A four-year-old can barely distinguish between right and wrong, between cause and effect, between his or her home and the whole world.
Good and bad are still vague notions for a preschool child. "They are in the beginning stages of learning that there are rules and reasons you do and don't do certain things," licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and writer on child discipline Amy Morin said.
Preschoolers often cannot distinguish between intent and behavior.
"Preschool-age children judge actions by the damage done; the more the damage the more serious the crime," according to the Child Study Center of New York University. "For example, they consider breaking four dishes while helping to clean up a more serious crime than breaking one dish deliberately."
Four-year-olds typically rely on something called transductive reasoning, which links similar people, actions or events in obvious (but factually incorrect) ways. According to Michelle Anthony, Ph.D, a preschooler may believe that her teacher lives at school, because that is where she always sees her teacher.
Four-year-olds engage in magical thinking and believe their actions or desires can "cause" unrelated events. This allows them to think that wishes come true or, more troublingly, that those broken dishes caused their parents to divorce.
A four-year-old is just starting the process of cognitive decentering; he has figured out that he is not quite the center of the universe, but his world is still very small. Tomorrow and next month still mean about the same thing to him. Parents and immediate caregivers are all-powerful.
Four-year-old brains are developing rapidly, which makes that period of life so wonderful yet so dangerous. A preschooler's cognitive development can be slowed. The child can acquire aggressive impulses. The bond between child and caregiver can be damaged. A preschooler can develop depression, anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is one major, common, scientifically verified cause of all of those problems: corporal punishment, from a spank to the buttocks to a "whoopin'" with a blunt object.
Adrian Peterson's still-developing child-abuse case has prompted discussion on corporal punishment in all its forms. That discussion has been mostly ill-informed, broad and (in some cases) counterproductive. Disturbing images of the children Peterson admittedly or allegedly disciplined reach the Internet. Some people are outraged. Others respond with familiar folk wisdom.
My pop whooped me, and I turned out fine. That's just old-school discipline. It becomes just another midday debate topic.
The important corporal punishment debate is not between Jim Rome and Charles Barkley, or between you and that loudmouth on Twitter, or even between Peterson and the law. It's a debate between overwhelming, established scientific evidence and parents—hundreds of thousands of them in America—who actively disregard that evidence and choose to do something dangerous to our children.
There are sound bites, and then there is science.
The Lessons We Teach
Decades of nearly unanimous research indicates that spanking—"usual" spanking, not leaving lasting welts with a hunk of wood—"increases the probability of many serious and life-long psychological and social relationship problems," according to Murray A. Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory and co-author of The Primordial Violence and other books on child discipline.
Scholarly studies dating back to the 1930s overwhelmingly reach the same conclusion. "The research speaks loud and clear, and pretty unanimously," according to Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, associate professor at University of Michigan's School of Social Work. "Down the road, you're going to see a lot of mental health and adjustment problems in kids." Those problems include anxiety, depression and aggression problems of their own.
"Pretty unanimous" does not mean fully unanimous. Straus surveyed over 100 studies for his recent book and found that 87 percent agree that spanking has serious long-range consequences. Researchers like Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State found that an approach called "conditional spanking" can be effective for curbing antisocial behavior without exceptional long-term risks.
But conditional spanking—open-handed swats on the buttocks for two- to six-year-olds, applied only when the child has defied milder punishments—is a long way from the switch.
And 87 percent agreement is substantial in a field that relies on self-reporting to analyze multifaceted behaviors. "The high degree of agreement between studies is rare in any field of science and indicates the confidence that can be placed in the results," Straus said.
The research is so consistent and conclusive that 38 countries have banned the use of corporal punishment upon children, at home and in schools. "We're outliers in this global conversation about the way we treat children," Grogan-Kaylor said.
Peterson's actions against the child he admitted to disciplining were "somewhat on the margin, but somewhere inside the park" in terms of American acceptance of corporal punishment, according to Grogan-Kaylor.
That explains the garbled debate: It is easy to be outraged by images of Peterson's children while still approving of the occasional open-handed spank on the rear or knuckles. But the psychological and child development communities are in agreement: Striking a child as a disciplinary tactic has the potential to cause serious problems.
Parents who engage in "usual spanking" are following an outdated model and trading short-term gains for major long-term consequences. As an immediate correction to an unwanted behavior, spanking often works, as a child complies out of direct fear of physical pain. "Spanking buys you better behavior in the short term," Grogan-Taylor acknowledges.
But the price is astronomical. The child is simply reacting out of fear. Any deep moral "lesson" the child learns is likely to be exactly opposite of the lessons parents think they are imparting. "Spanking does 'teach a lesson,' " Straus said. "But in addition to the intended lesson, it teaches other things, such as if there is no one around to punish you, you can do what you want. Also, that it is morally correct to hit 'for a good reason' such as 'you insulted me' or 'you made a pass at my girl.' "
Even the short-term "lesson" is garbled. "Discipline really means to teach. Any discipline method should be about teaching," Morin said. Morin often works with parents who (like many NFL players who have spoken about their upbringings since the Peterson incident) remember being spanked and still believe they learned something from it.
"It's seared in their memory that they were hit. But if you ask what they did wrong to be hit, most of the time they don't remember," Morin said. "Well, what lesson did they learn from that?"
Hundreds of studies have come to the same conclusion. Children learn little of value from any physical pain, let alone the intense and shocking pain inflicted by a loved one brandishing what is essentially a weapon against them for reasons that their still-developing minds cannot fathom.
