Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Debunking Da Bunk: A Discussion of James Van Praagh and His Claims

I was greatly surprised a few weeks ago when I saw that my pre-retirement college, Richard Stockton College, was having an appearance in its Performing Arts Center of the “medium” James Van Praagh. Though I recognized the privileges of freedom of speech that belong to Van Praagh, Stockton, and everybody else in this country, I was disturbed and offended by the college’s allowing this performance without any analytical or contradictory discussion. Like many other colleges today, Stockton is emphasizing critical thinking skills, and it seemed to me that to have Van P’s show, and nothing else, was really a failure to model such skills for students.

I put out a message to college faculty and staff, stating my position and asking whether anyone wanted to have a panel, discussion, “teach-in”, whatever you might want to call it. Feelings about this appeared to run high, but with a wide range of opinions, from those who shared my concerns to those who thought it was silly or even puritanical to criticize what was advertised as a “fun afternoon”. Nevertheless, some people stepped forward as willing to speak in public about their opinions of Van P, mediumship, and spiritualism in general.

The programs for Van P’s performance made very strong claims for his ability to talk to the dead and to bring messages from the dead to the living. (The dead presumably do not need a return service.) According to the program, Van P “is known as a ‘survival evidence medium’, meaning that he provides evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages from the spiritual realms.” I don’t think you can make the claim more plainly than that, nor can you make claims more plainly than Van P’s announcement during the performance that he can see people’s auras and know if they are lying, and that each of us has a colored ribbon from the top of our heads all the way up to a star that has our name on it.

Van P’s performance is presented as evidence that all his statements are correct. He states that a spirit is near him and identifies the age and sex of that person or states a name or an initial letter that may have meaning for someone in the audience. When there is a response from an audience member, Van P then spins out and develops the message by using information the person provides. “He was a man who liked facts”—“Yes, he was a lawyer”--  “You still have some of his law books”—“Yes”—“One is tan with a red top to the pages”--  “Yes!”, et cetera. In one case, however, there was what appeared to be a remarkable “hit” on a fact, which led me to wonder to myself whether there were confederates in the audience. If you’d like to know more about what Van P does, there is a youtube piece about  this showman-shaman:

What I actually want to talk about here is the discussion that followed the performance. I don’t suppose anything was said that has never been said before, but there were one or two points that I did not expect. A number of people from the audience followed us into the discussion room and demanded to know whether we would be “for” or “against”; when I said that was what we were going to talk about, they reversed course and were gone at once. Three people who were apparently believers in mediumship stayed for a short time and one spoke of a previous meeting she had had with Van P, as well as of her contacts with her recently-deceased mother. I appreciated her willingness to give this information. Most of the other participants were current or retired faculty of the college, or students, but Michael Cluff of the South Jersey Humanists was kind enough to come and address humanist concerns about exploitation of the bereaved by self-proclaimed mediums. Others talked about issues like the confirmation bias and poor judgment of probability that plague human thinking about spiritualistic practices.

A question that I did not expect came from a historian of religion, who asked us all why we need to debunk spiritualist beliefs, given, she said, that these must play some role in the culture’s functioning or they would not be there (a side argument almost started on that last bit). This excellent question forced many of us to think hard about the assumption that I and others made: that if it’s bunk, it should be debunked.

It took a while to focus on this issue, as we had all been too busy debunking to think about why we wanted to do it. The first reason was one that had already been mentioned several times--  that those who claim to talk to spirits and bring information to the living may be exploitative and drain the vulnerable of their resources. It was also suggested that for the bereaved to spend their time consulting mediums caused delays in the grief process; however, we did not really know if this was true or even if it had been studied systematically, and there was also some uncertainty as to whether grieving really has to follow the guidelines standardized for it in the Unites States in the last century.

After a while, people began to consider the “slippery slope” concern: that acceptance of an unfounded spiritualistic belief system might make it easier for individuals to accept without evidence other beliefs, leading to practical decisions that might be harmful. One participant pointed out the multimillion-dollar industry making homeopathic medicines--  drugs that are thought by their advocates to impart their “vibrations” to water, so that a highly diluted version is expected to have a more powerful effect than one that is undiluted (the opposite of the usual dose-response relationship). Drugstores stock these, and convinced parents treat their children and themselves with totally ineffectual homeopathic remedies rather than seeking real medical care, creating a potential for harm. Along the same line, I spoke about the issues familiar to some readers of this blog--  the conviction that mothers and unborn babies communicate by telepathy and that the mother’s thoughts of ambivalence about the pregnancy “mark” the baby psychologically, causing adopted children above all to be scarred in ways that cannot be treated with standard psychological or psychiatric care and must be “healed” by unconventional, potentially harmful, treatment.

