In the wake of the recent video showing a Texas judge repeatedly belt-whipping his teen daughter and the recent deaths of young adoptees in Tennessee beaten with flexible tubing as prescribed by a best-selling parenting book, it’s worth reviewing how mainstream Americans discipline children. The most recent national data from the National Institutes of Mental Health, obtained by a Gallup telephone poll, was encouraging in some respects. Almost every parent regularly tries to reason with a wayward child, and nearly three-quarters redirect misbehaving kids into another activity or use time-outs.
Still, many also hit children regularly. Over the phone to a stranger, roughly half of all respondents admitted to “spanking on the bottom with a bare hand;” one in five hit children “with a belt, a hairbrush, a stick, or some other hard object;” and 5 percent slapped children in the face—on average, about once per month. About 1 percent of parents said they “beat up” their child, “threw or knocked down” a child, and “hit with a fist or kicked hard,” repeating this treatment about once every three months. (Though toddlers got the most spankings, one-fifth of teenagers continued to be hit.) In a separate 2009 study, 14 percent of mothers admitted they spanked infants under 1 year of age.
Primary care physicians tacitly approve of corporal punishment. According to well-designed surveys, 70 percent of family physicians and 60 percent of pediatricians think “striking of the child’s buttocks or hand with an open hand … leaving no mark except transient redness” is fine. In a hypothetical scenario of an 8-year-old who refuses to go to bed at the usual time, for example, one in five family physicians think the child should be spanked. Interestingly, even 40 percent of academic child abuse specialists think “spanking is appropriate sometimes.” A key committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics debated spanking for more than 10 years before they decided not to condemn it categorically. (Daniel Armstrong, the director of the Mailman Center for Child Development in Miami and the AAP policy’s main writer, told me “there was a clash of beliefs” and in the end, the committee condemned hitting kids with objects and in the face, but felt whacks on the buttocks were OK.)
Remarkably, however, a powerful trend toward abandoning corporal punishment is already under way. There has been a dramatic reduction in its use over the past two generations—an unprecedented change in a pattern that likely had been fixed for millennia. In the United States, for example, 94 percent of parents endorsed hitting kids in 1968, but only one-half approved by 1999. Similar decreases occurred in countries as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Kuwait, Germany, and New Zealand. (In Sweden, the drop preceded the law against hitting kids.)
Murray Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has devoted his career to studying corporal punishment, believes the decrease is “part of the long term civilizing process of society,” in which societal violence in all forms has dropped over the last centuries. When I push him to explain why the reduction in corporal punishment is so recent, he points to increasing levels of education. (With some exceptions, studies show that educated and wealthier families hit kids less.) But what does that mean? In other words, just what changed in these households to lead parents to raise children without corporal punishment?
Theories abound. Several experts with whom I spoke pointed to tougher laws on child abuse (that is, fear of prosecution), greater use of no-spanking day-care centers and nannies by two profession couples, or beliefs that spanking causes long-term psychological harm. But these don’t necessarily support the personal experience of many parents. At my medical center, for example, I recently interviewed dozens of pediatricians and subspecialists about their own experience, and many recalled being whipped with belts, slapped in the face, or hit in other ways as children. (I once went to preschool with a bruised cheek from being hit.) Yet not a single one hit his or her own children today as a routine method of discipline. None of the above explanations seemed on target to them. Instead, they chose not to spank for an entirely practical reason: They had, they said, learned more effective ways of disciplining children.
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.
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