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

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 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 [2002]. 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.


  1. I know mild violence isn't necessarily permanently damaging. I don't think a hard touch is magically, intrinsically bad. It's not the pain of the smack that freaks your kid out, it's the fact that you smacked them. Right? It's not "mild physical punishment" I'm talking about, really. It's punishment, in any form. That would include some of your listed factors.
    Even maternal depression and rejecting may feel like punishment to the child, and the disconnected or depressed parent may indeed blame the child for their trouble and somehow communicate this to the child, as well as partly justify their rejections by that idea. In that sense, it can sometimes really be a punishing behaviour.
    Terrorizing is clearly a punitive thing.
    Ignoring and Isolating are also, often, forms of punishment, or again, as in rejecting, at least they have a large component of punishment.
    The last two, Corrupting and Intrusiveness, are the only ones in your list that aren't punishment in themselves. They are however, opportunities for punishment, in fact hardly possible without threats and punishments.
    See? It all comes down to punishment! Punishment makes all bad things possible. Plus, it actually corrects very little. All anyone really learns are two things: punishment is not to be questioned; and 'Don't get caught.'
    As for your post here, all good stuff. Great information for the 'normals,' those who believe in punishment.

  2. But but but--- are you saying that any unpleasant experience caused by another person is punishment? No matter what the intention of the person? Whether they meant to cause pain or not (see maternal depression)? Whether the intention was to change the child's behavior, or simply to play out an aggressive impulse? If so,you need to find a new word to describe what you're talking about, because punishment already has a definition.

    As for punishment not being questioned, in fact people can use it "mindfully", can see whether it's effective, and can change their methods if it's not. The child's questioning may be a factor in that change.

    Why don't you think intrusive parenting is punishment, by your or any other definition?

  3. That last comment was a little snarky, sorry.
    Thank you for posting my blog! Maybe someone will see it, what a concept!
    Certainly every nasty act is not really punishment, but many nasty acts are rationalized that way. And I am saying that most of the nasty acts perpetrated upon the children of the salt-of-the-earth good people of the world are done in the name of punishment. Not so?
    "Intention" is a little strong in the case of maternal depression, but surely the depressed, disconnected, or otherwise ignoring parent has some awareness of the ignoring, of the rejecting, and when we suspect we're not performing up to par, do we not rationalize? Don't people in that state harbour some resentment against the child, and is a great leap to suggest that they are in some sense punishing the child for causing their troubles? How much different are these? "I'm ignoring you because I'm depressed and in pain (rationalization/actual reason)" versus "I'm depressed and in pain because of you, so I'm ignoring you (punishment/revenge)"?

    I'm a little worried that I'm trying to take over your blog with my cause. If you want to move this talk to my blog, that's OK with me. But if you don't mind, and think it's productive, I'm happier to stay here. Whatever.

    1. Actually I'm happy to talk about it here-- not that I think it necessarily gets read! Interestingly, I tried to start a discussion of this kind on a group run by Zero to Three (the early childhood organization). No one has responded. My guess is that the reason for that is the fact that there are major ethnic and class differences in attitudes about physical punishment, and few people in the early childhood field would care to be caught arguing that a different ethnic group from theirs has things all wrong.

      I think you're attributing too much awareness and self-regulation to people who are clinically depressed. The self-talk you mention could belong to someone who is just in a bad mood one day, but serious depression or grief can limit thinking and awareness a great deal. The ignoring behaviors can be very subtle but nevertheless have quite an impact. It seems to me that trying to call all these things punishment robs a number of concepts of their valuable meanings and creates "criterion creep".

    2. Fair enough about depressed people. For me, my depressed times are usually filled with a lot of self-talk about what I've done wrong, and what I'm doing wrong, and they're usually triggered by something I've done wrong, but yes, you're probably right. I'm probably not as bad off as some others that way. I can see what you're saying about that.

  4. Oh right:
    "Why don't you think intrusive parenting is punishment, by your or any other definition?"
    Hmmm. Again, like anything the parent wants to do with or to their kids, it is certainly an opportunity to punish, and certainly punishment will be considered by many as a way to make it happen . . .
    I don't see it as punitive in itself, though. My wife's mother was guilty of intrusiveness, and it was a large factor in my kids' life too, so I think I've seen a fair share of it, and I don't think an overly intrusive parent requires the excuse of correction to be that way. Does this make sense: "you were bad, so I'm going to make you think and feel like me! That'll teach you!"?
    Intrusiveness is pre-emptive, wouldn't you say? The kid doesn't need to "start" it. The intrusive parent will do it to an angel child who never needs to be corrected.

  5. I'm still trying to get at what you mean when you say "punishment". Is it punishment if I accidentally knock the child down when rushing to grab a boiling-over pot, and I get too busy to apologize? Is it punishment if I do something unpleasant to a child whom I don't intend to correct but am annoyed with?

    I'm asking whether you consider the parent's intention to be a major part of the definition of punishment.

    Here, tell me what you make of this example: a parent wears glasses. Their 7- or 8-month-old baby regularly grabs for the glasses, and the parent learns to bob his or her head away from the sticky little fingers. The child is prevented from doing what she wanted, and presumably somewhat frustrated. The parent probably also frowns or looks blank and averts the gaze as well as the face while taking evasive action.

    Is that parent punishing the child, according to your definition?

