Tom Lynn / Reuters

What it really means to hit a child

Don’t obsess over degrees of corporal punishment for children. Just admit that inflicting physical pain is wrong

September 24, 2014 6:00AM ET

What is the difference between discipline and child abuse? Who defines that line and determines when a parent crosses it? And what does the law say?

When NFL football star Adrian Peterson was indicted on Sept. 11 for hitting his 4-year-old son with a small tree branch, or switch, as a form of discipline, those questions were thrust into the national spotlight and bathed in controversy.

Peterson, a running back for the Minnesota Vikings, has become the focus of a debate that is both national and intensely personal, particularly in African-American communities, where spanking is often considered an essential component of responsible parenting.

He appeared genuinely baffled by the legal action and resulting public outrage. In response to his indictment, he released a statement to the media, saying, “I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury. No one can understand the hurt that I feel for my son and for the harm I caused him.”

Some high-profile observers deemed the Vikings’ response — to bar Peterson from playing until the issue is resolved — an inappropriately harsh punishment. Sports commentator and former basketball superstar Charles Barkley, debating the incident on the CBS pregame show “The NFL Today” with host Jim Rome, declared that if spanking is illegal, “every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.” His sound bite, which went viral, reflected the deep attachment to corporal punishment in the black community not only in the South but nationwide.

In parsing such comments, media coverage has largely focused on when hitting a child is an acceptable form of discipline and when it is abuse. But trying to define that line — through confusing state laws — deflects from the core issue: the long-term harm that all types of corporal punishment inflict on children.

The legal line between physical discipline and child abuse varies widely from state to state, with no clear, across-the-board definition. According to the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law in Washington, D.C., some states allow spanking, paddling and switching “if administered in a reasonable manner,” whereas others (including Texas, where Peterson was charged) allow “reasonable physical force” when and to the extent believed necessary “to maintain discipline.” Other states do not “specifically prohibit corporal punishment, even where it results in an injury or serious injury to the child, as long as deadly force was not utilized.”

But how do you determine whether a child is acceptably bruised or not? In my view, you can’t. And there is no solid science to suggest that hitting children, to any extent, is good for them or for society.

Nobody would accept hitting in a loving adult relationship.

There is ample science, however, that demonstrates the long-term damage such punishment can inflict. Harvard psychiatrist Martin Teicher, who studies the effect that abuse and neglect have on children’s brain development, says that as a child grows, certain regions of the brain are particularly vulnerable to stress. 

One of the most stress-sensitive areas of the brain is the hippocampus, near the amygdala in the midbrain, which is the center for emotional management and is used for learning, storing and retrieving memories. When a child is exposed to trauma and stress (including spankings that don’t leave scars or other serious physical injuries), the hippocampus swells, which can alter a child’s normal neurological development. The effects might not be apparent for years, until after puberty.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have found that children and adults who have been subjected to child abuse and neglect have less gray matter in their brains than those who have not been maltreated. Medical professionals have consistently found a link between corporal punishment and increased aggression in children, low academic performance, vulnerability to depression and antisocial behavior.

For more than two decades, there has also been extensive research on how physical discipline, unpredictable environments and chronic stress affect children’s long-term development. Constant hollering at, belittling, threatening and hitting a child sets off biochemical responses to stress that can change the architecture of that child’s brain and lay the groundwork for a low I.Q., a quick temper, aggressive and delinquent behavior, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, an inability to regulate impulses, dysfunctional relationships and early intrusive sexual thoughts and activities.

In particular, as I’ve written before, stressful parent-child contact such as corporal punishment can overload a child’s body with certain hormones. One of those is cortisol, which helps the body prepare to fight or flee in response to danger but over time can damage a child’s brain. In girls, abuse can lead to elevated levels of oxytocin (the so-called love hormone), which causes arousal and can put them at risk for risky sexual behavior.

When these children become adults, they are likely to continue these damaging patterns as parents. To prevent this from happening, some parents — considered outliers by many of their peers — refrain from all forms of corporal punishment and instead discipline their children through nonphysical methods, such as modeling behavior for them and using positive reinforcement by rewarding good behavior rather than focusing on the bad. Each time a high-profile child abuse case hits the news, this no-violence movement and the mindset it encourages gain ground.

Nobody would accept hitting in a loving adult relationship. Similarly, we need to stop obsessing over degrees of corporal punishment for children and admit that inflicting physical pain is wrong by any definition.  

Stacey Patton, a child abuse survivor and former foster child, is the author of “That Mean Old Yesterday: A Memoir,” the creator of SpareTheKids.com and a senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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