NFL running back Adrian Peterson has essentially admitted beating his 4-year old son with a "switch" (a stick with leaves removed) to the point of inflicting bruises and lacerations on the child's legs, arms, hands, back and scrotum.


The Peterson episode has opened debate on the physical punishment of children, with some taking the athlete's initial position that such punishment is part of a proper upbringing.

Peterson and his backers are wrong — dead wrong. It is not a matter of differences between liberals and conservatives. It is not a matter of black versus white. Rather, the many dozens of independent scientific studies now conducted on physical punishment come to a clear and overwhelming consensus: Physical punishment, especially when delivered with an object like a stick or a belt, has multiple harmful consequences to children and society and virtually no positive effects of any kind.

The destructive consequences of physical punishment extend far beyond childhood, impairing a victim's adult life and his later relationships with spouses and children, although individual experiences can vary from the norm in a nation of more than 300 million persons.

A 2002 review of numerous studies to date on physical punishment published in the Psychological Bulletin found 10 negative results of such punishment and only one positive consequence: immediate compliance by the child to parental wishes. The many serious negative consequences include:

  • Increased aggression and anti-social behavior by the child.
  • A decreased internal awareness of right and wrong.
  • An increased likelihood of engaging in delinquent and later criminal behavior.
  • An increased likelihood of the child later abusing his or her spouse or a child.
  • A correlation between physical punishment and injury, including death, inflicted upon children.

An updated review of additional scientific studies published in the 2012 Canadian Medical Association Journal confirms these findings. The review found that "physical punishment increases the risk of broad and enduring negative developmental outcomes" and that "most child physical abuse occurs in the context of punishment." It also found that no scientifically valid study "has found physical punishment to have a long-term positive effect."

Among recent work, for example, a 2012 study of more than 20,000 U.S. adults published in Pediatrics found that as compared with those largely spared physical punishment, those who underwent even mild to moderate punishments were more likely to experience every kind of mental illness studied, including depression, mania, alcoholism and drug addiction.

A 2009 study published in NeuroImage found that harsh corporal punishment (including the use of an object such as a stick or a belt) is associated with decreased brain capacity and lower IQs.

A 2006 study published in Pediatrics found that adolescents whose parents used physical punishment "were more likely to engage in fighting, bullying and victimization of others."

Apropos of the Peterson case, a 2008 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that parents who said they spanked children with an object, such as a belt or paddle, were nine times more likely than parents who refrained from spanking to inflict serious physical abuse upon the child.

The single outlier study that claims positive effects of physical punishment is by Calvin College psychology professor Marjorie Gunnoe. She found benefits to non-abusive spanking in young childhood. But the study is based on dubious recollections from a very small sample and neither this nor any study supports hitting children with objects.

Sadly, Peterson's abuse of his child is not unrelated to fellow NFL player Ray Rice's abuse of his fiancee (now wife). Studies show that not only does most physical abuse of children take place in the context of physical punishment, but that child abuse is associated with the abuse of women. Both forms of violence are also vastly underreported, largely because of the fear of consequences.

For these many reasons, the leading medical association dealing with the care and health of children strongly recommends against physical punishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that "corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. ... Parents [should] be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behaviors."

As Peterson later said, he has since learned that there are alternative nonviolent forms of discipline. Examples include time-outs, the withholding of reward, verbal rebukes and explanation, grounding children, and holding family meetings.

Physical punishment of children is also a policy issue. Corporal punishment in public schools remains legal in 19 states, mostly in the South. In the 2005-2006 school year, 223,190 school children were subjected to physical punishment.

In four states, more than 2 percent of schoolchildren experienced physical punishment: in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The National Educational Association ranked all of them in the bottom 10 in student proficiency and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation gave Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma grades of F in student achievement and Arkansas a grade of D. Although many factors explain student outcomes, these results are hardly an advertisement for corporal punishment.

If there is a silver lining in the clouded relationships between Peterson and Rice and their loved ones, it is to open a dialogue about physical violence inflicted on children and women and the relationship between the two forms of abuse.

Note: The phrase, "spare the rod and spoil the child," cited above for its common usage, is widely misinterpreted. In biblical times, a rod was an instrument of guidance, not physical punishment.

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.