  6. OK, the first one, accidentally knocking the child down, no, of course not. The last one, protecting your specs from the baby, no - although, considering the value of exploration etc., for the baby, I'd let him or her trash my glasses once, or even once in a while. If I frowned, I'd try not to frown AT the baby, try not to make it, uh, personal. Plus, I might even say "No no no, don't do that, don't break 'em!" while making a point of not frowning and engaging the baby if possible looking into his eyes. I'd want the little person to begin to understand language, but not start to make his or her life about my happiness. This scenario should be about the here and now, about my glasses, not about making a baby responsible for my unhappiness.
    Now, what was the middle thing again? (A Fish called Wanda...)
    Right, "Is it punishment if I do something unpleasant to a child whom I don't intend to correct but am annoyed with?"
    I understand that this is not technically punishment, not instructive or maybe even not corrective, but it counts for me. It may only be simple revenge, but it's still "dealing out unpleasantness" in response to the child's behaviour, and in an effort to use unpleasantness to modify the child's behaviour, even if only ostensibly. So, for my purposes, it counts. Also, from my stance, it's not that far from the instructive kind of punishment, not as far from it as someone who condones punishment would think.
    I don't think all unpleasantnesses are punishments - I'm not a religious person who sees everything coming from a sentient God. I know some people think that. Punishment is so ingrained in people and society, that some people when suffering can only understand it that way, saying "I feel like I'm being punished."
    I'm not one of those.
    On a side note, and feel free to delete this part, punishment is so ingrained that when I told you I never punished my kids, you seemed unable to believe it - or maybe even conceive of it?
    Easy to just be confrontational in cyberspace, but I do know and appreciate, that in the world of attitudes about this subject, that we're on the same side of this issue.
    Again, thanks for your time.

  7. So, "don't be evil"? Well, I can go for that.

    I wouldn't think of deleting what you said-- but,in response, I was then and am now still trying to figure out exactly what you mean when you say punishment.

    Thanks to you,too, for this discussion.

    1. Thanks for the post. There certainly is value in discussions about parenting styles, punishment, and child abuse. It can help concerned parents be more aware of their style of parenting and sensitive to their children.

      Isolation can be a problem for even those parents trying to socialize their children. The practice of "play dates" has an artificial feel to it and can be used to screen parents for desirable religious, political, cultural, and racial attributes. Parents will use withholding play dates as punishment.

      There is an intriguing film that discusses the issue of religious instruction being a form of child abuse:

      Faith School Menace?

  8. I'm just gonna wade into your back-and-forth here...

    The best I've come up with is that abuse is simply the transfer of negative emotion from a position of higher power to one of lower power. Overt sexual abuse is physical abuse. Physical abuse is emotional abuse. Some emotional abuse can have a covert sexual tone to it.

    I'm not saying that boundaries are a bad thing, but that parents are meant to act as containers for their dependent children's emotions, not the other way around. It's much like the client/therapist relationship, which is essentially a re-parenting process.

    For me, punishment is an intentional behaviour intended to correct and is always sadistic, whether or not the punisher or the punishee admits it, and is thus always abusive.

    Your example of the parent who ignores the child's attention- or play-seeking behaviour is more one of abandonment than punishment. Many parents will justify abandonment as well. Your example sounds like just another case where the child ends up learning to meet the parent's needs, so although not punitive, still abusive.

    Of course, not all abuse is carried out with sadistic intent or based on abandonment, but if anything abuse carried out with good intentions can be even more difficult for a child to deal with, e.g. an overly protective mother that raises her children to love her and encourages them to see the (obviously abusive) father as the (only) bad guy. See books by Patricia Love and Ken Adams on emotional incest for more...

    In a future post I'd like to see what you think of the concept of the "true self" and whether it can be shown to exist scientifically. I've read your complaints about mainstream psychoanalysis / depth psychology in a number of posts now, and this is a core issue.

    1. Wait a minute-- what exactly do you mean by a transfer of negative emotion? Does the parent no longer have a bad feeling after he or she makes the child have one? I think you'll find that isn't true, and that parents generally feel no less negative after punishing the child than they did before. I think perhaps you're falling for the idea of catharsis of negative emotions, but the evidence is that things don't work that way. The concept of cognitive dissonance, by the way, would suggest that one would be more negative about the child after hitting her, as cognitions shifted to show that the act was reasonable.

      Your point about the overlapping of different "kinds' of abuse is well taken. Disambiguating them is difficult, and therefore we have trouble figuring out whether in fact the real cause of problems following physical abuse is the emotional abuse aspect.

      In your next-to-last para, do you mean abuse,or do you mean punishment? Looks like you too want to conflate these events. Also, do you actually mean sadistic when you say "punishment... is always sadistic" but "not all abuse is... sadistic"? You have me quite confused about your message here.

      I'm certainly not prepared to talk about the "true self", but will see what I can cobble together at some point. By the way, I'm not so much complaining about psychoanalytic thought as it exists as a system, but about tidbits of this thought (like repression) that have penetrated vernacular psychology without their source being recognized.

    2. I'm just going to reply at the bottom since the blogspot software squishes the columns if replies are threaded.

      Transfer of negative emotion: I have some emotion that I'm not able to contain, so by some means I set up a situation where another person partially or fully holds that emotion for me. The research around catharsis of negative emotions doesn't refute this idea: see the bottom of which says,

      "Expressing anger can reduce that anger if one of the following conditions is met:

      If expressing the anger eliminates the situation that is causing the anger. For example, criticizing your subordinate may cause the subordinate to stop doing whatever is angering you, but criticizing your boss usually creates more trouble and thereby increases your frustration and anger.

