Failing to Understand the Dynamics of Abuse: Focus on the Family on Adrian Peterson and Corporal Punishment

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 17, 2014.

Yesterday, Time Magazine’s parenting section featured an article by Focus on the Family’s Jared Pingleton. The article, titled “Spanking Can Be an Appropriate Form of Child Discipline,” addresses the controversy surrounding Adrian Peterson’s suspension from the Minnesota Vikings on pending child abuse charges after leaving open lacerations on his son. In his article, Pingleton makes a case for corporal punishment while clearly calling Peterson’s actions abuse.

Pingleton begins his article with this stand-alone sentence, in bold:

We won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart.

The problem with this statement is that Peterson was exercising a “firm and consistent hand,” and he was disciplining “with a soft and loving heart.” After being taken to court for injury to a child and then suspended from his team, Peterson apologized for causing his son harm, but he was very clear initially that he did not see anything wrong with his actions—and for good reason. After administering corporal punishment to his son, Peterson texted this to the child’s mother:

Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.

This is exactly what Focus on the family and other groups that advocate corporal punishment promote—the argue that a parent should act from a heart full of love, but exercise a firm hand when it comes to obedience and doing what is right. Is it any wonder that Peterson felt he had done nothing wrong? Many Americans were outraged by pictures of Peterson’s son—and for good reason!—but it makesabsolutely no sense to respond to this case by stating that corporal punishment should involve “a firm and consistent hand” and “a soft and loving heart.” In Peterson’s case, it did.

A parent can have “a firm and consistent hand” and “a soft and loving heart” and still abuse their children.

Before I go on, a few words of background. My parents used corporal punishment and did everything “right,” but my experience was nevertheless negative. Today I practice positive parenting and gentle discipline with my own children. Based on my experiences and a wide array of research, I would like to see corporal punishment phased out. I consider all forms of corporal punishment ethically wrong, though it’s worth noting that I do understand that not all are equally harmful. Slapping a child on their clothed bottom in an attempt to make a point is not the same thing as striking a child with an object and leaving bruises or welts. I dislike the term “spanking” because it erases these sorts of distinctions and everyone seems to define it differently. Finally, to avoid confusion I tend to adhere to the guidelines generally followed by social services and reserve the label “abuse” for corporal punishment that causes bodily injury (i.e. bruises, welts, and worse). That is the definition I will be using throughout this post.

My concerns with Pingleton’s article are twofold. First, Pingleton others child abusers to the extent that he makes it impossible to consider that seemingly normal, loving people could be child abusers. The reality is that child abusers often get away with their actions because they can fool those around them into seeing them as kind, loving people who would never harm their children and thus can’t be child abusers. Second, Pingleton reinforces the many justifications child abusers use to defend their actions. Child abusers are rarely malicious or sadistic. More often, they believe that they are just trying to do right by their children, and that pain is how children learn. Yes, Pingleton condemns child abuse, but he seems to lack any understanding of the dynamics of abuse. If he actually understood these dynamics, he would see that his words also serve to make abusers invisible and reinforce their justifications.

Here is an example of how Pingleton others child abusers:

There is a giant chasm between a mild spanking properly administered out of love and an out-of-control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child.

In creating this dichotomy between abusive and nonabusive parents, Pingleton is clearly putting Adrian Peterson’s actions in the “out of control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child” category. But there has been no indication that Peterson was out of control (i.e. that Peterson was not in careful control of his actions the entire time) or that he was venting his emotions (Peterson has been clear that the punishment was administered to teach his child to not shove other children). Pingleton is trying to shove Adrian Peterson into a child abuse box he has fashioned many sizes too small, because he doesn’t understand who child abusers are or how they operate.

The reality is that there is no “chasm” between “mild spanking properly administered out of love” and “an out-of-control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child.”

Instead, there is a sliding scale. There is also no clear and obvious line between a “spanking” and a “beating.” This is what corporal punishment advocates like Pingleton miss. Adrian Peterson was not on one side of this scale or the other—he was somewhere in between. Different people put the line between acceptable parental behavior and abuse at different points on that line, as is made obvious by the fact that some Americans have defended Peterson’s actions as not abusive. This idea that there is a “chasm” between reasonable discipline and child abuse is nonsense.

