Regarding Adrian Peterson: What do scientific studies and the law say about hitting your child?

September 26, 2014

Child Abuse, Domestic Violence

Sean Hannity belt

Several scientific studies have looked at the effectiveness of spanking or hitting children as a form of discipline. The results of these studies conflict with Sean Hannity’s disturbing anecdote.

This issue came to the forefront again after NFL player Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse, when it was discovered that he hit his 4-year old son with a wooden switch that left cuts and bruises on the boy’s back, buttocks, and scrotum, as well as wounds on his hands when he tried to defend himself.

On his radio program, Sean Hannity said:

“Here’s where my fear goes with all of this. You guys are gonna tell parents what they can and cannot do — for example, is it gonna become illegal if a parent teaches the politically [incorrect] view that being gay is not normal?”

On the Fox News segment he elaborated:

“I got hit with a strap. Bam, bam, bam. And I have never been to a shrink. I will tell you that I deserved it,” he said.

Hannity also remarked: “My father punched me In the face when I talked back to him once and I deserved it.”


Many studies have been conducted to test the effectiveness of spanking and hitting as forms of discipline.

To summarize their findings, psychologists do not recommend spanking or hitting your children

Here is a study by Tulane University, which was also featured in the May issue of Pediatrics.

“Children who are spanked frequently at age 3 are more likely to be aggressive when they’re 5, even when you account for possible confounding factors, according to a new study co-authored by Tulane University School of Public Health community health researcher Catherine Taylor.”

“Toddlers that are spanked more frequently at age 3 are at increased risk for being more aggressive at age 5,” said Taylor, assistant professor of Community Health Sciences at Tulane and lead author of the study. “We found this to be true even after taking into account other factors that might have explained this association such as the parents’ level of stress, depression, use of drugs or alcohol, and the presence of other aggression within the family.”

Another study, according to the American Psychiatric Association, a meta-analysis of 88 studies of 62 years of data, and found associations between corporal punishment at 11 behaviors and experiences including:

Childhood behaviors:

  • Immediate compliance
  • Moral internalization
  • Quality of relationship with parent
  • Physical abuse by parent

Childhood and adulthood:

  • Mental health
  • Aggression
  • Criminal/antisocial behavior

Adulthood only:

  • Abuse of own children or spouse

Ten of the associations found were negative, with compliance the lone desirable association between the two.

To be fair, the APA page also includes this statement:

“The evidence presented in the meta-analysis does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate disciplinary spanking,” conclude Baumrind and her team. Baumrind et al. also conclude that “a high association between corporal punishment and physical abuse is not evidence that mild or moderate corporal punishment increases the risk of abuse.”

This is partly because of the highly individualized nature of parent-child relationships. However, they also suggest that parents should take caution when considering use of corporal punishment. The final statement by one of the lead authors, Elizabeth Gershoff, reads as follows:

“Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use.

Plenty of people offer the anecdotal evidence that uses the following logic:

“I was spanked as a child.” => “I am a functioning adult.” => “Therefore, corporal punishment of children is good/acceptable.”

The problem is precisely that it is anecdotal evidence. This is precisely why we have large-scale studies.

In summary, science does not show that spanking or hitting your child is an effective parenting technique. Also, from the legal perspective, enforcing child abuse laws will not prevent parents from instilling homophobia in their children.

Here is how the Department of Health & Human Services defines child abuse and neglect according to the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treat Act:

“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

While I personally feel that conditioning children to discriminate based on sexual orientation is bad parenting, it does not constitute imminent risk of serious harm, so Sean Hannity’s fears are unfounded.

Here are Sean Hannity’s radio segment and Fox News video segment where he discusses these issues:

http://mediamatters.org/embed/200775

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381

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