      If expressing anger appropriately punishes the person who has mistreated you. For example, winning a lawsuit against someone who slandered you."

      Abuse typically gets passed down to the most vulnerable, and we have examples like the man who persistently gets in trouble at work and finds relief by taking it out on someone in a position of lower power such as his son, who in turn takes it out on someone in a lesser position of power such as his younger brother, who in turn bullies the weaker children at school, etc. etc.

      At a psychological level, the person in a lower position of power, by acting as a container for the more powerful person's emotions, plays the role of parent in some limited way. This role reversal leads to concepts like the "parentified child". The dependent person agrees to it, consciously or unconsciously, because they are getting other needs met by the more powerful person, e.g. food, shelter, finances, love.

      Okay, so, abuse vs. sadism vs. punishment. I think all punishment is a kind of abuse. Not all abuse is punishment, e.g. smothering, incest, raging, neglect. So, while I think all punishment is also sadistic (inflict pain on others intentionally, receive some kind of pleasure, even if it's just the pleasure of having a "well-behaved" child along with a calmed-down situation), since not all abuse is punishment, not all abuse is sadistic.

      Since you don't think that all punishment is abuse, precisely WHEN is punishment not abuse? (I'm not asking for a legal definition.) Further, since a therapist is re-parenting their clients, is it ever acceptable for a therapist to punish a client? Note: I am not conflating punishment with consequences. For example, "if you miss a session without 24 hours notice, you must pay a fee if you want me to see you again" is not punishment. Is there an example where punishment is the ONLY method that will work, in either the parent or therapist case?

      Finally, the thing about repression is that it's founded on the idea of the unconscious, which is hardly a tidbit of psychoanalytic thought. I ask about the true self because the idea is that a child develops the false self to survive psychologically and otherwise in the face of abuse, repressing traumatic memories as a jumble of emotions and thoughts, and in many cases denying the existence of the true self until things start to break through later in life.

      But then we get to an interesting point where you can't tell if the people who deny the existence of the true self are doing so because they are still denying the existence of their own true selves and the associated painful memories due to the abuse they suffered.

    3. I don't know what will happen if I answer here-- let me try it.

      I have to say that I don't know what you mean by punishment OR by abuse. Are there different intentions associated with the two actions? How about timing? Or don't you differentiate them at all?

      To my mind, what could make all this much easier and more productive to discuss would be for people to state the age of the person whose punishment they're alluding to. I would agree that all physical punishment of a child under 12 months could be equated with abuse, but frowning, taking things away (e.g. food the child is flinging when he's no longer hungry), or asserting adult power in other ways-- I would consider those punishment but not abuse. For toddlers and preschoolers, there are situations where physical punishment may be suitable and not abusive. As children get older, and especially as they reach adolescence, physical punishment of any kind takes on an abusive aspect (as laws about child-rearing take into account).

      This means that the rules about how a therapist's punishment of an adult might work could really be very different from any rules about younger people. But therapists do use punishment, often in the form of ignoring a client, taking a phone call during a session, looking exasperated, etc. And why not? Many clients have failed to understand social rules or the way other people respond to them, and the therapist's feedback needs to be specific in order to help them internalize these matters. This fails to be "re-parenting" (which frankly I consider a very scary term) only if you think parents must accept all child actions with unconditional approval.

      But let me make an attempt to answer your question about whether punishment is ever the only thing that will work. I would suppose that in theory, if one is able and willing to spend infinite time and resources on a nonpunitive solution to a behavior problem, there will always be something other than punishment that will work. But in the real world, we can't go on forever working at some problems-- sometimes it's important that they be solved quickly. Suppose you heat your house with a wood stove that gets very hot, and your toddler is fascinated by it and can't stay away from it. Few parents can sit down by the stove and spend several days catching the child who approaches it and turning him away (and even if they did, there's still power assertion in that act). Few can or want to sit on the other side of the room and reinforce the child for staying over there with M & Ms, and if they did the child would get full of chocolate and not find it reinforcing any more. If the child is determined, and the parent has many other obligations (nursing a new baby,maybe) punishment may be for all intents and purposes the only practical way to get the child to comply and not get burned.

      In all these discussions about punishment,there's a point that has never come up,and I think it's an important one. To wit: what's as important as the disciplinary method is the set of rules the adult wants to enforce. Are these consistent? Are they understandable to the child? Is the child capable of obeying? Are the rules simple, and generally confined to matters of safety and comfort for the child and others? If the rules are inconsistent, incomprehensible, impossible to obey, inappropriately complicated, or related to whimsical demands on the adult's part, it won't really matter what methods of enforcement the parent (or therapist) chooses-- in all cases, the method is based on irrational assertion of adult power.

    4. Well, now I know what happens. The thing tells me I can only have 4096 characters, but doesn't say how many extra I have. So I had to delete everything I wrote about false selves etc. Tomorrow, I hope!

    5. Thanks for your considered replies.

      I think we are speaking (writing) at cross purposes here. I'll try again. For me, punishment is a subset of abuse. There is plenty of abuse that is not punishment. Abuse doesn't have to be intentional, whereas punishment does. I think we just have different notions as to what the words connote. My "punishment" seems to be a subset of yours, whereas your "abuse" seems to be a subset of mine. I don't know what you mean about "timing".

