanking is abuse. A 2001 study by Dr. Diana Baumrind — a psychologist who opposes spanking — found that mild to moderate corporal punishment causes no lasting harm.

Here’s what I do believe. A parent must be loving, accessible, involved, but also an authority figure, the one who sets limits, and imposes real and painful consequences for kids who flout them.

Otherwise, you risk sending into the world something we already have in excess — children poisoned by “self-esteem,” walking in serene self-entitlement, convinced the sun shines for them alone. Such children are invariably brought up short. The universe is a rough teacher and its lessons sting worse than any spanking you could get. The worst thing you can do is send your offspring into that classroom unprepared.

Speaking of child abuse.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

AFP Photo/Dilip Vishwanat

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  • pisces63

    NPR/Ideastream ran this same type program last week. There were pros and cons to corporal punishment. My parents are Louisiana born and raised by parents who believed in it. They believed in it and my husband and I did with our kids. Not beating. My mom used the switch and she NEVER hit us in anger but will tell us in her very soft southern voice, I will remember that. It may build up to two or three egregious incidents and then it’s get the switch and it was on. My dad thought it unseeming to punish his daughters unless pushed and that mean you pushed HARD. His was to swat on a well clothed behind, usually once. They brooked no insolence in public. Shopping. restaurants. Church. No you won’t. Same for us. You show out on us in public, we will show out on you. That ice cream thing? he would have been a frozen custard, himself. Time out? Hah!! I thought that was a joke. Do it. Don’t do it, or else. I never repeat my self, either. I never beg someone I carried in my womb. That ‘testing the bounderies” is crap, also. We drew the boundaries in the sand, test them at your own risk. I do not bribe as one woman on the panel said to do. Be good and you get a treat!! Sit still mommy is speaking to the visitor and you can have a peach. Are you kidding me? Sit still or i will make you while i am either on the phone or dealing with a visitor, not family. Repairman. You will behave for no other reason but I told you to. They knew how to act in public, restaurants, libraries, movies which i started taking them to at 3 years old. We are big movie buffs. Now my grandchildren with whom i am in the same household with their parents. My youngest just started kindegarten. She did not want to go to school. She told her mom, she wanted to stay with her daddy who works second shift and her 8 year old sister can teach her. She could, too. She has already taught her 6 year old sister math and she just started 1st grade. This youngest does not want to do her work and i am annoyed they have ‘packets’ of homework in kdg. Really!! Well, she would not do it. She totally, absolutely refused. Her mother brought her to me. I looked at her and told her to do her homework and i would help if needed. She burst out crying and said i can’t do it which was a bold faced lie. She had been reading and writing since three, taught by her now 12 year old brother and that 8 year old sister. I told her to close her mouth and do the work. She looked at the ceiling, the floor, dried her crocodile tears and started humming one of her favorite Maroon 5 songs. She is a little thing with this soft , high voice and she loves to sing. Yet I turned her around, swatted her on the behind twice and she finished the packett which she’d had all week and was supposed to just do a little an evening, plus her class work had been added because she refused to do that because her teacher yelled at them for NOTHING!! By the time she finished she was singing Katy Perry, Roar. Joined her sisters and played with their My little ponies. I gave her a hug and told her how wonderful she is. It is tempered with love. Being there. Seeing that they have everything they need. Enjoying their company. Taking them on vacations, zoos, movies, restaurants, stage plays. Just loving them to death. My three are all college grads, including my son who has no record, does not drugs, does not sag or speak stupid. In fact people ask if we were raised in suburbia and i say no, black neighborhoods. They tell us we sound white. I thank them, wholeheartedly and they get offended.

  • Ben Stevens

    The number and severity of the strikes the child received indicates the issuer was in a fit of rage and surely not controlled discipline. Any degree of control at all would not have left such evidence behind. In my opinion, hitting a child at all represents abuse, and reaching for a weapon in preparation shows intent and malice.

  • Billie

    I was the victim of the elm tree switch which I had to go and get myself. It was very few times but it did leave marks. My mother did it. My dad would not touch us. I guess that was the way that she was disciplined. i can tell you though that it will either make you very willful or easily intimidated. I hate controversy of any kind and will usually give in to any argument. She would not accept any side of an argument but her own. ON the other hand she was very well respected among friends and neighbors.

  • gmccpa

    Obviously, many of us grew up in different time. We fall back on our experiences. And we survived things that we would no longer accept. I’m not sure that makes a good argument for ANYTHING. For example.

    We didn’t have car seats (or even seat belts) when I was a kid……and I’m OK.
    My parents smoked in that same car…..and I’m Ok
    We’d leave friends and relatives’ houses, and my dad would have “one for the road”…..and I’m OK.
    On hot days, our sports coaches would deprive of us water during practice…..and I’m OK.
    I’d walk alone to school at 6 y/o….and I’m OK.

    These are just a few. I could go on….and on. And could easily apply the same to the changed racial standards. ie “In my day… separate bathrooms, schools, etc” But, just because something was done a certain way in the past, it’s no excuse. We cannot fall back on the ‘my parents did it to me’ to define the acceptable. And while some form of spanking may not be damaging….taking any kind of tool….be it a switch, belt, stick, etc….should not be tolerated in our society. Under any circumstances.

