Temple is less direct: “The point of us doing this research isn’t to tell parents what to do,” he said, conjuring a libertarian-friendly approach to science. “Parenting is difficult and stressful, and people don't like to be told how to do it. Our job is just to provide them the evidence of what works, and what happens long-term.”
This abdication of the moral high ground is principled. He is fundamentally opposed to telling people what not to do. It’s not just a Texas thing; it’s proven not to work. He is instead a champion of “positive disciplining,” meaning focusing on what is good about a particular situation.
“Spanking is punishment, and punishment doesn’t work,” he said. “We know it with rats, we know it with humans. But if you can connect with a kid when they’re doing something right, they’re more likely to do that again in the future.”
As a father himself, he knows this is difficult to adhere to, but he believes this can happen even in the most difficult situation. “If a kid is having a temper tantrum and throwing things, and then next time they have a tantrum but don’t throw anything, say ‘I’m really glad you didn't throw anything.’”
The other evidence-based approach he recommends is taking something positive away. For younger children, that can mean taking away a toy temporarily. For older children and teenagers, this can mean taking away a cell phone. All of this is in service of teaching children to be respectful without disrupting the vital positive elements of the caretaker-child relationship.
At a larger scale, Temple believes one promising approach is school-based teaching of relationship skills. He is involved with a program call the Fourth R (meaning relationships), which is dedicated to baking healthy adolescent relationships into the curriculum. The ultimate target is violence of multiple sorts, including bullying, dating violence, peer violence, and group violence. But the focus is positive, not punitive, on how to build healthy relationships.
Temple believes this work is relevant to the national conversation on sexual assault and harassment. The discourse is doing an extraordinary job punishing—and of telling people how not to behave. Publicly accused perpetrators of sexual violence have been removed from their positions in droves, with the notable exceptions of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and President Donald Trump. At the same time, though, if there is evidence that punishment-based approaches are ineffective in children—and the behavior of these men is in many ways juvenile, egocentric, inhumane—then this punitive approach is at best incomplete. It carries with it the risk of a false sense of progress.
When the public perceives that we have cleansed the halls of Congress and corporations of the several bad eggs who commit sexual harassment (violent or otherwise), how much of the structural problem is really solved? In the interim before the total eradication of men, what keeps these positions from being filled again by bad eggs? The punitive phase will, it seems, need to go hand in hand with positive reinforcement. This seems absurd in an ostensibly civilized era: No one deserves a reward for being a basically reasonable respectful human. Or maybe they do.