Politics & Policy

Is All Spanking Child Abuse?

Adrian Peterson (Getty Images)
The Left wants to tie reasonable parents who spank their children to the Peterson case.

A lump formed in my throat as I listened to a man describing his son being shot. As a ghost writer (or more accurately “celebrity collaborator,” since my participation is not secret), I hear all kinds of stories. But this one got me. I write in first person, so I had to imagine the scene from the dad’s perspective. I couldn’t shake the feeling of sorrow as I went about my daily life.

It just so happened that my “daily life” at the time included obtaining a Tennessee carry permit later in the week with my husband.

“I just feel nervous about guns,” I told David. “After hearing the story, I’m anxious.”

When I confided this fear to my friend Anna at lunch, she crooked her head slightly and said, “You know weapons prevent violent crimes, right?”

But it didn’t matter what statistics I heard — or even that I’ve shot guns my whole life and my son has been on the trap team — my heart had been pricked by the story of a lost life. When I had gone through the carry-permit class in Paris, Tenn., I asked my instructor how many crimes had been committed by permit holders since the law was first enacted in 1993.

“Zero,” he said, “though once we had trouble with a guy who kept flashing his gun at Wal-Mart.” That’s out of thousands of carriers in that county. I knew getting a permit was not irresponsible, it was responsible. But when a business trip took me to Montana instead of the permit class, I was secretly relieved. That’s the thing about stories; they capture the listener’s heart, sometimes leaving the head behind.

This is precisely what is happening with the Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was recently arrested for reckless or negligent injury to a child. His crime? He spanked his son with a switch, causing welts and cuts, which a doctor reported. The issue, of course, has grown into a larger, cultural question: Is spanking a legitimate method of discipline?

People weighed in. When I talked to a mother from Boston, she was aghast that there was any conversation around it. “This is a clear cut case of abuse,” she told me. In the South, where spanking is more prevalent, parents were more hesitant to either condemn Peterson or dismiss his actions.

In the midst of the media’s ongoing condemnation of Peterson, there was one notable exception. NBA commentator Charles Barkley defended the running back, saying if spanking were abuse, “every black parent in the South is going to be in jail.” (Later, he added: “A lot of my friends who are white and Italian sent me a text last night saying, ‘I don’t know why you’re making this a black thing. Our parents spanked the hell out of us, too.”)

And so, the conversation rages — on Twitter, Facebook, and around water coolers across America.

And therein lies the problem with this particular cultural conversation — it’s hard to conduct it rationally while looking at the photos of a little boy’s legs. Peterson said he went overboard in his spanking that day. He didn’t do it right. Yet the Left demands that the Peterson case simply be the end of the question, the end of the spanking era

I was asked to participate on NPR’s On Point to discuss the Peterson issue. They needed my “pro-spanking” opinion, I was told.  However, does anyone (other than the unflappable Charles Barkley) really want to raise his hand and say, “Yeah, I believe in spanking”? I don’t. Not this week. Because doing so automatically will make people paint one’s position with too broad a brush. Suddenly you won’t just be pro-spanking, you’ll be pro-Peterson.

It’s impossible to escape the tragic stories of the day. And yet I could tell you a hundred cases of people spanked as children who turned out quite fine. (I’m one example, yes — with welts and all.) But stories of spanking administered carefully and lovingly are honestly not that interesting.

The Left, of course, knows the art of spinning a tale, and their story doesn’t even have to be true to be effective. Remember the tragic case of gay college student Matthew Shepard who was killed after asking for a ride home from a pair of homophobes? Groups such as GLAAD claimed that this murder is what happens when homosexuality isn’t fully embraced as part of mainstream society; hate-crime legislation was named after him; Lady Gaga changed the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” to include Matthew’s name; Elton John wrote a song about him.

During that cultural moment, it made it hard to admit to one’s deeply held traditionally Christian beliefs about sexuality, not because they weren’t true, but because the Left framed the story: If you don’t embrace homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle choice, you’re as bad as the murderers. The only problem with the Left’s narrative? It wasn’t even true. As it turns out, Shepard’s murders weren’t strangers who killed him because of homophobic panic. In fact, they were his gay lovers.

And so the spanking conversation occurs right in the middle of an outrage over a too-violent NFL, a grainy video of a big football player knocking a woman unconscious, and a four-year-old’s welts. It’s as profitable as having a conversation about the morality of bourbon consumption right in the middle of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

There’s too much abuse, too many loaded words and phrases, too much brokenness to really treat the issue with the respect it deserves.

Do I spank? Definitely. But this is the debate people on the left want us to have, at exactly the moment they want us to have it . . . when they can tie reasonable people to an extreme, unrepresentative case and shake their heads in disgust.

The Ray Rice controversy was about domestic abuse, not about how “we need to reprogram how we raise men.” The Peterson story is about child abuse, not spanking. Let’s take a moment to breathe and step away from the news cycle. We can’t keep falling into their trap.

Nancy French is a three-time New York Times best-selling author.

Nancy FrenchNancy French is a three-time New York Times best-selling author and a longtime contributor to National Review Online.

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