Four sentences into her Wall Street Journal article on recent research into spanking (“Spanking for Misbehavior? It Causes More!” Dec. 17, 2017), author Susan Pinker makes two grievous errors: first, she says that children younger than 7 can’t master their emotions; second, she says a fair amount of misbehavior on the part of a young child distinguishes him from a robot.
So, here we go again with a typical post-1960s parenting canard: proper discipline, which should instill reasonably good emotional control into children as young as 4, turns children into unquestioning robots. I heard this claptrap in graduate school, courtesy of my professors, most of whom were enamored with new ideas concerning children. I thought it had run its course.
Pinker references a 2016 survey that found that two-thirds of American parents are in favor of at least occasional spankings — “hard” ones, even. According to her, that’s bad news because another 2016 study — a meta-analysis of five decades of research into spanking — found that spanking is associated with increased “acting out” and future mental health problems. Now, in fairness, Pinker admits that these correlations don’t prove a cause-effect relationship. But she says that a new study from the University of Texas, Austin, strengthens the argument that spankings cause psychological and behavior problems.
A meta-analysis of 50 years of media coverage of spanking would find that the mainstream media has been quick to publish any research that maligns spanking but has consistently turned a blind eye to research by credible, respected researchers like Diana Baumrind (University of California, Berkley) and Robert Larzelere (Oklahoma State) that finds that occasional, moderate spankings by loving parents (operative conditions) is associated with not only better behavior but improved psychological well-being.
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I’ve taken a look at UTA’s study and have no problem with its basic finding. First, I think most parents who spank make a mess of it and accomplish nothing. Because they accomplish nothing, the behavior problems for which they are spanking continue to worsen. Second, as research finds and common sense confirms, disobedient children aren’t happy children. So it makes sense that researchers find that spanking is associated with both increased misbehavior and later mental health problems.
The real problem is that today’s parents don’t know how to properly convey authority. They think authority is expressed by using proper consequences. So, they attempt to discipline by manipulating reward and punishment. That works with dogs, but it doesn’t work with human beings, the only species with free will. Under the circumstances, behavior problems worsen, parental stress builds, and emotion-driven and therefore botched spankings become increasingly likely.
The conveyance of authority is accomplished via a proper attitude, not proper methods. The characteristics of the attitude — calm, confident composure — are universal leadership qualities. That attitude is what causes a child to invest complete trust in his parents, even if they occasionally spank him.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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