Why We Stopped Spanking

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Spanking has declined precipitously in American society, particularly among the educated.  Darshak Sanghavi explores why:


Several experts with whom I spoke pointed to tougher laws on child abuse (that is, fear of prosecution), greater use of no-spanking day-care centers and nannies by two profession couples, or beliefs that spanking causes long-term psychological harm. But these don't necessarily support the personal experience of many parents. At my medical center, for example, I recently interviewed dozens of pediatricians and subspecialists about their own experience, and many recalled being whipped with belts, slapped in the face, or hit in other ways as children. (I once went to preschool with a bruised cheek from being hit.) Yet not a single one hit his or her own children today as a routine method of discipline. None of the above explanations seemed on target to them. Instead, they chose not to spank for an entirely practical reason: They had, they said, learned more effective ways of disciplining 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.

Such a view underlies the approach of Supernanny or How To Talk, where parents make behavior charts or create token economies for rewards, answer questions with explanations, and encourage kids to accept and express their feelings. According to Lareau, such discipline tends to be self-reinforcing, and part of a broader ecology of parenting. As a result, these children who experience it develop an "emerging sense of entitlement"--a trait that may carry some negative connotations but generally correlates with better verbal skills, school performance, and a sense that they can actively shape the world around them.

Sanghavi goes on to link this to gains in IQ and other good things.


I wonder, however, if "better" is quite the right word.  It seems to me that what parents have discovered is a much, much more intensive form of parenting than their grandparents employed.  The elaborate charts and systems of incentives are enabled by the fact that modern children are effectively monitored by adults every waking hour until they become quite old.

As Valerie Ramey points out in a recent essay, one of the enduring mysteries of the 20th century is that in America, at least, labor saving appliances don't seem to have saved much labor.  Adults spend less time on certain "home production" tasks--like cooking--but more on others, particularly childcare.

Including all age groups, I find that average time spent in home production actually rose slightly over the century. The absence of a decline in the population overall was in part due to the decrease in the share of children (who do little home production), the increase in the share of the retired elderly (who do more home production than the employed), and the loss of economies of scale as households got smaller.

Interestingly, time spent in home production by prime-age individuals did not decrease after the mid-1970s, although the composition of tasks changed significantly. In particular, as Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst demonstrate, time spent on such activities as cooking and laundry decreased steadily, while time spent on childcare increased. 4 Garey Ramey and I document and assess possible explanations for the dramatic rise in childcare time in the United States beginning in the 1990s. 5 We find that the largest increases in childcare time were among college-educated parents, although less educated parents also showed an increase. We test numerous possible explanations, such as safety concerns, income effects, and sample selection, but find that all are inconsistent with the data. We then offer a new theory linking at least part of the increase in childcare time to "cohort crowding" and the increase in competition to get into college. We argue that a significant portion of the increase in childcare time is parents trying to improve their children's chances of getting into a "good" college by tutoring them and building up their after-school resumes. As one test of the theory, we turn to Canada, where there is no steep hierarchy of universities and where college admissions are less competitive. Using individual-level data from Canadian time- use studies, we show that time spent on childcare did not increase among college-educated parents in Canada over the past twenty years.

My grandmother literally never worked outside the home a day in her life.  But she would have been bewildered by the intensive parenting of today's "stay at home Moms".  When my mother got home from school, my grandmother gave her a cookie and told her to go outside and play.  She was not supposed to come back until dinner--rain or shine, sleet or snow.


My mother, who was also home when we were young, did not let us run around outside by ourselves, because I grew up in Manhattan.  However, from a very young age, I spent quite a lot of time running around between apartments in my building, where there were four other girls approximately my age.  At nine or ten, I walked to school by myself across many New York streets, and past several housing projects. While my mother (and I) always knew approximately where I was supposed to be, I was not directly supervised during most of my free time.

Today's kids seem to be not only supervised but regimented; most of their time is supposed to be spent in some sort of structured activity.  This makes it very easy to create elaborate reward systems, because there is all this elaborate surveillance that makes it very easy to monitor compliance.

But if kids are unmonitored most of the time, then I wonder how well that works.  It strikes me as plausible that a world in which kids spend more time unsupervised requires a parenting style more reliant on swift punishment for detected wrongdoing than rewards for good behavior.

To be sure, my mother was actually quite well watched--by all the other mothers on the block.  But while you could be quite sure that an adult would report it if they saw your kid doing something really wrong, it's much less likely that they're going to tell you that Sally deserves her tidyness gold star for the afternoon because she threw her litter in the garbage can.

All that monitoring and incentivizing probably is better at turning out kids who are able to successfully negotiate the hierarchical American university system. But crotchety as I am, I find it sort of creepy--and anecdotally, as the first generation of what David Brooks calls "Organization Kids" enters the workforce, employers are apparently complaining that they have an outsized sense of entitlement combined with a difficulty coping with unstructured tasks.  Obviously, I'm not advocating a return to an era of brutal beatings.  But I'd like to think that there's some alternative to raising children in a sort of well-padded, benevolent police state where no action is too small or large that it can't be managed with an appropriately placed gold star.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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