Beguiled once again from her purpose — to apply to Tom Sawyer’s jam-stealing rump the well-deserved business end of her switch — Aunt Polly falls to ruminating: “Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.”
Mark Twain is careful to end The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while Tom is still a boy — “the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man,” he warns — but with Tom encouraging his pal Huck Finn to quit his ragamuffin ways and return to the care of the Widow Douglas, we might reasonably conclude that Aunt Polly’s mission civilisatrice has succeeded.
In modern-day Missouri, Aunt Polly would likely be in prison for child abuse. That observation is not intended to be a defense of Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back facing two years in prison for overzealously disciplining his four-year-old son, also with a switch. But the fact that Peterson’s parenting is a subject of national comment is a thoroughly 21st-century development.
The media has been uniformly delighted to flaunt its righteousness. Rolling Stone’s Kenneth Arthur wrote that, if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would not act, the Vikings franchise would not suspend Peterson, and coach Mike Zimmer would not bench Peterson, then Peterson should “do what’s right” and bench himself (the Vikings have since suspended him). At the Boston Globe’s website, Jordan Lebeau calls the new generation aux armes, writing, apropos the many childhood thrashings of yesteryear, “Maybe enough is enough. Maybe we are smarter than our grandmothers. Maybe we can be.” And at the Daily Beast, Amanda Marcotte contributes a representative piece entitled, “The Adrian Peterson Beating and the Christian Right’s Love of Corporal Punishment.”
The defenses of Peterson by his supporters, many of whom are fellow NFL players, have been similarly unhelpful, consisting mainly of personal testimonies to their own childhood beatings. Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tweeted, “I got a ass whippn at 5 with a switch that’s lasted about 40mins and couldn’t sit for 2days. It’s was all love though. Times have changed!” “When I was a kid I got so many whoopins I can’t even count!” tweeted New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram, adding: “I love both my parents, they just wanted me to be the best human possible!”
At the very least, the sides share an assumption: that sharp buttocks pain has long-lasting consequences. For the holier-than-thou Peterson critics, corporal punishment as such increases the likelihood of a life of delinquency. For Peterson supporters, a good whooping was crucial to their keeping on the straight and narrow.
Predictably, the social science on the question is ambivalent. In a much-touted 2008 study, Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children, Elizabeth Gershoff, then a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, concluded that there was “substantial research evidence that physical punishment puts children at risk for negative outcomes, including increased aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems and physical injury.” She recommended that “parents, caregivers, and all school personnel in the United States make every effort to avoid using physical punishment.”
Robert E. Larzelere, a professor of human development at Oklahoma University, disagrees. Larzelere has spent a great deal of time studying the studies, and found that researchers regularly “over-interpret the correlational evidence,” as he told the Washington Post. Claiming a link between spanking and aggressive behavior is, he said, “like showing a link between spending the night in a hospital and poor health.” In a 2010 study, “Are Spanking Injunctions Scientifically Supported?” Larzelere and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind observed that researchers regularly fail to differentiate between abusive and non-abusive corporal punishment, to distinguish whether corporal punishment was used in an appropriate disciplinary situation, and to show that the link between corporal punishment and negative outcomes was causal, not correlational. The pair concluded that “current research indicates that customary spanking is not associated with child outcomes that are any more adverse than the outcomes of any other type of corrective discipline.” In fact, their research found that “the most detrimental forms of power assertion were verbal hostility and psychological control.” The “authoritative” form of parenting they recommend — as opposed to “authoritarian” or “permissive” styles — “combine nurturance, give-and-take communication, support for age-appropriate independence and autonomy, and firm confrontive discipline and maturity demands.” Spanking, used discriminatingly, can be a valuable part of that discipline.
So thought Tom’s Aunt Polly, who seems to have brandished her switch liberally — though, as her soliloquy makes clear, not for her pleasure, but for his instruction.
A century later, the science on the subject has nothing to add. In fact, Aunt Polly’s disciplinary tactics, administered with affection as they were, foreshadow Larzelere and Baumrind’s findings, which might be summed up thus: Parents are most successful when they are both loved and feared.
That insight is about as unoriginal as they come — yet media critics and armchair observers of the Peterson episode are content to neglect the nuances of parent-child relationships, the tension of internal motivations, and the richness of the questions of how best to rear a child — a subject that has occupied human beings since the time of Plato — in their desire to declare summary judgment. None of this is to defend Peterson, who may be a brute; I have no idea. It is simply to ask: Aren’t these questions sometimes, well, hard?
Dismissing, on the basis of Peterson’s questionable conduct, all corporal punishment as child abuse and parents who strike their kids as abusers does not deepen debate. It stifles it. That is bad behavior by our public thinkers.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.