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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foodconsumer.Org writes a bad article about Spanking Children

David Liu (is a "PhD" in something, I don't know what and he is a "reporter/contributer" at Foodconsumer.org).
                    
Quotations from the original article are in bold and my comments are in regular.

(Foodconsumer.org is an online food and health news outlet. It has grown into one of the most informative and widely-read online newspapers that focus on food, diet and health issues. Since its inception in 2004, the site has been visited by millions of readers from across the globe).

"A study in the May 2010 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that spanking may increase the risk of high aggressiveness in children... The study showed that kids spanked at age 3 frequently were more likely to be aggressive than those who were not spanked or spanked less frequently."

David Liu writes, "It should be noted that this is not a result from a trial. It is an observation. That means that the study has not proved that spanking is the cause for increased risk for kids to become more aggressive."

Liu should know that scientific studies rarely if ever "prove" anything other than help us understand the relationship between variables (age, gender, ethnicity, etc... and something else, or in this case, the relationship between spanking and aggressiveness) and outcomes as understood by the application of statistical methods.

Liu adds, "Again no trials have proved that spanking is the cause of these problems. In reality, children who do not behave well often get spanked. So children misbehave in the first place and then get penalized."

Liu's statement here seems silly, to me. His point seems to be that children come pre-wired for behavior problems and parents are only innocently and rationally reacting to the problems. In fact, in this one study, children who were spanked frequently were more aggressive than children who were spanked less frequently - that's the main point. The relationship between spanking and aggression seems to be that increased spanking leads to increased aggression! 

And then he adds, "The real question should be why certain children behave worse than others before parents even get any chance to discipline them?"

Liu's statement that "the real question is..." is a criticism of the study, that the study was misguided and the studiers should have looked at the child misbehavior instead of parental reactions. In fact, both issues are equally important - why do some children seem to misbehave more than others and how do parental reactions, like in the form of spanking, impact children? However, parents begin disciplining children from birth. The most common forms of discipline for parents is to ignore or yell at children. As children age from 1-2, many parents start spanking right away. I would think that studying the spanking of 2 year olds would have been better than studying 3 year olds.

"Catherine Taylor of the Tulane University School of Public Health and colleagues then followed up two years later and found children who received more frequent spankings became more aggressive at age 5. They were more likely to argue, scream, fight, destroy things, cruelty or bullying others."

This is what most studies on spanking seem to show, that children who are spanked seem to become more aggressive, not less.

Liu also writes, "Parents' behaviors including spanking could have a negative impact on their children's behaviors. However, if a child ends up becoming an aggressive adult, spanking parents should not be 100% responsible for the increased aggressiveness."

Liu seems to be concerned about parents not being blamed for their child's behavior problems. Of course parents should not be held 100% responsible for anything! Child development is very complex. However, most research has shown that spanking is associated with increased aggression in children. Moreover, spanking is a form of punishment, and punishments do not work as well as incentives at changing child behavior, and incentives seem to improve parent-child relationships. So, parents that do spank, especially parents who spank frequently and aggressively, probably bear more responsibility for rearing children into aggressive adults. However, children who grow up to be anti-social, seem to come out of a family where the parents used a Permissive parenting style - where there was no spanking, but also, there were no demands placed on the child and the child "got what they wanted when they wanted it" through tantrums in early life and agression later in life.

Liu cites "One study published in1993 in the journal Science demonstrated that aggression has its own genetic basis. Researchers found over-aggressive men had abnormal genes for a brain chemical that assists in coping with stress. (That is why aggression comes hand in hand with anxiety and depression). And Liu goes on to mention, "In early 2009, Rose McDermott, professor of political science at Brown University reported people who respond to provocation aggressively may carry a 'warrior gene'."

Liu seems to be trying to drum up some science to support his original position, that children are born aggressive and parents are only reacting to their child's genetic wiring. But, citing one study from 1993 - almost 20 years ago - is almost meaningless, as well as quoting some political science professor about a "warrior gene." How absurd! The field of genetics has nothing on child behavior worth mentioning other than some personality traits seem to have a degree of heritability, but none have more than 50% predisposition. The most heritable personality trait is temperament. Also, Liu's parenthetical comment about aggression going hand in hand with depression and anxiety is too vague - what's his point?

"The current study like any other observational studies should not be used as rock-hard evidence to blame parents who discipline their children."

No one is saying this study or any study should be used as "rock hard" evidence. Liu sounds worried about parents taking the study too seriously. God forbid parents stop spanking their children and start trying other more effective parenting methods! 
Let me add something about "studies" on mental health. No scientist in this field listens to one study. The fact that Liu is writing an article about one study from one university is, I'm sorry to say, absurd to begin with. Take for example the issue of ADD. In the period from 1995 to 2003, there were over 5000 studies on ADD. Scientists actually sort through all of these studies in order to come up with more valid conclusions about ADD - in most circumstances, no one relies on one study for anything!

"In ancient China, parents often spanked children when they misbehaved. But those who received lots of spankings were more likely to show respect, kindness to their parents and others, according to a health observer."

Okay - this comment about "ancient China" is laughable! It reminds me of the commercial about the laundry detergent, "Ancient Chinese Secret." Liu is obviously not a parenting or child development expert, so why is he critiquing a parenting study? Liu's comment about what worked in ancient China has no bearing on what goes on in 21st century America!

"Spanking is a negative tool used to correct negative behaviors. It may cause more psychological problems than behavioral problems."

This is probably true. In my practice, I find that spanking often causes one parent to feel intense shame about the other parent's discipline method, if they spank. I find that the children who are spanked fear their parents. As far as I am concerned, fear has no place in a parent-child relationship in the 21st century - maybe it did in ancient China - but our conventional wisdom is that spanking is ineffective and other methods such as incentives work much better and they improve the parent-child relationship and identity of the child rather than undermine it.

However, punishments may actually reinforce behavior problems. There's a good amount of research which indicates the idea that spanking may cause more behavior problems, and by they way, behavior problems are essentially "psychological" problems.

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