When ‘discipline’ becomes child abuse


Last month, Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of physically abusing his 4-year-old son. This would not have been news then — or still — except for his position in the NFL. His son’s unfortunate, but all too common, situation can be an opportunity for our society to evaluate what it means to parent and discipline a child.

This column is not about corporal punishment, or the risks and perceived benefits thereof; corporal punishment is legal in Tennessee and in many of our school districts. This is about child abuse, which is what Mr. Peterson, a 217-pound professional football player, has been accused of inflicting on his 4-year-old. It is abuse when a parent strikes a child numerous times and leaves multiple injuries.

The experiences parents provide impact children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, literally shaping their brains. Healthy brain development happens in the context of a safe, stable and nurturing relationship. Furthermore, research shows us that our nation’s leading social problems, mental health issues and even physical diseases are often rooted in childhoods riddled with abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.

Despite advances in our understanding of the incredible influence of parenting on future behavior and health, this knowledge has not reached the vast majority of parents. People commonly interchange the words discipline and punishment although they have very different meanings. The word “discipline” is derived from the Latin root meaning “instruction.” Effective discipline strategies involve teaching children how to be healthy, productive and functional citizens.

Punishment is only one type of discipline and is best delivered in a way that meaningfully translates to good choices and problem solving in adult life — never in anger and never for the purposes of exacting revenge or inflicting pain. Striking another person is not an acceptable method of problem-solving in adult relationships; it’s an illegal assault. And when the media reports that an animal has been beaten and injured, the public outcry of horror is loud and clear. Why is this same behavior toward our children allowed and condoned all too often?

Sadly, our society seems to believe that primary caregivers should be able to parent as they see fit, without interference. In my line of work, I see defenseless children who are bruised, beaten and broken — physically and emotionally — because of this belief. I have witnessed the deaths of blameless and vulnerable children because society places more importance on parents’ rights than these innocents. Too many times I have heard the excuses, “I was raised this way and I turned out all right” or “It’s a part of my culture.” Luckily societal norms change over time. When I hear the cultural justification, my heart hurts to know people accept the mistreatment of some children but not others.

Any honest parent will tell you that raising children is, at times, an immensely frustrating endeavor. We don’t want the primary message children learn from being punished to be “The bigger person who can inflict the most pain wins.” As a nation, we will never have the fiscal resources to treat the myriad problems that are the aftermath of child abuse and neglect.

If any good can come from Mr. Peterson’s alleged abuse of his son, it is the opportunity to encourage better access to positive parenting education and support for parents. We can break the cycle of abuse and neglect and promote the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that help all children thrive.

Deborah Lowen is a child abuse pediatrician, director of the Center for Child Protection & Well-Being at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and a board member at The Family Center.