Thursday, September 21, 2017
Power Assertion and Child Guidance: Spanking and Other Acts
Not only the American Psychological Association, but various other groups with an interest in child development and parenting have been expressing concerns about spanking for many years. Such concerns are felt not only about physical punishment that reaches the level of injury and abuse, but about spanking itself—usually defined as a matter of one or two smacks with the adult’s bare hand on a child’s buttocks or legs.
One reason to be concerned about physical punishment by spanking is that there may be a “domino effect”. Caregivers who feel free to spank may respond to stress and anger by escalating to more intense or frequent blows, or to using a weapon like a switch or electric cord that will cause more pain. With such escalation, the possibility of real injury increases; when no physical punishment at all is used, escalation cannot occur.
A second reason for concern is that among some subcultures, spanking is associated with more rather than less antisocial behavior by children and adolescents. It’s possible that children learn to be more violent by imitating violent adult models. However, the issue is much confused by the fact that in other subcultures spanking is associated with better child development and achievement. All of these points are based on correlational studies that find statistical correlations between children’s experiences and their development, but do not allow us to conclude that an experience causes a developmental change. Children’s experiences of spanking or other punishment do not stand alone, and caregivers who spank may also provide other experiences that influence children.
The emphasis on spanking often focuses on the child’s experiences of pain and potential physical injury, but in fact spanking, as properly defined, probably does not hurt as much as a skinned knee or many other accidental childhood experiences. Perhaps what we need to do, to understand the potential effects of spanking, is to consider the act not as a source of pain, but as a type of power assertion. Power assertion techniques attempt to create behavior change by associating unwanted behavior with pain, fear, or both.
Although spanking is not considered an abusive act in the United States (at least for children older than a year and not yet in adolescence), there are many other power assertion techniques that may be classed as abusive for research purposes. These may or may not be specified under state laws about child abuse and may simply be considered as aspects of harsh parenting. They include isolating the child by keeping him or her locked in a room alone, depriving the child of food or drink, forcing the child to eat or drink, shouting at or refusing to speak to the child, and restraining the child physically by hand or by binding. Because power assertion techniques may operate through threats that frighten the child, adult threats of any of these experiences can be counted as examples of power assertion, even though the threats do no direct harm and do not even cause pain.
Why might we expect power assertion techniques to have worse outcomes than other forms of child guidance? One reason is that frequent experiences of fear and general anxiety are associated with difficulties about learning and thinking in both children and adults. (Although it may be true that knowing one is to be hanged “concentrates the mind wonderfully”, the concentration is on the hanging and not on other matters to be learned or remembered!) A second reason is that the normal course of development of attachment and social relationships involves increasing levels of compromise, bargaining, and negotiation, which are almost impossible when one party is constantly asserting his or her power over the other. A third reason is that parents who emphasize power assertion techniques with their children must by definition spend less time than others using techniques like humor, playfulness, rewards, and goal-setting, all of which support language and cognitive development as well as positive family relationships.
It does seem as if children can benefit from decreased experience of all of the power assertion techniques, not just of spanking. But there is a paradox here. Is not power assertion implied in all interactions adults have with children? We are big and they are small; we are skilled at punishments and threats and have the power to carry them out. We have the food and can withhold it. We can lock them in a room, we can turn out the lights with a switch they can’t reach. Even if (one hopes) we never do any of those things, we do have the power and they don’t. What’s more, we assert that power for various necessary reasons in the course of their early lives—changing diapers that they don’t want to have changed, snatching them out of the busy street, carrying them kicking and screaming out of a store, taking them to the doctor for shots.
The power differential is unquestionable, and we can never escape it. But we can limit the use of power assertion to times when it is really necessary, and that should go not only for spanking but for other power assertion methods. The reward? Better developmental progress, and probably more young adults who know how to compromise with others.