Four sentences into her Wall Street Journal article on recent research into spanking (“Spanking for Misbehavior? It Causes More!” Dec. 17, 2017), the author, Susan Pinker, makes two grievous errors: first, she says that children under 7 cannot 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 indeed 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 truly thought it had run its course.
Ms. Pinker references a 2016 survey 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 do not prove a cause-effect relationship. But she is then quick to point out that a new study from the University of Texas, Austin, strengthens the argument that spankings actually cause future psychological and behavior problems.
It is interesting to note that a meta-analysis of 50 years of media coverage of spanking would certainly 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 (UC-Berkley) and Robert Larzelere (Oklahoma State) finding that occasional, moderate spankings by loving parents (operative conditions), is associated with not only better behavior but also improved psychological well-being.
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Having said that, I’ve taken a close look at UTA’s study, and truth be told, 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 are not happy children. So, it makes perfect sense that researchers find that spanking is associated with both increased misbehavior and later mental health problems.
But that is not an indictment of spanking; not, at least, unless the researcher in question set out intending to malign it. Being a social scientist myself, I can attest that most social “science” simply finds what the researcher expected, even wanted, to find, meaning that most social scientists are not scientists; rather, they are ideologues.
In my estimation, the real problem is that today’s parents, by and large, do not 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 does not work very well at all with human beings, the only species with free will. Under the circumstances, behavior problems worsen, parental stress builds, and emotion-driven and therefore completely botched spankings become increasingly likely.
The conveyance of authority is accomplished via a proper attitude, not proper methods. The characteristics of the attitude in question — 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.