We were thus able to find practical advantages to effective debunking (although we remained pessimistic about the possibility of actually achieving this with true believers). Still, I continue my commitment to my a priori position:

If it’s bunk, it should be debunked.

And it seems pretty clear to me that Van Praagh’s claims are bunk.   


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Her Brain Needs All the Stimulation It Can Get": The Death of Kianna Rudesill

In Illinois, a trial for murder is presently underway. Heather Lamie is accused of having caused the death in 2011 of her 4-year-old foster daughter, Kianna Rudesill (see
and Kianna died of head injuries that according to medical experts could not have been self-inflicted.

It appears that the defense will call as an expert witness the pediatric forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven. Ophoven has become known for her contributions to the defense of parents accused of killing children. Her testimony shown at shows her arguments against a conclusion that a parent had nonaccidentally killed a child. She gave similar arguments in the Yhip case in California and the Trevor Smith case in Ontario, both to be found through Google. (The Yhip case is of particular interest if you want to look at this background.)

Until recently, prosecutors and forensic examiners investigating the causes of a child’s death had to work by reverse inference based on bruises and other evidence, to consider how injuries might have come about and what causes were most likely. The actual events leading up to the death, in the previous days and hours, were known only to the accused--  if indeed to them. But today there is a new source of information: the text messages sent and received by the accused during the run-up to the time of death. These may be of much importance in establishing what happened, and in the case of Kianna Rudesill’s death, they appear to say much.

Heather Lamie and her husband Joshua texted to each other about Kianna’s condition, expressing no sympathy about an injury the child appeared to have. The texts included the admonition to respond to Kianna’s being “out of control” by a simple expedient: “Beat her ___”.

Sad and telling as these texts may be, they open a number of important questions. Did these people not understand that their texts could be read later? Or, did they think that it was not important to hide what they said, because they believed they were doing the right thing? If they believed they were doing the right thing, why did they think so? Did they, like the adoptive parents implicated in the death of Nathaniel Craver in York, PA in 2009, have contacts with people who would advise them that they must unbendingly assert their authority over a foster child? Were they instructed that the child was intentionally defying them by failing to comply, and that all methods were acceptable in the fight to save her from herself?

I ask these—clearly speculative--  questions because of a specific text sent to her husband by Heather Lamie. Referring to putting Kianna into the shower, she texted: “Yes it is kind of cold but her brain needs as much stimulation as it can get.” This statement has many implications beyond the obvious message of cruelty.

I think it is quite possible that Heather’s treatment of Kianna was based on recommendations made by proponents of Attachment Therapy, either directly or as passed along by would-be helpful friends and neighbors. These recommendations often confuse social stimulation--  much needed by developing babies--  with sensory stimulation, and assume that intense sensory stimulation of all kinds serves to force brain development. Those making the recommendations also propose that all failures of children to satisfy parents’ wishes are results of poor brain development. The “logical” conclusion of these two assumptions is that sensory stimulation causes improved brain development, improved brain development causes compliance with parents’ wishes, and therefore sensory stimulation ranging from doing jumping jacks to cold showers is beneficial. There is certainly no evidence to this effect, although many occupational therapists and special educators persist in practices like skin brushing because of their commitment to the connection between sensory stimulation, brain changes, and improved behavior. (Interestingly, Jessica Beagley, of hot sauce fame, also put her adopted Russian son in a cold shower and videotaped this to send to “Dr. Phil”; she appears to have been surprised that she was charged with child abuse. She claimed that the boy had Reactive Attachment Disorder, suggesting that she might have been influenced by Attachment Therapy beliefs.)

