Friday, February 3, 2012

How Should Children be Raised? Should they be Punished?

By Tom Kando

The physical punishment of children is an issue often joined by politicians and social scientists. Most forms of physical punishment of children are already illegal in some countries (e.g. Sweden) and in some states. In California, rep. Mickey Conroy proposed in 1996 to regulate the parental punishment of children, and in 2006, another State representative proposed to outlaw all spanking.

Can the social sciences shed light on this issue? There is no scientific consensus as to the best forms of parenting, but there is some good research. For example, Murray Strauss at the University of New Hampshire has documented the negative effect of just about any form of physical punishment.

There is consensus that the consistency of discipline is more important than its kind (See for example UCLA’S Travis Hirschi’s article in the Journal of Contemporary Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, the books Origins of Crime by W. McCord, J. McCord and I. Zola, and The Marriage and Family Experience by B. Strong and C. De Vault). In other words, parents can raise their children in an (1) authoritarian, (2) permissive or (3) authoritative fashion, and it is not clear which is the best.

An authoritarian style demands strict obedience, and it is associated with working-class culture. The permissive style emphasizes freedom and autonomy, and it is more typical of the middle class. The authoritative style is based on positive reinforcement and infrequent punishment, and it is found more frequently in the upper strata. While it is said that the authoritative approach is the most effective one, the more important point is that whichever style parents use, they should be consistent.

Experts also agree that “harsh treatment is less damaging to children and to their self-esteem than lack of interest and lack of consistency” (See Tommie Hamner and Pauline Turner in Parenting in Contemporary Society). Jack Bynum and William Thompson also point out that “while parental violence is linked to delinquency, strict discipline by parents is not.” (Juvenile Delinquency, 1996: 233). Similarly, Travis Hirschi stresses the importance of parental discipline for the socialization of children into decent human beings (The Causes of Delinquency, in Families and Crime, Current, July-Aug. 1983: 14-19).

There is no consensus among experts on the issue of mild corporal punishment. The difference between permissiveness and authoritarianism is also a clash between old-fashioned values and modern values, which are held by professors, the media, social workers, psychologists and other opinion leaders. Predictably, the states which still permit corporal punishment are the more traditional states of the South and the Midwest.

According to Murray Strauss, the optimal amount of physical punishment is zero. On the other hand, there is no proof that a rare, mild, “symbolic” spanking causes low self-esteem, psychological maladjustment, delinquency or suicidal tendencies. Some research suggests that at least in one group, namely African-Americans, mild occasional spanking is associated with improved behavior.

As to self-esteem, that cult finally seems to be waning. For decades, the child-development establishment took it as axiomatic that high self-esteem was a pre-requisite for achievement. For years, I have been arguing the opposite: That achievement was a pre-condition for positive self-esteem. It now turns out that I may be winning the argument.

In conclusion, whether to spank or not to spank is at least partially a cultural question, not a scientific question. The impact of any “intervention” often depends on the meaning attached to it. It may be that spanking has a positive impact among African-Americans because they believe that it will.

I don’t mean to trivialize child abuse. I am merely saying that we will never understand how discipline works , whether mild forms of corporal punishment are harmful or not, until we recognize the distinctive nature of the human experience. All human experience is interpreted. It is never a given. The impact of a stimulus is in large part what is expected from it.

When social scientists share with us their conclusions, they are also urging us to accept their interpretations, not just their scientific facts. When they discourage us from using physical punishment, they are campaigning against child abuse, campaigning to change our culture.leave comment here