      Something I didn't raise is that one characteristic of abuse is that it is ALWAYS shaming; in the case of punishment vs. enforcing boundaries, the message conveyed is that you ARE wrong vs. you DID wrong.

      When I say re-parenting I'm simply referring to the therapist's role in establishing a safe, positive introject in the client. I'm not necessarily referring to re-parenting from transactional analysis. This I think is the outcome of any successful long-term therapy.

      I would say that a therapist that takes a phone call during a session to punish their client is being abusive (what, so the well-behaved clients don't get this treatment? The bad client's dollars aren't worth as much?); a therapist that ignores their client during a session to punish them for any reason whatsoever is being abusive (but obviously ignoring someone outside of a session is totally normal); looking exasperated I would not say was an intentional act, but if you put on a look of exasperation to train your client intentionally then something is pretty unhealthy. Something to consider in these cases is the countertransference - what is the meaning of these desires / reactions elicited in the therapist by the client, along with follow-up discussion, e.g. I received your call during the week but chose to ignore it, how did it make you feel, what was going on at the time, does it bring up any memories from the past, etc.

      So, basically I don't consider setting up and enforcing boundaries to be punishment, provided they meet your criteria for acceptable punishment (consistent, understandable, etc.) with a further criterion that the consequence is a direct measure for stopping the behaviour. Using your example of the child interested in the fire, I think spanking the child is punishment because it's an indirect consequence: what does pain on the highly erogenous bum have to do with learning that fire is unsafe? And what happens when you start sexualizing spanking later in life? Whereas putting a protective barrier around the fireplace or moving with the child to a different room is not punishment. I think it's also particularly critical if there's some kind of (active listening) empathy involved, explanations, parental self-reflections such as what's going on here, can I find a safe way to teach the child about the danger of fire, is the child in need of attention, etc.

      It seems to me that what's happening is you're going by the operant conditioning definition of punishment. In which case, it's still important to distinguish between abusive punishment and non-abusive punishment, as you have basically done. And I guess my litmus tests for abusive punishment are whether there's shame associated with it, or whether the more powerful person is somehow transferring (read: projecting, if you like) their emotions into the less powerful person in the process.

      It's certainly difficult to communicate clearly when using highly charged words that don't have precise meanings in all contexts.

    6. Yes, I am going by the definition of punishment that operant conditioning people use to discriminate punishment from negative reinforcement. I want to use an operational definition so as not to spend time in the thicket of semantics-- can you offer one that suits you better than the one I'm using?

      I also don't know whether you're discriminating between shame and guilt when you associate abuse with shame. But-- by transferring you mean projecting? I thought you meant that the emotion really was moved from one person to the other.

      Certainly spanking the child in an effort to keep her away from the stove is punishment (and would presumably follow warnings, talking about the heat, etc., that had not worked). I offered this scenario as a situation in which punishment is the most practical choice for assuring the safety and comfort of the whole family-- all of whom have a right to attention to their basic needs.

      As for what I mean by timing: punishment is only effective when it's consistent and is simultaneous with or immediately after the unwanted behavior. The longer the time lag, the less the effect. I'd be willing to say that ineffective punishment ("Just wait until Daddy gets home!") is a form of abuse, as it causes discomfort without bringing about needed behavior change. Using punishment ineffectively also tempts parents to escalate force, because they assume that a lack of effect means the punishment isn't painful enough, rather than that it's at the wrong time.

    7. See at the bottom mostly. No, shame is distinct from guilt, see mostly. Projecting is an overloaded word, but it can be used in the sense of I feel X, I take some action, now you feel X and I don't any longer, particularly considering that this process usually involves a kind of overidentification between me and you.

    8. I'm aware that shame is different from guilt, but I was not sure how you were using the words. Okay, now I see what you mean when you say "transfer".

    9. By the way-- no doubt it annoys you guys that I ask so often what you mean by a word. But keep in mind that you are in a position to know who I am (what my background is)and I don't know much about you-- so, when I think something could be ambiguous, I ask.

    10. Fair enough. For the record, I haven't read up on you yet. I found you through the Skeptic Magazine article about your Childmyths book.

    11. If you're interested, there's a not-quite-up-to-date CV at

  9. I'm not sure what you're getting at here, Linda-- but reflective practice is of course desirable in parenting as in teaching and psychotherapy.

    I am concerned about the habit of saying things are "child abuse" when we don't like them. Not everything that's repugnant or disturbing or contrary to one's values is child abuse; child abuse has some fairly specific legal and research definitions, although those do change with social change. When "child abuse" is used loosely or metaphorically, we risk losing the meaning of the concept-- this is why I object to R. Dawkins claiming that religious instruction is child abuse. If he wants to say he thinks it's LIKE child abuse, fine; but to say it IS child abuse is analogy abuse. The same is true of those who claim that all physical punishment, or indeed any punishment, IS child abuse.

