Don’t Rush to Judge Parents Who Use a Switch to Discipline Kids

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On Thursday the Minnesota Vikings’ star running back, Adrian Peterson, was indicted (pdf) on charges of “injury to a child” for striking his 4-year-old son with a tree branch—what many African Americans would call a whipping with a “switch.”


CBS Houston reports that the boy’s pediatrician reported his injuries to police; TMZ has published photos that it claims are of the child’s injuries; and Peterson cooperated with police, saying that he’d disciplined his son with a “whooping” and, when the event happened in May, texted the child’s mother, who lives in Minnesota, saying he felt bad for overdoing it.

By way of an initial defense, Peterson’s attorney issued a public statement stating that the former league MVP is a loving father who merely disciplined his son by using an approach that had been administered to him as a child.

And while, clearly, no one condones child abuse, if Peterson’s statements are to be believed, he seems to love his child. But parenting practices vary widely, and his are being judged by a media and public not known for being skilled in analyzing issues complicated by race, gender, culture or potential implicit (unconscious) racial bias, which most Americans have.

These all come into play when determining whether Peterson’s actions went beyond community standards for disciplining his child.

Subjective Standards

If the TMZ photographs are, in fact, of his son, Peterson may have crossed over a line. But both the community standards around appropriate discipline and the requirements of professionals required to report suspected child abuse or neglect (pdf) are not as cut-and-dried as one might assume, so we shouldn’t rush to judgment.


As Baltimore-based pediatrician Dr. Michelle Gourdine observes, “In the course of doing a physical examination and discovering injuries, the decision whether to report or not is based on not only that physical exam but also obtaining an additional history based on those findings.” She further explains, “I am not aware of any specific guidelines that state that it has to be a certain type or character of injury on a certain individual. It’s subjective based on your best professional determination.”

New York psychiatrist Dr. Joe Brewster, with whom I co-authored Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, and who treats many African-American male patients, says, “Professionals use their judgment, and they’re not likely to have the same standard for every individual.” While he clearly states that he’s against using corporal punishment, he notes that when it comes to parents defending their actions, “the privileged—judges, doctors, lawyers—are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. I see that constantly.”


Protective or Problematic?

Almost all American parents have used corporal punishment. In 2012, 77 percent of men and 64 percent of women reported that they believed “a good, hard spanking” was sometimes necessary. In general, the parents of boys or black children, Southerners, younger and poorer moms, and evangelical and conservative Protestants are more likely to spank.


“Many of us were spanked with implements, and it was good for us. Many of us were abused with words, and we were forever scarred. The question is, what is the time and tenor of the house?” says the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller, a family and marital counselor and head of a Philadelphia mega-church.

Peterson hails from Texas, among the most permissive states in allowing educators to hit children in schools. And the Texas State Library and Archives Commission says about eastern Texas, where Peterson grew up and where cotton was once king: “Historians estimate that at least 70 percent of the slaves received whippings at some point in their lives.”


Some experts trace African-American reliance upon corporal punishment as a vestige of slavery.

What’s more, many fathers raise their sons using authoritarian parenting practices (which can include corporal punishment). Black fathers often physically discipline their sons to instill behavioral control and to prepare their sons for a society that will surveil them and not be forgiving when it comes to any youthful transgressions.


“I’m fairly sure Adrian Peterson’s intent, from what I can see at this point, was not an evil one. He texted his concerns and his ambivalence, and he made it public,” says Brewster, who worries about both a “witch hunt” and potential criminal-justice fallout. According to a Sports Illustrated legal analysis, if convicted, Peterson could face punishment ranging from 180 days to 10 years in prison.

“Even if he were guilty of an indiscretion, do we put him in jail or do we make him a better citizen?” asks Brewster, who believes that parenting and discipline classes, family therapy, or periodic supervision would be more helpful. “The United States locks up and punishes people at a much faster rate than any other nation. There’s a price to pay for that, particularly in these areas, which are more gray and ambiguous than we might think.”


“What we hear in the media is never the whole story,” says Gourdine. “We should be extremely careful not to rush to judgment.” 

Philadelphia-based writer Hilary Beard is co-author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, both of which have won an NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook