The recent arrest of Minnesota Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson has sparked a divided reaction within the NFL around the use of physical punishment with children.
Peterson's lawyer, for example, said that Peterson "used the same kind of discipline…that he experienced as a child." Former basketball player and current NBA analyst Charles Barkley also defended Peterson, while ESPN's Chris Carter (a former Viking himself) noted, "You can't beat a kid to make them do what you want them to do." This range of reaction echoes the national debate surrounding physical punishment. But, existing research tells us that Carter is right.
Researchers define physical punishment as "the intentional infliction of pain and discomfort and/or the use of force to stop or change a behavior." A 2008 study on the effectiveness of physical punishment on children in the U.S. found no long term effects on behavior change; essentially, when the threat of punishment was gone, the negative behavior returned.
Additionally, there is extensive research that physical punishment puts children at substantial risks for future defiant and aggressive behavior, increased mental health concerns, as well as greater risk of serious injury and abuse. Recent brain science research has shown that harsh physical punishment may actually have detrimental effects on the development of a child's brain.
The negative effect of punishment, physical or otherwise, extends to our schools as well. Many schools adopt "zero tolerance" policies, but in order for those to work, educators must discipline students in harsher ways, often with little effect. The US Department of Education reported in 2011 that there were more than 3 million suspensions per year and over 100,000 expulsions. What's more, consistent use of punishment in schools causes children to become fearful and avoidant of school and teachers, and interferes with positive, pro-social relationships. Brain science is showing us that warmth and nurture are essential to brain development. Academic success — one of the best indicators of adult success —is best achieved in a school climate that is warm, welcoming, and promotes positive behavior and positive interactions with adults and peers. In order to reduce the use of physical punishment, we must have other options.
Children learn to behave when their parents notice and respond to their behavior appropriately. When a child misbehaves, it is essential that parents remain calm (provide appropriate time outs if necessary) and communicate the appropriate way to get it right next time. Techniques such as teaching behaviors that you want to see (telling them why they should keep their hands to themselves); reinforcing specific behaviors (asking them to keep their hands to themselves or positive reinforcement when they do the behavior); modeling appropriate behavior (parents keep their hands to themselves); and combining a low preferred behavior (doing homework) with a high preferred behavior (playing a game) are effective ways to encourage appropriate behavior.
The risks to physical punishment are huge and well outweigh the short term reduction of a negative behavior. It's time to change the culture of discipline in our country, and to show parents that there is a better way. Rather than debate its effectiveness (the research is clear on that), let's educate on its tremendous risks, and on more positive approaches to discipline. It is not too late to change our educational and parental discipline practices. Our kids deserve better.