  10. Jean, Chris,
    that's all very good stuff, we're getting to where we might end up all knowing what we mean by punishment.
    I too think all punishment is abuse, just on definition. Punishment is the practice of abusing someone (in the generic sense), usually for the greater good, in an attempt to correct some unwanted behaviour, right?
    My concern about punishment is, it all too easily becomes the only tool we think we need. Another folksy anecdote:
    My in laws have a fairly large property, and a couple of labradors, for which they have a nice, solid, metal cage kennel when they need to have the dogs out of the house, but not off the property. Well they rarely put the dogs in it, and for years they have fought with numerous generations of dogs about staying out of the garbage cans outside, until some genius suggested that since the kennel is rarely used, maybe they could place the garbage cans in there and close the door.
    That person looked like a genius, but really, it just struck him that the abuse and shouting was not working on the dogs, and that something else should be tried. It hadn't occurred to any of my in-laws that anything besides yelling and abusing those dumb dogs was an option.
    I guarantee they had the same sort of varied approach with their kids.
    I know, anecdotal and rhetorical.

  11. I know people are trying, but I don't see that there's a clear, agreed-upon definition for punishment under discussion here, and Jeff, with all due respect, you get pretty circular with your punishment-is-abuse, abuse-is-punishment approach. I'd suggest that the intention of the punisher is an essential part of the differentiation between punishment and other acts.

    I've been glad up till now that you guys haven't wandered into the pastures of negative reinforcement, but now I think I need to ask whether you would conflate negative reinforcement with punishment and therefore (following your usual approach) with abuse.

    Your dog story is really a good example of how inappropriate methods, once established, can be very difficult to break through. They become strong habits as well as reinforcers for the person who desperately wants to feel he or she has some effect.

    I want to say to both of you that I think your chances of communicating your beliefs would be much better if you thought in practical terms and suggested effective options other than punishment. What if you thought about the people who are in fact most likely to feel "driven" to physical punishment or any other form of power assertion? These would be single parents (who are still mostly women), parents whose situation makes them vulnerable to others' criticism (living with their own parents; an upstairs apartment with cranky neighbors below; unregulated child care demanding child compliance and threatening withdrawal of services; a boyfriend who wants to show the child who's boss), parents with limited financial resources (if you don't eat that egg, there's nothing else), parents dealing with domestic violence or community violence, parents with physical or mental challenges, parents of children with physical or mental challenges.

    Whatever you are going to suggest as the "right" way to do things must work for these people, not just for those who have the resources that allow them to be reflective about parenting.

    By the way, I don't remember anybody mentioning "timeout". Do you consider that to be either punishment or abuse? It's certainly power assertion.

    1. Jeff didn't say abuse is punishment and neither did I. He said punishment is abuse. A implies B does not mean B implies A.

      If you want to talk purely in terms of operant conditioning, you have to consider whether something is positive or negative as well as whether it's reinforcement or punishment. I am pretty sure Jeff and I have both been using punishment in the sense of negative punishment. If positive punishment is abuse, then positive reinforcement may as well be abuse too; consider "I'll read you a story but only if you brush your teeth in the next 10 minutes".

      But then things start to get blurry: a timeout is both taking away the appetitive stimulus of whatever situation is causing the undesired behaviour (positive punishment), plus adding the aversive stimulus of isolation (negative punishment). I've seen arguments that in the case of autistic and introverted children, isolation can be an appetitive stimulus (positive reinforcement) and taking away the provoking situation can be seen as removing an aversive stimulus (negative reinforcement), particularly if it means removal from a highly social situation.

      In the end, I basically think it's the mindset that's the problem. Children are not animals to be trained; parents are there to meet children's needs and not vice versa. A focus on teaching parents to use empathy, healthy boundaries, self-reflection, and non-judgmental explanations as to how the world works would do far more than saying "it's okay to (negatively) punish your child under these situations". Probably the best way to do this is to get more people into therapy before they have children. As a general rule of thumb, whatever issues you haven't worked through, you pass on to your children.

      Sure, we don't have the resources to stamp out abuse everywhere at all at once, and nor is it likely that any parent would ever be able to raise children without a single incident of abuse, but that doesn't mean we have to settle for a lowest common denominator solution.

    2. You're right, I got carried away in my statement about how you equated abuse and punishment-- sorry. However, I don;t see what's the value of unilaterally declaring that a word means the same thing as another word, when everybody else uses the two to mean different things. This is a bit like Humpty Dumpty saying that "glory" means "a nice knock-down argument". Can't you come up with some other terminology that will cover what you mean?

      Let me bring up a point about parents and children. Yes, of course, I agree that parents are there to meet children's needs and not vice-versa (but this view has only been in place for a century or so, and is by no means universal). But one of a child's needs is to learn that other people also have needs, and gradually, over some years, to move into the position of understanding obligations toward others. Parents' communications of pain or anger have a role to play in this kind of learning.

      As far as small children are concerned, those communications may be quite ambiguous-- they may not be sure whether to laugh at the incongruity or to respond with empathy (just like the responses to the Three Stooges of those that like them). When adults respond to the child with empathy, they catch on to the idea that other people's pain is not funny. So, does this mean that no punishment can ever be used? Can you be empathic following mild physical punishment? I think it's possible-- and keep in mind that if rules are reasonable, punishment does not usually need to be frequent, so even if you want to say that punishment rules out empathy, the empathic responses will be much more frequent than the punishments.

      One of the most bizarre approaches I've come across is that of Michael and Debi Pearl, who advise parents to smile in a friendly way while they whip small children with plumbing supply line-- thus preventing the child from learning anything about the connections between people's emotions and their behavior and removing whatever contribution to empathy the experience might make.

