Is It Okay to Spank Your Child?

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

When Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was recently arrested for beating his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, the response was passive and mixed. Initially, the Vikings benched Peterson for a single game but then immediately reinstated him. And it was only after further investigation and public outcry that the team placed Peterson on the exempt list until the completion of his legal case.

The facts involving the incident as presented in the media, if true, are very concerning. The beating allegedly caused numerous injuries to the child, leaving cuts and bruises all over his body, including injury to his scrotum.

Over the past week, there has been much commentary on the incident and a lot of that commentary has passively excused Peterson for his actions. Even retired NBA star and newscaster Mr. Charles Barkley has publicly minimized Peterson’s actions stating, “…I’m from the South. Whipping — we do that all the time.” And, “…Every black parent in my neighborhood in the South would be in trouble or in jail under those circumstances.”

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Beyond the media and celebrity opinion, however, the Peterson incident has certainly reignited the old debate on spanking, with many still supporting the right to spank as a form of punishment. More specifically, surveys have shown that two-thirds of Americans support parents spanking their children.

While corporal punishment is not a crime in Virginia, and while many parents today hold the view that spanking is an acceptable parenting technique, this view is not supported by the large body of research in this area that has repeatedly shown that spanking, and other forms of physical punishment, can lead to serious problems in children — mental health problems, increased aggression, antisocial behavior, and physical injury.

But most of us do not live a life wholly off of research findings, and none of us are perfect. As a psychologist, I know that overall, spanking is an ineffective parenting technique with the potential for harm. However, as a parent, I have used it sparingly at times and with success. For example, I can recall a time when my four-year-old son purposefully disregarded me and began to walk into the parking lot on his own. I grabbed him quickly, spoke to him firmly about the danger of his actions, and also gave him a couple of taps on the bottom to send my point home. At that moment, I do not believe that my firm voice or the spanking itself was harmful; rather, I think it helped to make my point, and it worked. My son did not walk in a parking lot alone again after that exchange.

But an occasional spanking in support of good parenting does not seem to be what occurred between Mr. Peterson and his son. Fear-based parenting as a practice is wholly unacceptable. I suppose Mr. Barkley’s point that environmental differences can influence behavior is valid as an explanation, but I do not agree that it can be offered up as an excuse when it comes to beating a child to the point of injury. This is 2014, and regardless of where you are raised, regardless of the color of your skin, and regardless of your socioeconomic status, parents should not beat their children.