    • latebloomingrandma

      You give a good argument for how times have changed. Any of us over 60 would have many examples. It is a different world and we need to “evolve” accordingly. . Mr. Pitts does provide some perspective, though. My opinion is that a smack on the fanny is not abusive, but hitting with a switch, inflicting marks on the body and even private parts of a 4 year old is way over the line. That just showed the parent’s anger, rather than inflicting a punishment designed to have the child change a behavior.

  • sigrid28

    The fault in spanking is if it is the only thing. My primary school-aged child was autistic in France in a time–maybe even now–when teachers and parents believed in spanking. In Pre-K, he could read the French newspaper from which the other kids were cutting out capital letters to spell one word, but he shook the book cases until they tipped over, and pulled all of the paper towels out of the dispenser. When spanking did not work, then they expelled him from the class and let him spend time in the playground alone. He told me he took a nap on a big leaf. They told me when he climbed to the top of the broken merry-go-round, they had had to send another child up to get him down. We had to take him out of the school in the end, because they refused to lock the gates to the playground, and the river was a block from the school. The child psychiatrists at the time offered to put him in the hospital ward for three weeks to evaluate him, and after that he would go to a special school, full of well-trained caregivers but without any academic criteria. Back in the U.S., my son was saved by a therapeutic day school where the children were seated carefully, so as not to invite problems; teachers put the children in a safety-equipped time-out room with a trained special ed assistant teacher watching over them: one minute of time-out for each year of age of the child, and no more. Everyday the child brought home academic work and an elaborate chart showing good behavior and goals where problems needed work. At home, we parents–so grateful for this expert care of our children–tried to do the same. We were adapting time-out done properly and 1-2-3 discipline, which most parents know chapter and verse. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes is didn’t. Some schools worked and some failed miserably, so we had to go to home school. A successful student with an autism spectrum disorder was driven out of my son’s high school because other parents did not want him to be valedictorian. Now, he was graduated college summa cum laude, is handling life skills remarkably well, and has a part-time job as a customer service rep for people bundling television, Internet, and phone. We parents who have children on the spectrum–who raised them without spanking or beating them with a switch, which often has no effect on them whatsoever–find it hard to believe that parents of neurotypical children must resort to these tactics to get good results.

    My experience with French practices demonstrated the failure of corporal punishment or extreme shunning in disciplining my child, so I did not have to cope with feeling the shame some parents feel when they spank their children. I don’t know what I would have done if spanking or shunning had worked, and I needed to do them on a daily basis. But I do know that there are many other means of helping ANY child with self-control and empowering parents when children need them to step up. For the one in 68 children born today who will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, skillful teaching and parenting is the answer: time-outs, 1-2-3 Magic, ABA (applied behavioral analysis), helpful routines and effective rewards for adhering to them, and organizing the environment to suit the needs of the child would be much more effective than spanking and shunning, as teachers and parents did in France.

  • tdm3624

    Agreed Mr. Pitts! Nice article, thank you.

  • CLWarren

    Sorry, Mr. Pitts. I agree with most of your writings but strongly disagree here. First of all for the Peterson matter, I have read that he stuffed leaves from the branch used as a switch into the 4 year old’s mouth before hitting him across the face and then with the switch more than 20 times, leaving lacerations over the little boy’s upper thighs and private areas. If that is not abuse by any standard then I do not know what is. (The pictures are online). Second, violence teaches violence. How do we teach children that the way to resolve conflict is not through violence when we use violence to control their behavior? As a former counselor to domestic violence victims, I assure you that children learn this behavior at home and the cycle of violence continues as they grow up. Additionally, studies show that physical punishment teaches children one thing: to avoid certain behaviors when they believe they will be physically punished. But guess what else they learn? That when they KNOW they will escape punishment and are unlikely to be caught, they will pursue their wayward behavior without a true moral compass. Discipline, after all, means “teaching”. What lesson do you think Peterson’s son learned from his punishment? Studies also show that children who are physically disciplined are far less likely to own up to their own misdeeds, refusing to take responsibility even in the face of evidence pointing to their guilt. Why not lie when the truth will result in physical pain and punishment? Prisons are filled with violent offenders whose lessons began at home.

  • Whatmeworry

    I was astounded that a black parent was capable of disciplining their kids. They usually shoo them out at 8 am and tell them to be home by 4 am

    • WhutHeSaid

      Funny, that’s the same thing that your wife told me she does with you. I like it when you wander around outside your trailer park — she always calls.

  • wjca

    Part of the problem in this discussion is the wide variation in what people mean by “spanking.” For some, it means a few smacks on the butt with an open palm — and nothing beyond that. Yet I have read comments on the subject where it was clear that the writer’s definition included beatings on the legs, or even the face, with a switch (your definition), and yet others whose definition included any beating which did not break bones. So any meaningful discussion is going to have to have to start with defining what we are talking about.

    I share your abhorance of those parents who apparently have abandon their responsibility to discipline their children at all. I really wonder what kept the mother you write of from simply picking up her child and lifting him out of the freezer? (Or would that much physical contact during discipline constitute “abuse” or something?)

    And I have some friends whose 3 year old daughter adopted the practice of going around and kicking everybody in the shins. They kept trying the “just say no” approach — with entirely predictable lack of effect. I finally, in dispair, snagged the kid, turned her over my knee, gave her 2 smacks, set her back down, and repeated “Don’t kick people.” The parents were, apparently, in shock. But they eventually got over it. And the kicking stopped. Today, their daughter is a delightful 6th grader. And, rather to my amusement, the whole family has taken up Tae Kwan Do — kicking under supervised conditions. Hmmm….