      One more thing-- your recommendation for therapy before parenthood-- are you attributing all parenting behavior to psychodynamic causes? Doesn't the present environment count for anything?

    3. I want to add to this but was afraid I was running out of characters.

      My suggestion for reducing the frequency of actual or borderline child abuse is that society as a whole needs to stop pressuring parents to make their children invisible and inaudible. I've always cautioned my students: when you see a parent in a tussle with a child, in the grocery store or a restaurant, don't frown at them, don't mutter what brats they are, don't say to your friend "if he was mine I'd give him something to cry about". Smile at the child and parent, and say something comforting and accepting. The support of other adults, rather than their expressed disapproval, can defuse a situation that otherwise could become unbearably frustrating and lead to exactly the physical blows that the observers are asking for.

      Just as parents need to attend to children's needs, the rest of us, when we are not engaged in parenting, need to be sensitive to the vulnerable parent's needs. Through that sensitivity, we contribute to a good environment for everyone's children.

    4. Excellent points there about public parenting, love it.

  12. Yeah, I’m not big into abuse issues. I don’t think I ever said abuse is punishment. I know it’s not punishment if it’s not intended to be, you keep reading that into what I’m saying. I’ll tell myself that you hear from a lot of people who feel that way, and assume I’m of the same mind. I said once or twice that there can be a component of punishment in other behaviours, but I didn’t mean a large or dominant component.
    Negative reinforcement? – OK, I looked it up. I don’t think I’ve employed it much with my kids, and, just spit-balling here, it sounds too much like punishment for me to approve of it . . . upshot: it’s NOT punishment, but it’s similarly illogical. Doesn’t it just put the unpleasantness on the other side of the equation? Now, what was normal before the good behaviour is the less pleasant thing . . . so, different enough to require it’s own term, but part of the same system. It’s still a way to make the child’s life all about the parent’s happiness, therefore easily turned into something less than optimal, something that adds a layer of relationship drama/baggage between the child and the world. It’s still an effort to control the child’s quality of life, so to speak, to modify the child’s behaviour.
    So, yes. I conflate that with punishment. How could you not? Seriously, if that’s wrong, I need to hear how.

    1. I doubt that you've used negative reinforcement much, because it's quite hard to do in any reasonable way.I had a friend who inadvertently did it. She would spank her child until the child cried (don't ask me why!) and then stop, so guess what, the child cried earlier and earlier in the sequence, because that enabled her to escape.

      But I see what you mean. You regard NR as just another way to coerce behavior. No doubt that's true, but I consider coercion a possible option among parent strategies.

  13. The stuff about offering real-life alternatives, well, it’s not really my point. I’m just saying the sky is falling, I don’t really know where everybody is supposed to take shelter! Seriously, though, the first step in solving a problem is, you have to be able to identify it, state the problem. My goal is, I would like to get the idea out there that punishment is not some magic, all in one tool for correcting children and criminals with a negligible down-side. People have a limited capacity for analysis, and sometimes we make a difficult decision and then forget about it and never re-visit the question. To me, the use of punishment is one of those decisions we made sometime prior to the agricultural revolution and now we refuse to re-evaluate it.
    I think the search for real-life alternatives would be more productive if more people knew they should be searching.
    The only scenario I have anything for is the one about pressure from one’s parents. We had that, and my answer is, uh, forget ‘em. That is exactly the trouble, why this stuff never changes, we’re beating our kids up so we don’t have to deal with the fact that our parents did it to us, so we don’t have that uncomfortable conversation – “Well, Mom, we’re trying to do things, uh, better than you did” – with the people who beat us up and who we are still terrified of. I’m sure you’ve heard that stuff from the Millerians a thousand times, right?
    You got me about needing some time and resources to raise kids without the punishment “short-cut.” Two things:
    1. We ain’t rich. We both have union jobs, and my wife took a lot of parental leave and worked half-time for several years. We’re only half-rich.
    2. Not punishing IS a short-cut in the long term. From my experience, if you don’t punish early, you never have to, ever.
    Now I’m hurt. Regarding timeouts, see my blog, the “Non-violent Punishment” chapter.

  14. My bad on the time-outs-- I was just trying to pull that topic in here.

    As for identifying the problem: what do you think of the Pinker suggestions? He thinks things are better(less aggressive) than they used to be. You think they're worse (I guess). How would we know which one is right? And isn't that the problem that needs to be identified first, before you look for a cause?

    Not to get personal, but although you're not rich, you're not poor either. I doubt that you or your wife would have lost your jobs if you stayed home with a sick child (hurray for collective bargaining). You didn't live in a slum. Maybe you didn't even work nights and need to sleep in the daytime, or have neighbors under you who had that. And you had two parents in the household. Working to put everybody else in your position might be the best way to improve parenting and society in general.

  15. I know, we've got it good. I SAID half-rich, I guess, in this context it's more like 95%. We lost some money when she worked half time, and we haven't really dented our mortgage during these years, but we could and did do it, which is light-years luckier than most people.

    I don't see how Pinker's less violent world can possibly controversial, you've read me wrong again. I don't think things are worse. I think they're much better, and I think I've found the next step to make things even better, to take the next step toward the utopia.
    I know I said I agreed with Chris, that punishment is abuse, and I regret saying it. "Abuse" is a loaded, voodoo sort of word these days, especially among the Millerians - Millerists? - and I regret bringing in all those connotations. To me, it's not the point that punishment is abuse. My point is this:
    Punishment is stupid and self-defeating. It is fighting fire with gasoline.

