The severity of the physical punishment Adrian Peterson administered to his four year old son is utterly unacceptable. If the photographs of Peterson’s son following the incident posted by TMZ Sports are accurate, he clearly crossed the line between acceptable corporal punishment and child abuse/endangerment. The seriousness of the incident is magnified because of what we’re learning about the enduring effects of trauma, and it would be my hope that the enhanced awareness of the impact of excessive physical punishment and multigenerational abuse would result in tens of thousands of children being spared the treatment experienced by the boy in this case.
With that said, there are several aspects to how the Adrian Peterson case is being handled that leave me feeling very unsettled…
From time to time, situations occur involving kids in our practice we develop a suspicion of physical abuse that we’re required by law to report. I’ve NEVER had a parent lose their job because of physically abusing a child…presumably because it would be highly unusual for this type of information to become public. When we’re involved in cases similar to this one, the typical response is for Children’s Services to place the kids with another relative or family member, or in a short-term foster placement if no appropriate family member is available. A judge might issue a no-contact order against the offending parent if they live or work somewhere else, tied into a required plan the offending parent needs to complete to begin highly supervised visitation.
In the Peterson case, there are MANY different voices calling for his indefinite suspension or expulsion from the NFL. If we’re establishing a standard that parents implicated in situations like the Peterson case are going to be deprived of their livelihoods and due process rights, society will be creating a tremendous disincentive for those experiencing domestic violence to seek professional (or in many locations, spiritual) help, because all states have mandatory reporting requirements for professionals, and in 27 states, the legal mandate to report extends to clergy.
The role that “mob rule” plays in situations like this one where the influence of social media on sponsors has resulted in great pressure on the NFL to overlook due process rights is very troubling. In a case like Peterson’s in which a child was clearly a victim of excessive physical force, society is appropriately angered and wants instantaneous justice. Corporations are easily influenced by angry consumers. But what happens when a group savvy to social media finds themselves offended by attitudes or beliefs associated with traditional Christian teaching? Had the Pharisees been in existence in the 21st century, I have little doubt that the #WeWantBarabbas hashtag would be trending on Twitter.
There are people in society who are going to use this incident to advance an agenda. Yesterday, a blogger for CNN associated Adrian Peterson’s actions with “Christian parenting.” The issue of corporal punishment is a topic that disproportionately impacts Christians from more conservative traditions and African-Americans. Here’s a very interesting interview conducted by Jim Rome with Charles Barkley about the Peterson case that illustrates the cultural divide on the issue…
Turning to the Peterson situation, Rome asked Barkley if it’s OK to hit a child.
“I’m from the South. I understand Boomer’s (Esiason) rage and anger … but he’s a white guy and I’m a black guy. I don’t know where he’s from , I’m from the South. Whipping — we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”
Rome: “It doesn’t matter where you’re from: Right is right and wrong is wrong.”
Barkley: “I don’t believe that because, listen, we spank kids in the South. I think the question about whether Adrian Peterson went overboard — Listen, Jim, we all grow up in different environments. Every black parent in my neighborhood in the South would be in trouble or in jail under those circumstances.”
Rome: “My thing is: I don’t want to tell anybody how to raise their kids and I really don’t want anybody telling me how to raise my kids. But let’s make a distinction between ‘child rearing’ and ‘child abuse.’ That was child abuse. There’s no fine line here.”
Barkley: “And I totally agree with that. But I think we have to really be careful trying to teach other parents how to discipline their kids. That’s a very fine line.”
The legal line between corporal punishment and physical abuse is a gray area…intentionally (and appropriately) so, because kids are different in how they perceive and experience such punishment. For example, a smack on the back of the hand or the buttock that would result in minor discomfort for some children could result in serious harm for a child with hemophilia. A child who has previously been a victim of neglect or abuse may also experience corporal punishment differently than a child who hasn’t been exposed to such treatment.
I fear incidents like this one will be used as a club by those in society who take issue with the traditional role of parents and the family unit and would seek a larger role for public institutions in establishing the value systems imparted to kids.
One final observation…In the midst of all the media coverage of what should and shouldn’t be done about the Adrian Peterson situation by all of the parties involved, it’s most concerning to me that I haven’t yet seen anyone in the national media (at least, no one I’m aware of) ask the question of what’s best for Adrian Peterson’s kids? Isn’t that really what’s important here?
Key Ministry developed a series of blog posts to educate pastors, ministry leaders volunteers and parents on the topic of Trauma and Kids. Click here to discover links to the posts in the series, along with a list of recommended resources for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents serving kids who have been victims of neglect and/or physical or sexual abuse.