We often have this caricature of a child abuser in our mind—out of control, angry—and while some abusers do fit that profile others do not. But when we believe abusers look like this caricature we have created, we create a situation where Adrian Peterson can still insist that he is not a child abuser—because he does not look like that. But the reality is that child abusers often don’t look like that at all. In fact, sometimes they look like this:

This idea that child abusers are some sort of monsters and that normal, loving people do not abuse their children a serious, serious problem.

It allows us to miss and overlook very real abuse because the perpetrators are nice, and smile, and say the right things. The reality is that abusers are very good at fooling others and looking picture perfect, and if we don’t understand that we will be likely to brush warning signs under the rug when they do appear.

Pingleton goes on:

It is vital, however, that spanking be administered within proper guidelines. The reports about the punishment meted out by Peterson to his son, and the consequent injuries his son suffered, indicate his behavior on that occasion was far outside those boundaries.

If this is what he wants to argue, Pingleton needs to drop his whole “we won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart” schtick, because Peterson followed that short line of advice and did go wrong. Does Pingleton seriously think that parents who abuse their children don’t believe in being firm and consistent and administering discipline out of love? Does he not know that most parents who abuse their children say things like “this is for your own good” and “I’m only doing this because I love you”? Is he unaware that child abusers say things like “children need a firm hand” and “we have to be consistent”?

I’m glad that Pingleton recognizes that Adrian Peterson abused his child, but I’m troubled by his total lack of understanding of why it happened. He seems completely unaware that what he thinks is a caution against abuse—”we won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart”—is in fact the very argument Peterson used to insist that there was nothing wrong with what he did when he left his son with open lacerations. If Pingleton wants to protect children from being abused, he needs to stop making abuse-enabling statements like that.

That Pingleton has no understanding of the dynamics of abuse is bizarre given that he is the director of Focus on the Family’s counseling program.

Pingleton goes on to give some guidelines for appropriate corporal punishment. He says that it should only be used in “cases of willful disobedience or defiance of authority,” and that “a child should always receive a clear warning” first and understand why they are being punished. The punishment should take place in a private area and should be “lovingly administered” and should not involve “the potential to cause physical harm.” Afterwards, the child should be told once again why they were punished, to ensure that they understand and have learned the intended lesson.

From what I have read, it appears that the only point where Peterson did not follow Pingleton’s advice was in causing physical harm—the open lacerations. But once again, the line here is less obvious that Peterson thinks. My own mother carefully followed the guidelines Pingleton laid out, but she did on very rare occasions leave bruises or welts, and on one occasion she drew blood with a switch. She nevermeant to leave bruises or welts, and certainly never intended to draw blood that one time. But when you’re hitting your child’s soft, bare bottom with a wooden paddle or a switch cut from a tree (my mother used both), it’s harder to make sure you don’t leave bruises, welts, or cuts than one might think. And as Peterson has said many times, he never intended to leave open lacerations—he did not realize that the switch he used would do that much damage to his son’s skin.

What I’m trying to point out is that while Pingleton thinks he is drawing an obvious and simple line between abuse and appropriate discipline, the line he is drawing is not nearly as obvious or clear as he thinks. A parent following Pingleton’s guidelines for administering corporal punishment can leave marks on a child completely unintentionally. After all, striking a child naturally involves some risk of harm. Lydia Schatz’s parents used a plastic switch to administer corporal punishment. This switch broke down the girl’s muscle tissue, and when fragments of muscle tissue entered her bloodstream it caused liver failure.

Lydia’s parents never intended for this to happen and in fact had no idea it could happen, but Lydia still died.

Later on in his article, Pingleton makes it very clear that corporal punishment should hurt. After explaining that parents have a responsibility to discipline their children, Pingleton quotes from the Bible:

No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

Pingleton argues that teaching children right from wrong should hurt—even that it must hurt—but that it’s for the child’s own good and will yield longterm fruits. This idea that discipline has to hurt, but will pay off in the long run—this was also part of Adrian Peterson’s justification for his actions. Whether Pingleton realizes this or not (and given his understanding of the dynamics of abuse it is likely that he does not), this is yet another argument commonly used by abusers—what they’re doing should hurt, they say, because that’s the only way the child will learn their lesson.

In his texts to his son’s mother, Peterson explained that the reason he went on for so long was that the child did not cry. He took that as an indication that he wasn’t hitting hard enough to get the message across—because getting the message across had to involve pain. Because of his belief that correcting his child’s actions must involve pain, Peterson denied that he had done anything wrong.