Heather’s and Joshua’s attitudes toward Kianna, as shown in their texts, were also reminiscent of the views of Nancy Thomas, who has become a spokesperson for Foster Cline and others of the authoritarian Attachment Therapy school of thought. Thomas has recommended assuming that children are lying about injuries, or that they have deliberately hurt themselves in order to cause trouble for adult caregivers. When Kianna’s leg was injured at home, her preschool teachers carried her from place to place during the day. Joshua texted about this, ”If it hurts that bad she can go to bed.” Thomas and other Attachment Therapy authors like Keith Reber have attributed illnesses including vomiting to the intentional actions of children, and have argued that showing sympathy to sick or hurt children is simply allowing oneself to be manipulated and thereby making the children’s mental illness worse. The Lamies may or may not have taken this belief straight from Attachment Therapy, but instead may have shared it as part of the “old-fashioned” way of dealing with children  recounted in many memoirs, especially of those who grew up in the Middle West or West of the United States. Nevertheless, the possible association of their actions with Attachment Therapy needs to be explored, and I hope the prosecutors will realize this.

And what if the Lamies’ actions toward  Kianna did indeed come from a caseworker or therapist adherent of Attachment Therapy? The Lamies will have to take their own responsibility for their actions, but their advisor (if there was one) will not, unless a malpractice complaint is brought, and that is highly unlikely until NASW and other professional organizations face up to their obligations in matters of this kind.

Oct. 7, 2014: Heather Lamie has been convicted on two counts. No caseworker or therapist was charged.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Survivor of Attachment Therapy Speaks

I don't know how to bring some very important comments to this page, so let me ask everyone interested in AT to go to, and look at the comments by McKenzie Schmitt.

The post originally asked for accounts of AT by people who had experienced it as children and who felt it had been helpful. There have been none.

Instead, here is an account that speaks volumes about the real nature of the treatment.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sensory Rooms and Gift Horses

Most people have heard the admonition “not to look a gift horse in the mouth” – in other words, not to query or criticize anything we are given for free. Well, it seems that an organization has provided to some Russian orphanages a small stable of gift horses in the form of “sensory rooms” ( Most Russians are not examining the value of these gifts carefully, so I will do it for them.

What are sensory rooms? They are rooms full of equipment that provides sensory stimulation through flashing lights, changing colors, and so on. Google the term and you will find that you can buy one on line for more than $20,000, and it will include the following: an infinity tube, a bubble tube, a LED fiber optic cascade, a projector wireless, color changer, and other bits including a bean bag chair. I don’t know what all those things do exactly, but they are said to change your room into a Multi-Sensory Environment (their caps).

What are sensory rooms for, and why would anyone want to have them? Basically, they are the same kind of thing as “snoezelen” (see These activity rooms were originally created in the ‘70s for fun, by graduate students in the Netherlands, and I would speculate were planned to make recreational drugs even more recreational. More recently, they have been used with dementia patients and with autistic children--  but without any evidentiary support for the helpfulness of this practice.

Now, the Russian orphanage managers and their donors are assuming that young children in institutional care will benefit in some way from periodic sessions in the sensory room. Once again, there is no empirical evidence to support this idea, so perhaps it would be a good idea to ask where anyone got this notion.

The basic belief behind sensory rooms (and similar treatment) is that human personality and intelligence are shaped by the impact of sensory experience—that infants are “blank slates” whose development and eventual characteristics derive from the sensory experiences they have had. This idea dates back to the French philosophe Condillac, who at the time of the French Revolution put this suggestion forward as relevant to creating good citizens in the post-revolutionary world. J.M.G. Itard, an admirer of Condillac, used this approach as he attempted (unsuccessfully) to work with the “wild boy of Aveyron”, an apparently feral, language-less boy who was about 12 when “caught”. Itard used a variety of sensory stimuli such as massage and the production of different sounds in his efforts to produce in the “wild boy” more normal levels of ability, which of course Itard assumed to develop in most people as a result of the sensory experiences of which the “wild boy” had been deprived. Similar approaches were taken later in the 19th century as American educators tried to work with blind and deaf children. (This was the reason for the famous scene in the life of Helen Keller, when Annie Sullivan pumped water over her hand.) Some children responded well to social interaction and stimulation, but more generally it appeared that whatever the source of their cognitive and sensory limitations, they could not be cured just by additional sensory experience.

But--  here we are today, with sensory rooms for sale, and in use in institutions like the Russian orphanages, from which children often emerge with poor cognitive abilities and possibly with emotional disorders as well. If there is no evidence that sensory rooms provide effective treatment, why are people spending resources for them,  that might be used more helpfully in other ways? No doubt some of this is the “trailing edge” of Condillac’s thinking, but I believe there are some other misunderstandings at work here.

A primary problem with regard to the sensory room practice has to do with the confusion between social stimulation and sensory stimulation. Genuine deprivation of sensory stimulation in early life has been shown to result in later cognitive weaknesses in animals, and Jerome Bruner in the 1950s generalized this finding to human beings. Because some (but not all) aspects of sensory development are guided by sensory experience, it’s true that problems like poor depth perception can result from a lack of sensory experience. However, in the 1970s, Jerome Kagan, studying Mayan infants who were reared for the first year in darkened huts, found that although the children seemed cognitively slow at a year of age, they recovered over the next several years as they became involved with a stimulating outside environment.

In any case, children in institutions are not deprived of sensory stimulation, as has been done experimentally with animals and as has occurred for cultural reasons in some human situations. Institutional infants have plenty of illumination and things to look at, including other children, adult caregivers, windows, doors, and so on. (This may not seem like an interesting view to adults, but it is quite enough to support the growth of cortical sensory areas.) Institutions tend to be  noisy, with talk by caregivers and older children, crying of babies, and so on. There are also smells, tastes, and the experience of physical handling.  But just having these experiences--  or the experience of the sensory room--  is not enough to encourage good cognitive or emotional development in the very young.

What is missing, then? Institutional children are often deprived of social stimulation, for example of infant-directed speech with a pitch and tempo of interest to infants, or of the smiling, interested gaze of a caregiver. (Of course, these experiences may also be missing in foster homes or even in poorly-functioning families.) Social stimulation at its best encourages cognitive development by helping to guide infant attention to important sensory events and by regulating or buffering sensory experiences that may be overwhelming for an infant. But there is more to it than that.  A well-trained and engaged caregiver does not just speak in an infant-directed way—he or she changes the voice in an effort to get the infant’s attention, or softens speech if the infant seems over-stimulated by it. Such a caregiver smiles and gazes at a baby, but if the baby averts his or her gaze, the caregiver waits until the baby looks back before making other efforts to interact. Good caregivers recognize that in order for a baby to learn from sensory stimulation, the sensory experience must be neither too intense nor too weak, neither too rapid in tempo nor too slow.  They also realize that for infants and toddlers, much of their most important sensory experience occurs during care routines like feeding and diapering, and that these routines can provide an essential ”curriculum” for teaching young children.

In sum, sensory stimulation is not useful for early development unless adult caregivers actively engage in shaping the infant’s sensory world in ways that foster attention and learning. Unless caregivers are doing this job in sensory rooms, any stimulating properties the rooms have may simply overwhelm young children and minimize any learning effects that they might conceivably have.

Could the money contributed for the purchase of sensory rooms have been better spent? Yes, but to do so would involve ongoing commitment of dedicated amounts over a period of years. Real advantages for young children’s development do not come from “one shot” solutions like the gift of a sensory room, but they are a matter of hiring and training excellent and sufficient staff.  Help of especial importance is given by increasing staff salaries and living conditions so that turnover of employees is reduced and a stable social environment is provided. Without stability, caregivers cannot get to know the children, and unless they know the children well and read their communications of interest or aversion, the caregivers cannot buffer sensory experiences to provide the best levels of stimulation.  

Throughout human history, and all over the world, most babies have not had environments that looked or sounded interesting to adults, but they developed and learned well because they had plenty of social stimulation by engaged caregivers who modulated sensory experiences to suit the children’s needs. Living arrangements that fail to provide this help will not support good development whether they are orphanages with sensory rooms, foster homes, or the children’s biological families.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Before the Fringe: Do Today's Unconventional Beliefs Have Common Ancestors?

A member of a Facebook discussion group recently speculated on whether there was a connection between the concerns of Christian groups in the ‘80s and ‘90s about abortion, and the “Satanic panic” of the ‘90s, which featured stories about how devil-worshippers conducted unholy rituals that killed babies. I don’t know the answer to this problem, but the question itself points up the possibility of connections between unorthodox beliefs and other religious or political principles and practices. These connections could involve ideas whose popularity was high long ago—a sort of  ”trailing edge” phenomenon--  or current beliefs which either affect each other directly or which are brought about by a shared predecessor.

I understand that historians don’t like this kind of search for connections, and I can see how it might be thought of as cherry-picking. Nevertheless, I think it may be useful to see whether the predecessors of today’s unconventional beliefs were also the “fringe” of their own times, and how they connect with other “fringes”..

Some aspects of current unconventional thought may be the “trailing edge” of Transcendentalism, a philosophy of the mid- 19th century that stressed the unity of physical and mental processes, the role of Nature in human life, and the importance of traditional Asian beliefs as guidance for Western thinkers.  Bronson Alcott (“Grandfather” of Little Women) was a Transcendentalist who tried to keep his family on a farm, “Fruitlands”, through a New England winter, living on oatmeal and apples and wearing only cotton and linen so as not to exploit animals; his wife finally persuaded him that the younger children needed milk as well, and after a while the family moved back to Concord.

This is simplifying a bit, but by the 1880s Transcendentalism had given rise to the New Thought, a system that emphasized the power of thought over physical events. The New Thought included approaches like Christian Science, a belief system that stressed physical health as it might be influenced by thought, and one which hangs on as a somewhat conventional, minimally evangelical religious group in the United States. The influence of the New Thought is still apparent in some current Internet and print  publications about Attachment Therapy, in which it is claimed that children can voluntarily vomit, defecate, or even die, out of their desire to disturb and humiliate their adult caregivers.

But although Transcendentalism and then the New Thought seem to be precursors of some alternative psychological beliefs, it’s difficult to bring those older beliefs into alignment with other “fringe” ideas--  especially those that have to do with physical facts and the history of the universe. In a 2012 book, The pseudoscience wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the birth of the modern fringe, Michael Gordin discussed a number of beliefs that emerged between the 1940s and the 1970s and that seem to provide a foundation for more recent alternative beliefs. I want to summarize those and see if there is any evident connection between them and other unorthodox beliefs, whether about alternative psychotherapies or about Satanic ritual abuse.

Gordin concentrated on issues of pseudoscience and the demarcation problem of discriminating between science and pseudoscience. (This is a more difficult task in the physical sciences than in psychology or medicine, where the occurrence of injury as the result of an assumption provides a brighter demarcation line.) He organized this discussion around the 1950 publication of Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, a former psychoanalyst. Velikovsky’s book collated accounts of events in the Bible and other texts that could support the idea of planetary catastrophes having occurred within recorded history--  for example, the story of the sun having “stood still” for hours during an Old Testament battle. Using such examples, Velikovsky put forward the claim that changes in the planet and solar system have not been gradual and uniform as is assumed by geologists and astronomers. Instead, Velikovsky argued, a comet that later became the planet Venus brushed Earth with its tail, causing disasters but also creating the manna that fed the Jews in the desert (the explanation for this last bit was provided, but I really can’t get into it). The present form of the solar system was thus less than 5000 years old.

Worlds in Collision was published by Macmillan, the leading scientific textbook publisher of the time, after having been reviewed by someone who was only peripherally involved in astronomy. Its publication was followed by severe criticism of the publisher, not so much for having accepted the book at all, but for allowing it to be presented as if it were a scientific undertaking. (The author himself was at times quite willing to have it regarded as history.) Concerns about how the public might be deceived by Worlds were exacerbated by summaries and serializations of the book in the popular magazines Harper’s and Collier’s. Scientists who spoke critically of Worlds were, however, also concerned about the reality or appearance of censorship of scientific work; these worries were based on the current political witch-hunting of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the recent history in the Soviet Union of suppression of modern genetic work in favor of the anti-Darwinian view of inheritance, Lysenkoism.

Velikovsky did not go away. He continued to write and developed a small but devoted following who by the 1970s became part of what Gordin called “counter-establishment science”. The counterculture, with its commitment to the Free Speech Movement of a few years before, helped establish several journals that gave serious consideration to Velikovsky’s proposals. As time went on, college courses examined his work as a breakthrough that went beyond the existing system of thought. Even quite recently, as Gordin pointed out, the whole 2012-Doomsday scenario included references to Worlds in Collision. Referencing Randolph Weldon, author of Doomsday 2012, Gordin noted: “Weldon supplements Velikovsky’s account with a mechanism that disturbed the solar system in antiquity, issuing the comet that became Venus… This hidden force was what the Mayas had calculated would return at the end of the Long Count, and a new force will soon terrorize and destroy Earth.” 

Where does this lead us with respect to alternative beliefs about psychology? Did such beliefs share ancestors with Velikovsky’s theory of the solar system? Except for the fact that Velikovsky had trained as a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalytic concepts of the unconscious and of repressed memory have been important parts of alternative psychologies and psychotherapies, it is difficult to see any direct connections—but there are commonalities between the psychological “fringe” and the physical science “fringe”. There are also unshared characteristics.

  1. Do the physical and the psychological “fringes” both appeal to nonmaterial forces as explanations?... Velikovsky’s arguments were supportive of a “young earth” approach and therefore of creationism with its strong spiritual emphasis, and he drew evidence from sacred writings of various kinds, treating them as historical evidence. Nevertheless, his explanations were as entirely material as one sees in conventional science. Lysenkoism used a material explanation too. In alternative psychologies and psychotherapies, however, it is common to see appeals to supernatural phenomena like telepathy or to the effects of unknown energies.
  2. Have physical and psychological “fringe” material been presented to the public in the same ways?... Velikovsky’s publication of Worlds in Collision with a well-known scientific publisher was something of a fluke. Most such material has been published by specialty presses and has not been widely advertised. The same has been true of psychological “fringe” material until the late 1990s and later, when there were publications of such material by the Child Welfare League of America, Academic Press, and Wiley. 
  3. Have physical scientists and psychologists responded in the same ways to ‘fringe” materials?... Gordin’s book discussed the confused response of physicists and astronomers to Worlds in Collision. Physical scientists wanted to argue against Velikovsky without falling into the censorship trap; some focused their criticisms on the publisher, whose approval of the book seemed to imply that it should be included in their respected natural science list. Others ignored Velikovsky’s arguments, or, like Albert Einstein, were friendly but would not give the support Velikovsky wanted. Psychologists have on the whole ignored issues about alternative psychologies and psychotherapies; the American Psychological Association has even in recent years given continuing education credits for study of alternative treatments. A possible explanation of this indifference comes from a comment by Martin Gardner on the work of Wilhelm Reich, a direct predecessor of today’s alternative psychotherapies: “The reader may wonder why a competent scientist does not publish a detailed refutation of Reich’s absurd biological speculations. The answer is that the informed scientist doesn’t care, and would, in fact, damage his reputation by taking the time to undertake such a thankless task” (quoted by Gordin).
  4. Have countercultures supported both physical and psychological “fringe” ideas over time?... The role of the ‘70s secular counterculture in popularizing and maintaining interest in Worlds in Collision--  even bringing it into college courses—is clear. The religious counterculture that supports creationism has also played a role. These countercultural phenomena were not just anti-science in a general way, but fought the authority of science by declaring their own sources of authority to be paramount. Aspects of the secular counterculture are also apparent as supports of some alternative psychologies and psychotherapies--  for instance, the countercultural appeal to “Asian tradition” as a source of knowledge shows up in the energy therapies of different kinds.  The idea of repressed memory is also fostered by the secular counterculture’s stress on emotion as a more trustworthy guide than thought. Religious countercultures like the charismatic movement have supported alternative approaches that focus on adoption issues or posited prenatal experiences of interaction with the mother; these concerns relate clearly to positions on abortion and extramarital sex.

It’s hard to come to any clear conclusion here. Alternative beliefs about the physical world and about psychological phenomena share some but not all concepts and histories. The one factor that seems to me to be most important in encouraging the “fringe” is the existence of countercultures that can increase their own power and prestige by advocating for a “fringe” belief. But perhaps an equally important point is the fact that as Martin Gardner said, “the informed scientist doesn’t care.”

Monday, September 15, 2014

The "Parental Rights Amendment"--Or, the Parental Interests Amendment

As shows, a small group of senators and representatives are supporting what they call a “Parental Rights Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution. Here are the provisions of the proposed amendment:

  1. Parents have a fundamental right to direct their children’s upbringing, care, and education.
  2. Parents have the right to choose from public, private, and religious schools or to choose to school their children at home.
  3. Infringement on these rights is allowable only when the highest levels of government interest are involved.
  4. This does not extend to the right to make a decision or action that would end a child’s life.
  5. No treaty or international law may be construed to modify these provisions.

The basic concerns here seem to be in favor of parental choices of health and medical care (but not parental decisions to terminate pregnancy or to withhold treatment from a severely compromised newborn). Another concern--  apparently secondary, but possibly not so—is to continue to prevent the U.S. from ratifying the United Nations Convention on Children’s Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (Efforts to avoid ratification of the UNCCR have been successful for almost 30 years now, so chances are that will continue to be happy about this.)

Arguments in favor of institutionalizing parental rights often focus on errors of child protective services staff who have “taken away” children inappropriately. There is no question that these problems occur with alarming frequency (see for example

However, it would be a great mistake to imagine that these errors are more frequent than erroneously failing to take custody of a child when the child is in real danger. The Barahona case in Florida was an egregious example of this, involving the common problem that caseworkers liked and thought well of parents and therefore did not even bother to contact the endangered children ( A recent case was that of Timothy Jones of South Carolina, who is accused of killing his five children and driving with their bodies to Alabama (Blinder, New York Times, Sept 12, 2014; A18. According to the Times, Jones had been investigated in May and August 2014, following reports that one son had “extensive bruising”. The August investigation report spoke of Jones as “overwhelmed” by caring for the five children, ages 1 to 8 years, on his own following a divorce. Interviews with the children suggested that he depended on physical punishment as discipline, having the children do push-ups and beating them with a belt, and that he used rough horseplay. The May investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence for an arrest. (There had been earlier investigations of the conditions of the family home while Jones’ wife was still living there.)  

Advocates of a Parental Rights Amendment seem to be concerned only with errors of child protective services staff that lead to mistakenly taking the child into custody. The errors that leave children in the custody of parents who later injure or kill them are not mentioned. (To be fair, the website does state that prevention of abuse or neglect by governmental agencies would be continued under the amendment, because such prevention is a governmental interest of the highest order. However, it is unclear what parental actions would be included as neglectful or abusive under the amendment.)

For some decades now, U.S. courts have made decisions about child custody on the basis of the ill-defined term “the best interest of the child”. I refer to this term here for one reason only: its very existence indicates our awareness that the best interest of a child may not be the same as the best interest of a parent, and neither may be the same as the best interest of the state. All these interests may overlap to a greater or lesser extent, but they are not necessarily identical. This point is made even more  clear by the fact that the advocates of a Parental Rights Amendment have as a major concern the rejection of the Convention on the Rights of Children. They want priority given to the interests of parents which do not necessarily overlap with the interests of their children. (Because the concept of a “right”, fundamental or absolute, is difficult to define, I would suggest that we speak of parents’ and children’s interests, not their rights. This terminology may help us avoid the influence of the “natural law” system and focus on the outcome we desire.)

Modern democratic government is based on acceptance of the fact that different groups (and government itself) have different interests, and the principle that balancing the interests of different groups is the best way to assure survival of the entire community. Because interests of parents and children may not be identical, and because children are not competent to make use of civil rights and therefore possess them in a limited way only, the best interest of the government and community is in the protection of children from a range of dangers, including those that may unfortunately arise from their caregivers. To prioritize parental rights through a constitutional amendment would be to interfere with both children’s interests and those of the larger community as a whole.  Think about the amendment as a Parental Interests Amendment and I think you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t believe proponents of the Parental Rights (or Interests) Amendment are concerned about the outcome of balancing interests that I mentioned in the last paragraph. On the contrary, their motives are ideological rather than pragmatic. Exploration of the site shows the influence of charismatic Christian leaders, for whom the establishment of correct lines of authority is an overriding goal. Legal arguments provided by come from the law school of Regent University, a Christian school founded by the charismatic Pat Robertson. To put parents firmly in charge, and to avoid the “ungodly” influences of the United Nations (a concern of fundamentalists for many years now)--  these are goals that exist because of religious and political beliefs about authority, not because their outcomes are held to have value for the community.   

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More about Nasty Tastes and "Consequences" for "Choices"

Some time ago, I posted comments about the suggestion of a “nanny blog” that children should be disciplined by having unpleasant substances placed in their mouths ( I gave a number of reasons why this approach is inappropriate and potentially harmful to children.

A few days ago, a comment on that post was submitted by “Adam”. He said, “Since when is giving someone vinegar in any way hurting them. If you do your research you will see that vinegar has many healthy benefits to them. Giving it as a consequence is a deterrent. While I agree with spanking too, does this not hurt? The idea is not to hurt but to teach that for a bad choice comes a consequence. You may think that taking away a little tv time will do the trick but you have to consider the situation. Any kind of punishment is wrong if not done with love. If any of these are done out of anger they are wrong.”

It’s difficult to tell exactly what Adam’s argument is, of course. The original post had to do primarily with the recommendation of Tabasco sauce and pepper for disciplinary techniques, although vinegar and lemon juice were mentioned--  so it’s really irrelevant whether some people believe that vinegar is good for you (as are some of the other substances mentioned, including soap, when used for appropriate purposes).