  16. I'll give the short form of the time-out answer, just in case anyone's reading.

    Non-violent punishments like time-outs are nonsense. They are always backed up by "firmer" forms, otherwise how are they made to happen? Why does the same naughty child, who needs to be punished, suddenly become a submissive little angel, willingly punishing himself by sitting quietly in the time-out chair? Because he knows that it only gets worse for him. If he wants the non-violent punishment, he'd better cooperate.
    The parent may not be honest with themselves about it, but there has to be at least an implied threat, if not an overt one, often as well as some physical force.
    For a longer version, see my blog:

    1. There are a lot of problems about time-out. One is what you note, that there is an implied threat. But in addition to that, unless an unwanted behavior is being reinforced by other people, so that time-out alters the reinforcement pattern, there's no reason to think it will be effective as anything but punishment. Time-in can work much better in many situations.

      But my real beef is about the mechanical time-out proceedings advocated by some pediatricians in their patient education material-- one minute for a one-year-old, two for a two-year-old, etc. Completely pointless except that it's easy to remember. Where's the discussion about deciding whether the method is having the desired effect?

  17. Another note about time-out is that the act of getting the child into solitary confinement can be physically abusive, as they may have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Once isolated they can also end up hurting themselves trying to get out or by any other number of methods, since they are no longer under supervision. I would not say that accompanying the child on a timeout is necessarily abusive; the parent is in the room with them, and they are sharing that space while they calm down.

    I think I still have to try again here about abuse and punishment. Surely we can all agree that rape is a kind of abuse? Well, I'm simply saying that I think (negative) punishment is also a kind of abuse. There are other kinds of abuse, of course. The reason I'm using the word abuse is that if a parenting method isn't abusive, then I don't have a problem with it; by definition, there can't be non-abusive punishments that are somehow problematic. Abuse obviously meaning inappropriate use of authority, but then "inappropriate" is so slippery that I tried to give some other ways based on feelings rather than rationalizations to determine if something is abusive. If you could give me an example of negative punishment where the person on the receiving end does not have the possibility of feeling ashamed, then sure, I might say it's non-abusive. John Bradshaw wrote about the core role that shame plays in abuse in Healing the Shame That Binds You, distinguishing between healthy shame and toxic shame. This book could be better written, and probably do without the 12-step stuff, but it's ambitious in its scope and by and large succeeds in its attempt to cover modern psychotherapy.

    Can you empathize with a child right after punishing them? I'd offer that a child doesn't particularly feel like trusting a parent just after they've been punished. I'd be surprised to hear about any parent that punishes their children that is also able to properly hear and validate things from the child's perspective, including all of the feelings that go along with being punished. It just seems so likely that the child would twist things so the parent would hear what they wanted to hear, or that in the case of the child actually feeling safe enough to come out with the truth, the parent would stop with the punishment.

    Part of the problem, as Jeff alluded to, is that acknowledging that something is abusive typically means facing it in your own life, whether you were on the giving or receiving end, and the associated feelings that come up when confronted with this new worldview can be enough to provoke (very) strong denial.

    As far as domestic corporal punishment is concerned, I found the Wikipedia page to be quite a good read:

    I think the numerous country-wide bans that include nations with both strong and weak economies speaks to the idea that it is actually quite feasible to go without. Further, the institutions listed that explicitly oppose domestic corporal punishment in the big four English-speaking countries are by no means fringe groups.

    1. Lots of ideas here-- but may I recommend Michael Lewis as an author dealing with shame, rather than Bradshaw? He certainly clarifies the advantages of a guilt orientation, with the stress on atonement for a specific misdemeanor, as opposed to the existential dread associated with shame. I don't see why punishment can't be associated with guilt rather than shame, although I certainly concede that many parents foster the shame aspect.

      Really, Chris, you say so many logical things, but then you go back to dragging in denial and implying that denial is the reason why people don't agree with you. This is too Psych 101! A very good reason for saying something is not abusive is that it doesn't meet one's definition of abuse. If that's the reason for disagreement, then people can discuss their definitions. It's not constructive
      to argue ad hominem or ad feminam, and this quasi-diagnostic stuff is that type of argument.

      Nobody has said that it's fringe-y to be concerned about the use of corporal punishment. I strongly agree with the idea that dependence on corporal punishment opens the door for dangerous escalations. I don't agree that all punishments or coercions including frowning and scolding have the same potential for harm.

      As for the bans-- can you cite some evidence that parents in those countries agree with the ban and never use corporal punishment? Our country advises people to put babies on their backs to sleep, but most people don't do that.

      Of course, the fact is that lack of social services or safety nets makes life for many young parents more frustrating here than in countries with bans, so it wouldn't be so surprising if your claim were supported. But, do you know whether it is?

    2. All good stuff, Chris. I'll take your word on the feeling stuff, I'll leave that to you. I'm still a dude in denial, not really my area, as my sisters will attest.
      Plus, "inappropriate use of authority" - that's where I differ with everybody. It's ALL inappropriate. I have never enjoyed being told what to do. Convince me, tell me why, and I'll do it. But "because you said so?" - forget it. If you can't tell me why, can't convince me, then it's bull. Somehow I always knew that, and I always knew parents, mine and others, were crazy, and somehow I never changed my mind about that when I became one myself.