Startling, Scary and Unpredictable
According to Straus, that line Peterson tried to walk—between stern disciplinarian and abuser—is thin, and many adherents to harsh spanking techniques slip over it. "Spanking is the most frequent risk factor for physical abuse, i.e. severe attacks that have a high probability of injury," he said. "About two-thirds of cases of physical abuse in the United States and Canada begin as spanking and then escalate out of control."
Even when a severe spanking falls short of the legal definition of child abuse, it can cause all of the problems associated with usual spanking, and then some.
Straus said that children have a dose-response reaction to corporal punishment: Frequent or extreme "dosages" magnify the risk of significant long-term consequences. One slap from grandma does not lead automatically to future problems, but constant or severe punishments become increasingly harmful.
"It's all a continuum," Grogan-Kaylor said. "It starts with what we call 'usual spanking' and shades into maltreatment. The more of that stuff that you are doing, the more you raise the risk of anxiety, depression and aggression down the road."
Go back to that still-developing preschooler at the beginning of the article. The child only understands the absolute basics of right and wrong. The child needs guidance but gets violence. "It's mystifying and frightening for kids when they get hit," Morin said. "They don't learn what to do instead." All they learned is that something made mom or dad mad, mad enough to hurt.
The child engages in transductive reasoning, meaning he or she will take the wrong message away from that severe spanking. Mom hit me when she was mad. Mom is bigger than me. That little kid on the playground made me mad. So I can hit him. "The parent just role-modeled that aggressive behavior is OK," Morin said.
Most troublingly, the child who is still decentering—whose entire mental world is himself and his family—suddenly discovers that world includes shocking, traumatizing, barely understood pain and terror.
"Once that fear gets instilled in their brain, how much time do you want to spend with dad?" Morin asks. "When he picks up a hammer because he is working on the house, are you going to duck? It gives kids an incredible startle response when things are that scary and unpredictable in their own house.
"It's going to change a four-year-old's perspective of everything when something like that happens. It's going to change your brain, change the way you view the world, the way you view yourself, your parents, everything."
Those brain changes can reduce cognitive abilities. Spanking makes kids dumber. Straus notes that it damages the trust between parents and children, leaving the parent with no recourse for discipline when a child becomes "too big to spank."
A caretaker applying life-threatening violence—a man Peterson's size wielding a weapon would register as life-threatening violence for most adults, let alone a four-year-old—can even cause post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction whose symptoms (anxiety, depression) match up neatly with hundreds of research studies on the effects of usual spanking.
But we all turned out OK, right?
"It's a risk factor, like smoking and lung cancer," Grogan-Kaylor said. We all know pack-a-day smokers who stay healthy through old age, but long-term research of smoking and the health and societal issues it causes eventually dwarfed the grandpa never got cancer arguments. "The day will come when we will see that this is true about spanking as well."
And of course, "turning out OK" is a relative concept. "In adulthood, we get depression, anxiety disorders and substance-abuse problems: those have all been linked to children who were spanked more," Morin notes. "How do we know that we would not have turned out better?"
Violence Is Violence
The research reveals one other troubling fact: Adrian Peterson is far from alone.
Straus' studies reveal that 18.1 percent of parents strike children between the ages of two and four with a hard object—the switch, the hair brush, etc.—at least once in a calendar year. The percentage climbs to 28.4 percent for children aged five to eight.
These are not prosecutor's statistics: This is self-reporting by parents who presumably feel their actions are justified. The usual "hand-on-bottom" spanking rates for children in that age group hover above 70 percent.
The numbers represent a staggering disconnection among scientific data, global attitudes and the behavior of a large percentage of American parents. For Grogan-Kaylor, the problem stems from the fact that spanking a child is the only form of physical violence against another human being that is compartmentalized as a "different story," both in American minds and American law.
"That's what's so confusing in the public conversation," he said. "We set that aside. We say, 'This is something different. This is corrective,'" he said.
Decades of study suggest otherwise. "We are finding more and more that it's not a different kind of violence. Violence is violence."
Morin said that distrust of science and psychology plays a role in American attitudes toward corporal punishment. "There are plenty of parents who think the psychology community colluded together to come up with 101 studies that spanking is bad, but we don't talk about all the good it does," she said.
She also cites a prevailing opinion that the other nations of the world will learn their lesson when a generation of un-spanked children grows up lazy and incorrigible. Once again, the research disagrees. "In the countries where it's been banned, there are fewer mental health issues," she said. "People are not running amok now because they weren't spanked."
"People are really good at seeing the short term but fairly bad at seeing the long game," Grogan-Kaylor said. Modern methods of child discipline, which include positive reinforcement, modeling proper behaviors, relatable consequences, recognition of real child needs (much misbehavior is caused by simple hunger or fatigue) and consistency are more effective, and far less harmful, than corporal punishment.
But they require time and effort and don't provide that suddenly obedient (and confused and fearful) preschooler you get after a rap on the rear. "There's no magic potion that creates perfect child behavior all of the time," he said.
Straus states the underlying fallacy of spanking succinctly. "If you spank, just ask yourself if you have spanked again for the same problem and you will have your own evidence of the failure rate."
This is the real conversation we need to have in the wake of Peterson's child-abuse arrest. Peterson is an extreme case whose actions underline a deeper problem. We need to stop talking about "whoopin'" and "old-school discipline" and turning out OK. We are talking about violence, ignoring decades of hard science, and passing a legacy of fear and anger to future generations.
"We need to move the bar," Grogan-Kaylor said. If Peterson's actions get us to start moving that bar, it's the only real good that can come of them.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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