THE BLOG
01/26/2015 03:10 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Spare the Rod, Save the Child

Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images

"I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives," said NFL Star player Adrian Peterson. "I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man."

With these words, Adrian Peterson explained and justified his use of a tree branch to discipline his 4-year old-son. But, is he correct? Does harsh discipline and corporal punishment really help build character, success and good citizenship?

Peterson's attorney added: "My client is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son, and that it was the same kind of discipline that he received growing up in Texas."

Being a parent is challenging. Most of us often succumb to the anger and frustration that children elicit. Some children, by virtue of their biological makeup, have a harder time learning self-control; these children often have difficulties with excessive impulsivity, inattentiveness and learning. They and their parents need specialized help given the potentially negative long term consequences of such behaviors.

Often, though, all children can make parents feel inadequate and incompetent. Forty years ago, after finishing my pediatric training in Boston, I was fortunate to be accepted at a prestigious psychiatric residency program in New York to continue my training and fulfill my lifelong goal of becoming a child psychiatrist. As part of my training I was assigned to be the psychiatric consultant to the child development clinic, working intimately with pediatricians and other health professionals. At the time, I was married and had a 2-year-old daughter.

One Sunday, I took my daughter to Sears Roebuck in White Plains to buy some needed home goods and hardware. As part of the outing, I was planning to have lunch with her in the store's cafeteria and then go to a nearby playground. In the cafeteria, for no particular reason, she had a major temper tantrum. Perhaps she did not like the food I put on her plate, perhaps she was tired, and perhaps she was bored. Whatever the reason, she had a very public display of the "terrible twos," throwing herself onto the floor, screaming and crying. As I was about to react, with some anger I must admit, I heard a woman's voice coming from the next table: "I want to see how a child psychiatrist deals with this situation." The voice belonged to one of my senior supervisors, a pediatrician from the child development clinic.

Briefly, I turned around and glanced at her. I am not a child psychiatrist yet, I thought -- I am just a trainee! I was furious, but I did not know who to be angrier at: my daughter for her embarrassing public display of unruliness showcasing my sense of impotence, the pediatrician for challenging my competence, or myself for my inability to deal with a simple problem despite of years of education.

I did not know what to do and was paralyzed by helplessness. I had planned a nice outing, but now, not only was my child was having a temper in a public place, but I was being tested. That Sunday morning, not quite thinking clearly and guided just by emotion, restraining the urge to spank her only because I was being watched, I instead brusquely grabbed her, carried her a few feet away and stood her up in front of me. Startled, she stopped crying. This 2-year-old looked at me angrily and defiantly, and without saying a word and without taking her eyes off me, she slowly walked back to the place I had just picked her up, lay down on the floor, looked at me with a fierce look and deliberately, very slowly, stood up and walked towards me, acceding to be hugged. She was determined to do things at her own time and in her own way. Watching her, I learned a valuable lesson about the conflict between my sense of adult inadequacy and my child's sense of autonomy.

Disciplining and educating unruly children is a dilemma for all parents. Even the ancient Greeks complained about the youth of the day. A quote, mistakenly attributed to Socrates, illustrates their displeasure with the young: "The children now... have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise."

Centuries before Greece, in the ancient Middle East, unruly children were dealt with swiftly and decisively as described in the book of Deuteronomy Ch. 21:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son that will not listen to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother and though they punish him, will not listen to them; then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city.... and they shall say unto the elders of his city: 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice.... And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.

There is no evidence that this punishment ever took place, but the mere fact that an ancient text contains this reference suggests that even then, parents and the society at large had a hard time coping with unruly children, resorting to the most extreme measures.

Even today, many people believe that harsh discipline and corporal punishment are appropriate ways to socialize and raise children, but is it?

The literature on the adverse consequences of harsh punishments and inconsistent discipline is vast. Most studies agree that corporal and abusive punishment creates problems. We see increased aggression in young children, significant lowering of IQ especially in young girls, higher rates of conduct disorder and delinquency. Inconsistent and aggressive upbringing creates a culture of violence and increased defiance often leading to child abuse. On the other hand, consistent, warm and appropriate discipline is essential to teach children self-control and appropriate social behaviors.

Parenting is not taught in school. We learn to parent from our own parents. If we were lucky enough to have good role models, our parenting skills may be adequate. Poor parenting can be transmitted from one generation to another, creating an endless, vicious cycle. But the cycle can be broken. We have research suggesting that we can change our parenting genetic code. Parents need not be perfect to raise healthy children, they just have to be "good enough." And this may well be one of the first lines of defense to change a cultural climate of violence and aggression.
By the way, my defiant toddler has grown to be a remarkable woman, a college professor teaching American Literature. She is the mother of our three beautiful grandchildren. We think of them as our reward for not having acted on Deuteronomy's command.