Spank No More
Why are fewer parents hitting their kids?
That knowledge didn’t come from their health-care providers. As with many pediatrics residencies, mine included nothing on the practical aspects of parenting. And studies show that pediatricians spend only a few seconds during checkups talking about how to discipline a child. Instead, modern practices of child discipline are conveyed through books, television shows, and other forms of popular culture that have shifted parenting norms. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we sought out books like How To Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk that followed the path first blazed by Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton. Mass-marketed child care guides, along with popular shows like ABC’s Supernanny (praised even in the august pages of the journal Pediatrics), offered an immersive curriculum on disciplining children without hitting them.
Without really realizing it, we zeroed in on a style of parenting that sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” This is, I think, what separates those who hit kids from those who don’t, and divides largely along socioeconomic fault lines. As popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Lareau tried to document how these differences emerged. The issue wasn’t that one group was more or less lenient with bad behavior. Instead, middle- and upper-class parents tended to treat children as peers, with the pint-sized ability to make choices, respond to reason, and have valid emotions. It’s not a huge leap then to see children as having nascent civil rights that conflict with regular corporal punishment.
Such a view underlies the approach of Supernanny or How To Talk, where parents make behavior charts or create token economies for rewards, answer questions with explanations, and encourage kids to accept and express their feelings. According to Lareau, such discipline tends to be self-reinforcing, and part of a broader ecology of parenting. As a result, these children who experience it develop an “emerging sense of entitlement”—a trait that may carry some negative connotations but generally correlates with better verbal skills, school performance, and a sense that they can actively shape the world around them.
On the other side, kids seen as subordinate to adults were issued directives, and not encouraged to negotiate with adults. (Lareau watched, for example, as one mother whipped her son twice on the leg with a belt to make him go to bed.) “Implicitly and explicitly,” writes Lareau, these children learned to be “distrustful of authorities” and “absorb their adults’ feelings of powerlessness” in dealing with institutions, like schools. Plenty of spanked children may grow into well-adjusted adults, but this is one reason why, for example, corporal punishment on average correlates with lower measures of cognitive ability, such as IQ. In these households, parents saw their role as providing shelter and basic support, but children’s development was encouraged to “spontaneously unfold” without sustained parental effort.
To be sure, measures like IQ are confounded by many variables, but the advantages of higher socioeconomic status are more likely related to the style of child-rearing than some inborn genetic change caused by close proximity to money. Lareau herself doesn’t endorse any style, but all of her data points to the superiority of the concerted cultivation approach. Converted cultivation requires “enormous effort,” she tells me, and there may be hidden costs of a parenting style that relies purely on non-physical modes of discipline. It can occasionally result in obsessive “helicopter parenting.” Or, some parents deprived of physical outlets may inflict equally hurtful emotional pain. (According to the Gallup poll, one-quarter of parents swear at their kids and 16 percent call kids “dumb” or something similar.) But that strikes me as an argument for far more intensive education and support for parents, so they all can be better. That is the strategy of innovators like Geoffrey Canada who created “Baby College” in the Harlem Children’s Zone and David Olds and his Nurse Home Visiting Program. Like driving a car or using language, parenting a child well is a complex skill that requires intensive education. In short, parents also might benefit from concerted cultivation, instead of the benign neglect many now get from health providers.
Recently my mother called me on an Indian holiday, when people request forgiveness, and she wept as she recounted how she’d hit my sister and me as children. “Back then,” she said, “we just didn’t know better.” Thankfully these days, more parents do.
Darshak Sanghavi is Slate's health care columnist. He is chief of pediatric cardiology and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School as well as the author of A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician's Tour of the Body. Follow him on Twitter.