Punishment Is Not the Answer to Domestic Violence

There is a certain irony to the way our public discussion about the domestic violence of NFL players. The emphasis is on punishment in reaction to what they have done. Criminal prosecution, banishment from the league, firing of the commissioner, shaming of the league. But I have not heard one word about prevention or rehabilitation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there has been egregious conduct on the part of many NFL players and obtuse and insensitive actions by NFL officials. But while this media circus will enhance the bottom line of media organizations, I doubt that it will contribute to less violence in families.

What would be the ideal outcome in the current public discussion about domestic violence? Wouldn’t it be good if more people learned that we have good ways to help parents learn gentle and effective ways to teach their children and that they could prevent much child abuse if they were made widely available? Wouldn’t it be ideal if the NFL adopted policies that influenced their players to become better fathers and husbands? And what might we wish for someone like Adrian Peterson? Wouldn’t the best outcome for him and his family be that he learned about gentle and effective ways to be a father, repaired his relationship with his son, raised a healthy and successful boy, and became a spokesperson nurturing parenting? Could it be that his redemption is as important an outcome as any?

There are numerous effective family interventions that can help families replace harsh discipline, with gentler, more effective, more reinforcing—more loving—ways of raising children. These programs teach us a lot about human behavior that can be applied not just to family relations, but to how we deal with each other throughout society. There is a place for criminal penalties and banishment both to punish the behavior of individual offenders and to warn others about the consequences of harmful behavior. But in a society that imprisons a larger percentage of its citizens than any other country, and yet continues to have higher rates of murder, rape, and assault than Austria, Germany, and the UK, we should stop to consider whether our punitive way of life is a problem.

Do I think Peterson should serve time in prison? I don’t, so long as he truly leans into to learning better ways. He and Charles Barkley have pointed out, what evidence shows is the true, that these kind of harsh techniques are common among African American families. If you are particularly sensitive to the problem of child abuse, perhaps because you were abused and don’t want that to happen to anyone else, you may feel strongly that there should be no hint of forgiveness, lest it suggest to others that abuse will be tolerated. I too feel strongly that we should create a society where abuse of children, spouses—or anyone else–is rare and effectively dealt with. But how likely is that that criticizing the African American community for their discipline practices will achieve that outcome?

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West over a fifty year period. She tells us that in Florida alone 266 black people were lynched between 1882 and 1930. In one case, a young black boy sent a Christmas card to a white girl. When she showed it to her father, a posse of white men captured the boy, forced his father to watch as they tortured him and drowned him in the river. When I read her book, I realized why African American discipline practices were so harsh. If your five year old son could be beaten or even killed if he acted “uppity” to a white person, wouldn’t you beat him in a desperate effort to keep him from doing anything that would get him killed?

It is surely in the nation’s interest and in the interest of the African American community to adopt less harsh parenting practices. But just as a therapist does not get very far with a parent that they criticize, but does move them when they join the parent around their hopes and aspirations for their child, perhaps we need to find less harsh ways of dealing with domestic violence.

I realize that if you have experienced abuse at the hands of a parent or spouse, you may be so angry that you want to be sure that such behavior is always punished. But psychologists are increasingly adopting a pragmatic approach to these problems. The most productive question is not whether abusers are wrong and should therefore be punished, but how we can reduce the likelihood that they will abuse again. And when the abuse becomes a matter of public discussion, we should ask how we can deal with it that make it less likely not only that someone like Adrian Peterson will not abuse again, but how we can use this as teachable moment to prevent abuse in many other families.

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