Say it with me: Child abuse is never love … never

Everything we need to know about how and why Adrian Peterson could and did deliver a savage beating to his 4-year-old son is summed up in the words of Peterson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin: “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. … He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas. Adrian has never hidden from what happened.”

Indeed. Hardin has just summed the very nexus of the last several centuries of barbarism found in Euro-American child-rearing patterns.

The Peterson story is a prototype of my life’s work. It’s why I’ll always have a job.

Over and over do adult patients sit in my office and struggle — decades later — with the torturous, confusing collision of love and violence. Love and humiliation. Love and sadism.

Or, more accurately, the failure of love. The failure of empathy. The gross abuse of power.

Egregious injustice, treacherously disguised as love.

“Now, I know my father/mother loved me,” patients will plead, as if saying it over and over again will make sense of being made powerless. Being abused. Being degraded.

It’s all I can do not to say, “Great. Your father/mother loved you. But in that instance, the love contained a most consequential pathology. Love became twisted.”

That. Wasn’t. Love.

I do sometimes say it.

“Adrian has never hidden from what happened.” Really? Let’s talk about hiding. While we’re at it, let’s talk about how tons of us are hiding, even as we tweet, call radio shows and otherwise weigh in on this matter.

If you think this debate is about parents’ rights to discipline their children, you’re in denial. Hiding. No one is suggesting parents don’t have the right to discipline their children.

And our collective tribe still has this knee-jerk, vehement, irrational response to photos of bruised, welted, bleeding lashes across the legs and buttocks of a 4-year-old because …

… we are hiding. Specifically, we are protecting the people who hurt children. Often, the people who hurt us.

If I hear one more person say “My mother/father (punished me similarly) all the time, and I turned out OK,” I’m just gonna lose it. Because it’s not OK. It’s never OK. Doing violence to children is a moral wrong. Degrading and humiliating children is a moral wrong.

Child abuse is not about information; it’s about denial. You cannot “educate” abuse out of abusive parents; those parents must be transformed. And, to be transformed, that parent must find the radical courage to confront his/her own childhood history. Peterson cannot merely say, “That’s the way I was raised.” He must find the gumption to say, “The way I was raised was wrong.”

Hiding? Peterson tweets: “I am not a perfect parent. But I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury.”

Since when does a parent’s motive define child abuse? Since when does a parent’s intentions define child abuse? This is the rhetoric of denial. You disagree? Read Alice Miller’s book “For Your Own Good.” Actually, you don’t have to. It’s all in the title. Western civilization has been justifying child abuse for centuries behind the rhetoric of good intentions.

Also in Peterson’s tweet: “I understand after meeting a psychologist that there are other alternative ways of disciplining that may be more appropriate.”

May be more appropriate? Was your therapist going for irony?

OK, Adrian. I’m in. It may be more appropriate to first conclude that, regardless of your felt intentions, what you did was despicable. And to then conclude that, in principle, it will never happen again. To tell your son that you were wrong. That, while you love him, this wasn’t love. And that you will spend the rest of your life redeeming that moment. (Children, when equipped with truth about their parents’ failings, are amazingly resilient and absurdly forgiving.)

It may be appropriate for you to confront your own childhood history. If what you did is indicative of what happened to you, then my heart breaks for you. Feel what you need to feel.

Because parents who can feel their own outrage and sadness about injustices they received as children are ever so much less likely to bequeath those same injustices to their children.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or

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