Pingleton ends his article with this paragraph:

Parenting is a hard job. None of us do it perfectly. And to make it even more challenging, none of our kids come with an instruction manual attached. But our children need us to do it to the best of our ability, with all the wisdom, love, gentleness and strength we can muster. We won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart.

Pingleton finishes with the same sentence with which he began. He clearly wants to emphasize it. Pingleton says over and over again that abuse is a tragedy and is wrong, wrong, wrong, but he does not seem to recognize that his own words are inadvertently reinforcing child abusers’ justifications for their actions. Does he not realize that child abusers say things like “I’m only trying to make them a better person“? How is he unaware that child abusers say things like “pain is how children learn“?

Ultimately, this is one of my biggest problem with the arguments made by advocates of corporal punishment. Most of their arguments in favor of corporal punishments are the same arguments used by child abusers to justify their abuse. Their only caution against abuse appears to be clarifying that corporal punishment should be administered out of love rather than anger, but this plays into incorrect stereotypes about what child abuse looks like and is less helpful than they seem to think. Suggesting that parents use their own judgement to make sure they don’t go to far is equally unhelpful.

Most child abusers tell their children they are doing this because they love them, and most would deny that they’ve gone too far, or that they ever intend to harm their children.

How can Pingleton not see how his own words can be used to justify not only corporal punishment he considers appropriate but also actual child abuse? How can he not see that child abusers are not all evil monsters venting their anger on their children, and that suggesting that there is a huge “chasm” between child abusers and other parents serves to keep parents from self reflection and prevent people from seeing child abuse right in front of their eyes? How can he be Focus on the Family’s head of counselingand not see this?

7 comments

  • You are not your intentions or motivations. You are your actions. A person’s identity as a human being has nothing to do with whatever narcissistic projection of intention/motivation they broadcast.

    You are your actions. If you hit children, then you are a person who hits children. “I never meant to harm, I just wanted to get his attention!” You are still a person who hits children.

    My mother may never have intended harm, but she HARMED. She may have never been motivated by evil, but her actions were evil.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    How can he be Focus on the Family’s head of counseling and not see this?

    You have it backwards.
    He IS Focus on the Family’s head of counseling BECAUSE he cannot see this. Otherwise he might turn against the Dobson Party Line he duckspeaks so fluently.

  • Parents who physically hurt their children, no matter how much else they do right, and no matter how loving they are, will still build a wall between themselves and their child. I know my parents love me but my skin crawls when either of them touch me and I feel sick when I remember the pain of being spanked for what were usually accidents, not intentional disobedience.

  • I was raised to believe that there was supposed to be a wall between parents and children. They were not my friends, would never be my friend and I was not to consider them so or speak to them as if they were. Their job was to be my parent and that was enough.

  • Funny that being out of control seems to be the stereotypical definition of child abuse, when in fact those parents who do things that hurt their child because they really do lose control may very well be far less abusive because they know that what they did was wrong and will not do it again (like the father of a very vulnerable girl I knew did once, accidentally cutting off her breath as he was restraining her during a meltdown, only to never do it again because he was deeply sorry. Luckily, he figured it out before the girl fainted, let alone died. He truly never did do it again). From what I read of genuinely abusive people, however, they ALWAYS seem to retain a noticeable measure of control even as they “lose it”; they channel that apparent loss of control into abusing people. And those are only the ones who actually do “lose control” at least from the outside. Much of emotional and physical abuse is very well-controlled (i.e. the aforementioned “spankings”, wise sounding advice that causes people to form destructive habits), and in a way, that is what makes it abuse; the fact that they mean to do it and will therefore keep doing it. This is true of drunk and drugged abusers as well, because if they drink, they can blame the abuse on the drink. I know from personal experience with the drug Celexa that someone who does not wish to be mean to people will not continue to take drugs that make them act mean; they will want to go off them like I did with the Celexa, and unless they are addicted before they figure it out (I suspect that this could happen if they became addicted in a setting in which they were unlikely to have an opportunity to be mean or be exposed to the kind of trigger that makes them most likely to be mean). Even if they are addicted, there is a good chance they would seek rehab.

  • i totally disagree with pingleton. In my point of view the first and foremost thing a child learns when it is beaten is the “i am big,you are small, i am right,you are wrong”. They learn that it is acceptable to hurt others,solve problems by beating the person who disagrees.In the past GOVERNMENTS fell because their regime worked in such a principle. What chance do children who have been TAUGHT,no matter how unintentionally, to think this way have

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