Friday, April 30, 2010

On a proposed total ban on smacking

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights published an article in the Guardian yesterday calling for Britain to adopt the kind of blanket ban on any form of physical punishment for children that has already been adopted by law in other European countries such as Sweden.

The article justified its position with a reference to some research which my recent reading of Nurture Shock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggested was out-of-date and incorrect.

I thought I would write to the Comissioner and ask what his sources were.

Dear Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights,

As an involved, loving and politically liberal father of two young children, I read with interest your 29 April 2010 article in the Guardian and I had a question.

When you say "research shows that children who are spanked more frequently at age three are more likely to be aggressive by age five" I am curious which study you are thinking of.

Is it the late twentieth century work by Kenneth Dodge of Duke University? In Po Bronson's 2009 book "Nurture Shock," he points out that the early studies of spanking in predominantly Caucasian American children were later contradicted by studies of black American children in which the inverse relationship was demonstrated - "The spanked black kid was all around less likely to be in trouble."

According to Bronson, Dodge's more recent work with Jennifer Lansford (e.g. "The Relation Between Cultural Norms for Corporal Punishment and Societal Rates of Violent Behaviour" 2007) attempting to reconcile and understand the diverse results seems to have concluded that something more complex is at work.

Overall, Bronson indicated that the research found that the circumstances and cultural background under which physical discipline was administered affected the outcome.

The circumstances which led to later problems where ones in which:

'physical discipline was a mostly-unspoken taboo. It was saved only for the worst offenses. The parent was usually very angry at the child and had lost his or her temper. The implicit message was: "What you have done is so deviant that you deserve a special punishment, which is spanking." It marked the child as someone who has lost his place within traditional society.' (p.187)

Instead, when moderate spanking was a normal, expected part of discipline it had no adverse effects and in fact reduced aggression later.

It should be noted that Bronson claims that Dodge and Lansford are "adamantly against the use of physical discipline." From what I can tell, Bronson's book itself is not dictated by any pro-spanking agenda -- rather it is simply marketed as being a parenting book for people who hate parenting books, containing interesting counter-intuitive research results and the mention of spanking research is only a few paragraphs in passing.

It seems that the article and the original Swedish legislation may be partially based on out-of-date research.

I believe there is a difference between the physical abuse proscribed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the one hand and a disciplinary whack administered with the child's best interests in mind on the other.

Personally, I have found that with very young children, words do not work well enough when it comes to ceasing potentially life-threatening behaviour, such as playing with power cords or sockets, reaching for stove tops, or unlocking the front door of the house to the street. In those literally life-harming cases only, a whack on the hand administered calmly and without anger seems to be the safest for my child.
My rule is that for everything else, no matter how angry I feel, the naughty step or being sent to the bedroom works less effectively but well enough, which is fine.

I have no great religious, cultural or philosophical attachment to the use of physical punishment with children, and I would be very eager to find out if there is significant up-to-date research showing that it is problematic. Conversely, if the latest research shows that avoiding mild physical punishment is in fact neutral or even against children's best interests, then I would look forward to seeing the language used by government moderated by up-to-date studies.

Michael Maguire

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