Social media and the NFL are enabling us to reflect together on what level of aggression and violence in family relationships is acceptable in our society. It's a fitting although inadvertent role for the NFL, whose players are de facto role models for American males, and whose recruiters, coaches and fans place high value on aggression and violence on the field. (Here is Seattle, we love the defense in Beast Mode - on the field.) The NFL's position on aggression at home is, well, evolving. Thanks to the inventors and users of social media.
There seems to be consensus that child abuse is unacceptable, and discipline is necessary. But the line between discipline and abuse is defined by a complex and dynamic web of personal beliefs, local culture, and state laws.
What is abuse?
It depends who you ask and where you are. State law is largely focused on protecting parents' rights, and keeping the family free of government or social interference. Social workers focus on protecting the child from parental excess. The courts aim to balance parents' rights with children's welfare. There's controversy regarding how much weight should be given to potential effects on children's social and emotional wellbeing and healthy development, on what is "normal" in the child's community, on potential future harm, on how well the punishment fits the infraction, on a pattern of parental behavior.
State laws are intentionally vague about what constitutes abuse, so that cases can be decided on an individual basis. The laws and their approaches to defining abuse vary widely. Interpretation on the ground varies by agencies and individuals. This can result in a "I know it when I see it" understanding of child abuse. Judging by the Twitter traffic around Adrian Peterson, people who view the same video evidence interpret it very differently.
How to decide?
Ultimately, parents must decide whether, when and how to discipline their child. To me there are two important things to bring to mind when discipline is in order. First, every young child wants to be, tries to be like his or her parents. And every parental action teaches the child some lesson, by default or by design.
A clear distinction for me is that disciple is teaching by design. It intends to teach the child appropriate behavior and right action. Abuse is teaching by default, it aims to punish inappropriate behavior. As a parent, the question to ask when provoked by a preschooler, or any child, is what do I want to teach now?
Adrian Peterson said he wanted to teach his son to be respectful and not curse at playmates. But his preschooler did not make up those swear words. He learned them from someone he is trying to be like. And hitting a person with a stick is about as disrespectful as one can get. Peterson left a scar on his 4-year-old's head, which he said the child could have avoided by not trying to get away. Would you try to get away from a brawny footballer coming after you with a stick? I sure would. Would you think he was abusing you or that he was teaching you appropriate social behavior?
Consider what that boy is going to say to himself as he grows up looking in the mirror at his scar? "I want to be respectful and polite like my dad". Probably not.
This from Beginnings Parents Guide:
Doriane Lambelet Coleman et al., Where and How to Draw the Line Between Reasonable Corporal Punishment and Abuse, 73 Law and Contemporary Problems 107-166 (Spring 2010)
Available at: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/lcp/vol73/iss2/6