If it can be said that real men don’t hit women, then we should also say real men don’t beat children.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted on a felony charge for beating his four-year-old son with a switch — a tree branch — in an act that exceeded “reasonable discipline” according to the Montgomery County, Texas, District Attorney’s office. The NFL player punished his son for pushing another one of his children off of a motorbike video game, and Peterson said the whooping was not unlike the discipline “he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas.”
The boy reportedly suffered from numerous injuries, including cuts and wounds to his ankles, legs, hands, back, buttocks and scrotum. The child also said his father hit him with belts and put leaves in his mouth while he was being hit, pants down, with the switch.
As a black father with a four-year old son, I cannot imagine ever beating my beautiful child. I cannot and will not treat my son like a slave.
The switch is a longstanding African-American institution, both feared and revered. Everyone in the black community either has heard of or experienced firsthand the grandma who ordered the child to go fetch the tree branch, the switch that would be used in his or her own beating. They said it was necessary to keep children on the straight and narrow, out of trouble and respectful of their elders.
But what if the explanation for the switch is far more troubling? Sometimes, people act based on what they know. And in the case of the black community and the black family, we cannot disregard our very real connection to slavery times and the internalizing and perpetuation of our trauma.
We all cringe with horror, perhaps even cry, when we view depictions of brutality in films such as 12 Years a Slave. It feels far too familiar, too close to home. If we recoil at the sight of slaves being beaten, then why would we subject our own children to the same treatment? The purpose of whippings, floggings and other forms of abuse under slavery was clear — to subjugate and control black people with arbitrary cruelty, beat them down not just physically but also spiritually and psychically, and reinforce the master’s control over them.
In some cases, enslaved black parents — who really had no rights over their own children, and perhaps had to care for the master’s children at the expense of their own — beat their children to please their owner, or to ward off more severe punishment from the master.
So how can this in any way benefit our children today?
Many parents physically discipline their children, and black folks are no exception. And corporal punishment is not illegal in most states unless it causes severe harm. But just because something is legal does not mean it is right. And if you wonder how far you can go and steer clear of child protective services before crossing the line into criminal child abuse, then you have missed the point.
Study after study has shown that harsh physical punishment can have detrimental effects on children, including changes to the brain — literally ”less grey matter” — slow cognitive development, and increasing odds of depression and addiction, low educational achievement, aggression and criminal behavior. Spanking during childhood also increases the chances of that child hitting other children and their parents and hitting a spouse or dating partner as an adult.
Moreover, spanking does not work better than any other form of correction; any short-term changes in misbehavior can come at a very high cost.
Let’s not forget verbal abuse, telling children — perhaps peppered with four-letter words — they are forever worthless and useless, and unloved. This form of abuse is just as harmful to a child’s psyche as a beating is to his or her body and physical and emotional well-being.
Some parents use their kids as a punching bag out of frustration, reflecting the stresses and economic strain of daily life. And I believe physical force is easier than mind power for many, because they cannot communicate effectively with their children. I prefer talking to my son, using reason, incentives and other forms of non-physical correction with him. I am not saying parenthood does not pose its challenges, and kids are smarter than we ever were. But I want my son to respect me, not fear me.
Further, the idea is not to make Adrian Peterson a whipping boy or a poster child for child abuse. He is by no means alone, and we know there are multitudes more parents just like him. In any case, Peterson must come to terms with the horrible things he allegedly did to his son, as the justice system must deal with him, and surely the NFL will.
But in the end, if a criminal prosecution, league sanctions and maybe even an ousted commissioner are the only takeaways from this high profile case of child abuse, then there is a missed opportunity for society, and for black America, to deal with a serious problem. We must break the cycle of trauma that passes from generation to generation like the DNA and heal both the victim and the victimizer. We must challenge societal norms concerning definitions of manhood, and black manhood, and the notion that one must use physical violence against others as a means of controlling them. This includes bastions of testosterone, including the military and law enforcement, where child and spousal abuse are rampant, and professional sports, where the data on domestic violence is nonexistent and arrests are lower than the national average, but most arrests are for domestic violence.
In the meantime, it is time to give the switch a final resting place. Let’s not go there anymore.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove