Friday, January 27, 2012
If It Isn't Spanking That's a Problem, What Else Could It Be?
Recently I’ve spent quite a bit of time in discussion with Jeff of punishmentmadeobsoletebypsychology.blogspot.com. Jeff maintains that even mild physical punishment is a risk factor for child development and is the cause of later violent behavior. I point out that there is no evidence that, other things being equal, mild physical punishment distorts personality development, although there is good evidence for an association between experience of physical abuse (as defined in law and for research purposes) and later antisocial behavior.
In all candor, of course, I have to acknowledge that the evidence we need would be very hard to establish, no matter what the outcome. Parenting practices don’t exist independent of other family characteristics. Education, family income, marital status, and certainly ethnicity are all strongly associated with the parenting methods someone uses. In the real world, all those characteristics of a family are confounded/confused with each other, so it becomes impossible to tell what causes what-- especially if the effects of each factor on the children are small ones. In addition, logic tells us that it is not possible to prove that an effect does NOT exist under any circumstances; even if it’s never been seen or reported, it might very infrequently be there.
What I’ve just said-- that a cause for an outcome may be very hard or impossible to demonstrate-- naturally goes for all kinds of parenting, not just for spanking. You have to have a major effect, like that shown for genuine abuse, before it shows up strongly. Nevertheless, it’s of interest to consider some parenting events other than physical punishment that may be risk factors for personality and behavioral development.
I’m going to talk about a few of those in a minute, but first let me point out that not everything I’m going to mention happens in early childhood. It’s an important tenet of psychoanalytic thought that events in infancy and early childhood have special formative power, which later events lack, and this view has been accepted in popular thought…. but, no, it ain’t necessarily so. If we’re going to think about factors that may cause antisocial behavior or other problems, we need to look at all of development. This is not to say that infancy and toddlerhood are not important periods-- maybe even the most important periods-- but it is to say that they are not the only important periods.
So, what are some aspects of experience, with parents or other people, which may mark children with undesirable personality and behavioral traits? The first one I want to mention is maternal depression. Perinatal mood disorders interfere with the ordinary sensitivity and responsiveness to a baby’s signals that are displayed by the majority of adult caregivers. That interference means that a baby with a depressed caregiver experiences constant frustration of its efforts at active communication of its needs, and also fails to experience the joyful communication “just for fun” that characterizes a healthy adult-child relationship. The baby also begins to act depressed and apathetic; a vicious circle of cause and effect makes the child less appealing to adults, who become even less likely to be attentive to communications or to “woo” the baby into a satisfying relationship. An obvious early outcome of these experiences is a delay in speech and in other earlier communicative techniques like facial expression and hand gestures. (Incidentally, the irritability that often accompanies adult depression may mean that the child also receives more physical punishment than usual.)
Let’s look at emotional abuse-- not as obvious to the outside observer as physical abuse, but possibly as influential. The psychologist James Garbarino has described clusters of emotionally abusive behaviors, some of which may begin in very early life, others of which are likely only later in childhood. To list Garbarino’s suggestions briefly: Rejecting is denying the child’s value and the importance of his or her needs; this can begin in infancy with failure to smile back at the child’s smiles or answer her babbling, and it can continue into childhood as constant verbal abuse and criticism or “scapegoating” in which one child in the family is treated badly and others are not. Terrorizing is creating an atmosphere of fear by constant threats and intimidation, including deliberate teasing and scaring, often followed by punishing the child for being a “sissy” or a “poor sport”. (I often think of this when I hear the line, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.”) Ignoring includes failing to respond to the child’s speech, but it also can involve failing to engage in the child’s schooling needs and failing to provide necessary supervision and care. Isolating is the process by which parents gradually prevent children from making friends or associating with outsiders, speaking to neighbors, joining groups for play, or having any experiences that would provide either a variety of role models or possible help for an abused child. (Homeschooling parents need to be careful that they consider the possible results of their decision in terms of the child’s isolation.) Finally, Garbarino suggests that a form of emotional abuse is corrupting. Corrupting parents intentionally teach antisocial behavior, involve the child in criminal activities, or act toward the child in ways like introducing him to drug use “because somebody else is going to do it”. Corrupting may begin in toddlerhood through deliberately antagonizing the child and encouraging him to fight, but criminal behavior is obviously more likely as the child gets older.
My last candidate for a parenting practice that could cause personality and behavioral disorders is intrusive parenting (see B.K.Barber . Intrusive parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association). This term refers to controlling and manipulative parental actions that demand not only behavioral compliance to parental desires, but psychological commitment to parents’ beliefs and wishes. Intrusive parenting attempts to counter the natural development of autonomy that is usually considered to be an aspect of healthy personality growth. Parents who are highly controlling psychologically may be more sensitive to hurt and less tolerant of negative emotion than others. In any case, children who experience much psychological control are likely to have increases in both internalizing and externalizing problems, as well as lower academic achievement.
Here we have several parenting factors that appear to have a negative impact on development and behavior, but none of them necessarily involve physical punishment, either mild or severe. I point this out simply to show that the single factor of physical punishment is not likely to be the whole cause of undesirable adult behavior. In fact, I’d suggest that even the negative outcomes of experiencing abusive treatment may well result from other, accompanying factors like terrorizing and ignoring. To speculate further, the psychological ill effects of physical abuse may have nothing to do with its physical side, but with other experiences that are present or absent in abusive families.
Once again, it’s not rocket science. It’s more complicated than that.