The Agenda

The Decline of Corporal Punishment as a Metaphor

My friend and colleague Arpit Gupta kindly pointed me to Darshak Sanghavi’s illuminating Slate article on the history of spanking:

Remarkably, however, a powerful trend toward abandoning corporal punishment is already under way. There has been a dramatic reduction in its use over the past two generations—an unprecedented change in a pattern that likely had been fixed for millennia. In the United States, for example, 94 percent of parents endorsed hitting kids in 1968, but only one-half approved by 1999. Similar decreases occurred in countries as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Kuwait, Germany, and New Zealand. (In Sweden, the drop preceded the law against hitting kids.)

Murray Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has devoted his career to studying corporal punishment, believes the decrease is “part of the long term civilizing process of society,” in which societal violence in all forms has dropped over the last centuries. When I push him to explain why the reduction in corporal punishment is so recent, he points to increasing levels of education. (With some exceptions, studies show that educated and wealthier families hit kids less.) But what does that mean? In other words, just what changed in these households to lead parents to raise children without corporal punishment?

Basically, educated parents have discovered more effective, less stressful means of punishing their children:

That knowledge didn’t come from their health-care providers. As with many pediatrics residencies, mine included nothing on the practical aspects of parenting. And studies show that pediatricians spend only a few seconds during checkups talking about how to discipline a child. Instead, modern practices of child discipline are conveyed through books, television shows, and other forms of popular culture that have shifted parenting norms. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we sought out books like How To Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk that followed the path first blazed by Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton. Mass-marketed child care guides, along with popular shows like ABC’s Supernanny (praised even in the august pages of the journal Pediatrics), offered an immersive curriculum on disciplining children without hitting them.

Without really realizing it, we zeroed in on a style of parenting that sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” This is, I think, what separates those who hit kids from those who don’t, and divides largely along socioeconomic fault lines. As popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Lareau tried to document how these differences emerged. The issue wasn’t that one group was more or less lenient with bad behavior. Instead, middle- and upper-class parents tended to treat children as peers, with the pint-sized ability to make choices, respond to reason, and have valid emotions. It’s not a huge leap then to see children as having nascent civil rights that conflict with regular corporal punishment.

As Arpit suggests, this is a good way of thinking about the polarization of economic outcomes in our society:

One way to think about this is to think of children as a permanent underclass, subject historically to casual violence that they then tragically revisited on subsequent generations. Remarkably, a lage section of the population has formulated child-rearing techniques — through various forms of mass media — that are both effective at controlling children while leaving far less psychic damage. The gains here in fact in some sense constitute a major advance in civil rights for a permanently disenfranchised group. This has gone along with assortive mating, higher levels of education; as well as changes in social norms, bourgeois sentiments, etc. It is easy to see how differing parenting practices — holding all else equal — would result in dramatically different childhood experiences, and so a host of other life prospects.

That is, affluent parents are somewhat more likely to take their cultural cues from scientific elites regarding best practices for child-rearing. And then the children of those parents will model the child-rearing strategies of their parents. Suddenly we have children being raised two or even three generations removed from corporal punishment. This, in turn, might lead to stronger attachment between parents and children, a healthier sense of self, etc. It would seem strange if this didn’t lead to somewhat different economic outcomes. Children who grow up in a less threatening environment might prove more resilient later in life, which will help limit interruptions in educational attainment or labor force participation, etc.

Arpit continues:

“Redistribution” isn’t necessarily an effective tool at handling these sorts of differences. Indeed, child rearing techniques tend to be so family specific and personal that we are reluctant to raise the role of the state here. Nevertheless one can imagine how private organizations could play a large role here in spreading awareness about these sorts of parenting issues — just as they have already been doing for a broad swathe of the population — and how that in turn might turn out to be actually very important in addressing poverty.

One is reminded of the old saying that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When all we have are decent statistics regarding income and consumption, inequality of income and consumption looks really important relative to, say, whether or not children are subject to corporal punishment and whether or not they enjoy some basic modicum of emotional support.

My current theory is that a particularly important source of inequality is the size of one’s kin-based social network. Individuals in the kind of families that can gather fifty or more people for Thanksgiving dinner are in a palpable way much better off than those who can’t, or so I strongly suspect, than those who aren’t, even if these disembedded individuals have high incomes. This might help explain the supposed “puzzle” of high Latino life expectancy, i.e., Latinos have higher life expectancy than non-Hispanic whites, a more affluent group. “Robust family support,” even outside of married-couple families, could be doing a lot of valuable work.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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