The central point of Adam’s argument, I think, has to do with “consequences” and with punishment, and with the similarities and differences between the two. Like many other people, Adam seems to confuse these terms, and to follow a line of thinking in which a parent might say “I consequenced my daughter.”
I think the confusion shown by Adam and others can be traced to belief systems like that characterized by Foster Cline’s commercially-successful “Love & Logic” program. Perhaps finding that parents felt anxiety and guilt when they saw themselves as punitive, L & L introduced “consequence” as a transitive verb. The L & L group also created a false analogy between the impersonal painful effects of the physical environment on those who ignore its rules, and the personal administration of discomfort by adults who believe that painful experiences should alter a child’s unwanted behavior.

Ignoring the realities of the natural world does have its consequences, often uncomfortable and sometimes even fatal. Don’t wear your jacket when the temperature is dropping, and you might be miserably cold. Jump out a second-story window, and you could die or at least be seriously injured. It doesn’t matter who you are or whether some other person decides you’ve been bad or not--  these consequences are always the same, when conditions are the same.

Things parents do to children with the intention of discouraging unwanted behavior are punishments, not consequences. They do not just happen naturally, but occur when the adults make decisions about the behavior and how to respond to it. Unlike consequences, punishments don’t happen in exactly the same way every time. Sometimes parents decide that an unwanted act was accidental and don’t punish it. Sometimes they are too tired to follow through. Sometimes punishment is given so long after the unwanted behavior that it is completely ineffective. And sometimes there is no punishment because the parent does not find out about the act at all (and in that case, the child experiences all the reward value of whatever it was he wanted to do, without any associated punishment).

A strange but true point about the use of punishment is that both rewards and punishments are most effective when they are small. Intense, frightening punishments arouse so much emotion that children may not be able to understand their connection to the unwanted behavior. That would be likely to be the case when young children are “hot-sauced” as a punishment. Mild punishments like a raised parental voice or simply being physically stopped from an action, if they follow immediately or even better coincide with an unwanted act, are much more effective than intense punishment.

A recent webinar about working with FASD children, provided by the Canadian group CHNET-WORKS ( gave some useful hints about helping children comply with adult wishes. These were directed primarily at FASD problems, but also considered relevant to autistic children and others with problems of brain functioning. These children may be seen as noncompliant or oppositional rather than as unable to obey adult rules, although the latter point may be the real case.. Dan Dubovsky of SAMHSA gave some especially useful suggestions that are applicable to many children and adolescents.

One important point is that multiple rules or multiple directions may be confusing to some older children, just as they are to toddlers. When the adult says “take those clothes upstairs and put them away,” and the child does not follow through, the problem may well not be deliberate disobedience, but a state of confusion or even the inability to remember the second instruction after the first has been accomplished. Breaking a task into small, definite pieces may be necessary before poorly-functioning children can complete the entire task.
Dubovsky also suggested that only a reward system be used, rather than  including punishment or “consequences”. Children with cognitive difficulties respond well to small rewards (including praise), but can be upset or confused by punishment--  and this would be especially true of punishments that are delayed, as I mentioned earlier.

Another way of smoothing life with a poorly-functioning child is to give help in handling transitions--  getting up, going to bed, leaving for school, having company come. The child may need repeated warnings of what is going to happen in order to tolerate the change, even though these transitions occur every single day and adults imagine that the child will be comfortable with them.

As a final point, I want to refer back to one of Adam’s statements and point out how this way of thinking can cause poor handling of some children. Adam said that  “for a bad choice comes a consequence.” This “good choice, bad choice” talk is very common nowadays, and I think is harmless with well-functioning children, although it’s really just the modern way to say “good girl” or “bad girl”.

However, the idea of a “bad choice” contains within it the assumption that a child is making a choice, and that the ensuing action is voluntary. In other words, the reasons for all behaviors are thought to be within the child. This assumption is called the “fundamental attribution error”, and it is a matter of ignoring or minimizing the impact of external factors on behavior. To avoid the fundamental attribution error, it is important to realize that the child’s actions may be shaped by external factors, as much or more than they are by his or her decision about what to do. A crowded, over-stimulating room may cause disorganized, “hyperactive”, distractible behavior. An angry adult who appears threatening may cause stonewalling or lying. A set of overly-complicated instructions may be followed by failure to comply. These external factors can be altered by adults in ways that can change child behavior--  but this will not happen until the adults drop the idea that children’s behavior is necessarily a matter of “choice”.

Following some of the suggestions in this post will work much better than putting unpleasant substances in children’s mouths.