  18. Finally, you asked whether I think parenting problems arise solely from psychodynamic causes or if the present environment has anything to do with it.

    I would look at things simply from a position of stress. Stressful environments lead to parenting problems, no doubt about it. Therapy helps people in three chief ways: 1) to better tolerate stress in their lives (and thus not take it out the associated emotions on their children), 2) to change present conditions so as not to be stressful, and 3) to avoid getting into stressful situations in the future. The psychodynamic aspect comes in because patterns that were present in childhood are often recreated in adulthood, meaning that the present environment can have psychodynamic causes. Making the connection between them raises awareness and gives people agency over their lives: "I can see elements of an old pattern playing out here, is it worth my energy to try and change it?"

    Of course, there are always going to be stressful aspects of the present environment that people really have little influence over, but emotionally healthy people end up being much better equipped to deal with them. Healing doesn't happen in a vacuum, it takes a healthy person to help an unhealthy person, hence the suggestion for more therapy in addition to education (barring pseudo/non-therapies). And I think in many cases where the children end up in therapy, the parents probably need it too; unintentional psychological Munchausen by proxy can be a real problem.

    1. I wish I had your faith in psychotherapy--- but be that as it may, I would question very strongly whether it's possible to treat problems that will influence childrearing before the person has children. Perhaps you've come across the idea of "ghosts in the nursery"? This suggests that the effects of early experiences emerge when one is dealing with a child whose age or developmental stage is reminiscent of the time when the experience occurred-- not before and not after.

      Most people who work with childhood mental health issues are convinced that all family interactions should be part of the mix-- even including grandparents. But, again, it may well be that such treatment can only be organized around specific developmental periods, as appropriate for a given family.

    2. I think that function of issues coming up when your kids are the age you were when it came up for you and your parents is true. That's one thing I HATED about raising my kids, the horrible sense of deja vu that cropped up, that feeling of "OMG, this crap AGAIN?"
      I should explain, I had this no punishment idea early on with our first child, but my wife took a lot longer to get on board. She's a natural sweetie, and she did come around (too late, I suppose, like you say. We all raise our kids first and sort out our lives second), but where she got stuck was with parental pressure, her mother was always around, being intrusive, and also, she was a long time giving up those "normal" expectations about behaviour. Like many, she didn't want to be a big meanie, but she still expected good behaviour. Mealtimes, bed-times, that sort of thing. So I spent a lot of time fighting with her about backing off, and a lot of time at work knowing she and her mother were at home, not backing off. It was during those times, that frustrating period when I felt the deja vu thing. Really, we were pretty much doing what my parents did, just with the parental sex roles reversed.
      God, I hated that sense of repetition.

    3. Not to be nosy or personal, but I'm about to be: how does what you said above jibe with your previous statements that your daughters were never punished? Am I failing to get something?

    4. I'm sure my wife had my first kid in the high chair trying to get her to eat for far too much time every day, but I don't believe she ever hit her or yelled at her. I was trying to convince my wife to pull her out of the chair if she wasn't hungry and wait 'till she was, but no, she'd whine and beg and get the kid to eat just barely enough to make sure it would be the same for the next meal. Then I'd hear about the wife's frustration about it when I got home, when I would be my usual sympathetic and understanding self - "Damnit, I TOLD you not to do that!" Same with bed-times, my older one's personal bed-time was always 10:00 pm and my wife's was 9:00 pm. I think the wife gave that one up sooner, because I would be home to stay up with the little one. Yes, my older one did in fact suffer some power struggles in the beginning. And their relationship had trouble right through the puberty time. My daughter still has a hard time expressing herself, sorting out troubles with her friends. It seems she has no positivity about telling people when she doesn't like the way she's being treated. I was kind of disengaged and left my wife to it too much. I think my daughter learned fighting back was pointless very early. Intrusiveness, I think, far more than punishment.
      No, it was far from perfect. I'm sorry for misrepresenting that.

    5. Jeff, I'm assuming that you want me to publish this. If you don't, please tell me and I can delete it.

    6. I thought your daughter might not care for it.

    7. But I suppose no one else knows who she is-- so it's a matter of your relationship, not of confidentiality.

    8. And I suppose if my wife was writing here, it would have been 90% my disengagement and 10% her expectations that caused the trouble!
      Hey, I just asked my daughter, and at first we had almost settled on 50/50, but then she says it was more that I was pretty absent and that her mom has some form of ADD and wouldn't listen to her. Now, that tweaked my memory. I'll save the details, but again, intrusiveness. My wife could never wait for your answer to a question. It was always multiple choice, she would provide the answers and give you very little room for expression. If this makes it to publication, rest assured I'm letting them read it and veto if they want.
      Well, it's a testament to the way we are, we think privacy is only a need for people who are doing something wrong - like privately using punishment more than they say, more than what is publicly acceptable (a reference to your 'Puzzlement' post) that no-one's going to veto this.
      No fear, no compromise!

    9. Bit of a non-sequiter, I guess, huh?
      Have I lost all credibility?

    10. Nah-- I just ran out of energy to comment!

  19. By the way, Jeff and Chris, I've had some very nice off-blog comments to the effect that it's good to see people disagreeing without malice and trying to be constructive. Just goes to show, it can be done on the Internet, even though it usually isn't.