What's Wrong with Adrian Peterson?

That’s right; what is wrong with him! Recently there have been many conversations about this man and his treatment of his young son on network television, social media, in homes and even among strangers standing outside an emergency room entrance: “What should I do? Dig up my parents and tell them they should be in jail for how they raised me?” Much has also been said about how Mr. Peterson has been treated in light of the knowledge of the child abuse allegations involving his young son.

What’s missing from the conversation is an understanding of the difference between punishment and discipline and how they relate to parenting. In 2012 there were 9,573 child maltreatment victims in the state of Alabama.  Sadly we know that this figure does not include many incidents which are not reported nor prosecuted. The true number is much higher. Even more alarming is that some forms of abuse, particularly the more difficult to recognize mental/emotional abuse and sexual abuse, are just as damaging if not more so than physical abuse, but are often not reported. Certainly a prominent case such as the Peterson one warrants raising more than a few eyebrows on the issue. Children are silently suffering and are sometimes even killed at the hand of a parent or caregiver who is supposed to serve as the most trusted person in their life. In 2013, Alabama strengthened its Mandatory Reporting Law to include more persons who are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect. For more information on how to make a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, visit: http://training.dhr.alabama.gov/

The dictionary definition of punishment includes “suffering, pain or loss that serves as retribution; severe, rough or disastrous treatment.” Contrast this to the definition of discipline: “control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and correcting bad behavior.”  Discipline also means to teach or instruct. Discipline takes time to attain and the lessons learned impact later success for the child. Punishment is swift and can send a conflicting message: We don’t hit others versus I’m hitting you because you were bad. Punishment when applied correctly to teach rules and order should be appropriate to the bad behavior, the age of the misbehaving person and aim to establish order. Discipline instills lessons about choices and consequences: Since you didn’t complete your homework, you may not watch TV this afternoon. What the caring adult in the situation needs to bear in mind is what is appropriate for the child. What is the undesirable behavior and why is it happening? What could a four-year-old child do that warrants a beating that inflicts such severe trauma that it requires emergency medical treatment with bruises that are still seen days later?

Children naturally look to the caring adults in their life to learn how to follow rules and keep order. Parents need to establish routines and order so that the child understands expectations and is supported to successfully achieve those expectations. Parents and caring adults need to understand typical ages and stages of child development to know how to support their child’s success. Young children, especially the very young, are reliant on caring adults to attend to their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and, let’s not forget, REST. Many children act out because their daily needs in one or more of these areas are being neglected or ignored. When children are hungry, uncomfortable, tired or are eating and drinking substances that make them especially hyper such as caffeinated drinks and sugary snacks rather than nutritious foods and drinks that they need to function well, guess what? They become ill and cranky which results in undesirable behaviors. If you expect children to sit and watch TV or other screens for more than a few minutes, guess what? They get agitated because their attention span is not long, usually about 1 – 2 minutes per age of the child, and besides they prefer interaction with people especially other children or caring trusted adults who take time to listen to them and interact with them.

Children learn through play. They are naturally curious. They want to explore their world through their senses of sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. Caring adults with children need to establish the order and routines that support children’s active needs for learning, growing, socializing and developing appropriate behavior. Caring adults need to instill positive behaviors and attitudes before bad habits and behavior develop. Children naturally want attention from caring adults and need it to thrive. Children are inclined to please the adults in their life. When steps are taken to ensure success for the child, the parent will have success too. Children will misbehave and when they do, a caring adult will steer them on the right path not confuse them and exhibit a path that may cause further destruction.

What’s wrong with Adrian Peterson? “The punishment didn’t fit the crime” for his son. It was overboard and unnecessary. It was abusive. Mr. Peterson harmed his child and must learn nurturing parenting skills. Being removed from what he loves – football – is an appropriate corrective response that addresses his behavior. Bad behavior has consequences, Mr. Peterson.

Childcare Resources is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) partner agency of United Way of Central Alabama. Established in 1984, the agency’s mission is to make quality care and education of children happen by providing information, education, and assistance to families, providers of child care and the community.