In “Parents Caught Spanking Children on Audiotape Real Time,” what should have been a straightforward report on the somewhat surprising (to the researchers) results of placing audio recorders in families’ homes to study “Real Life Mother-Child Interaction in the Home” was somehow transformed into a piece against corporal punishment chock full of misinformation. Susan Donaldson James didn’t do her homework, and ABC News should be embarrassed at the end results. Just a few highlights:
James includes the following loaded non-sequitur:
Spanking is universally condemned among most child development and parenting experts …
Huh? “Universally condemned among most” means exactly nothing. “Universally” and “most” are incompatible terms. Either “most child development and parenting experts condemn spanking” or “spanking is universally condemned among child development and parenting experts” could work, but you can’t have both at the same time. This kind of nonsense wording does serve to make it sound much worse, however, simply because of the use of “universally condemned.” But if that weren’t bad enough by itself, James finishes the sentence with this doozie:
… although some fundamentalist Christian groups disagree, citing the Biblical passage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Amazing. Maybe if James had read the recent CNN piece, “Actually, That’s Not in the Bible,” she might have been spared quoting a phantom passage that never occurs in the Bible (actually coming from Hudibras). Granted, we could be especially gracious and concede that many Christians may indeed cite that quotation as though it were in the Bible, but one would think it would still be the reporter’s job to note that such a passage doesn’t exist.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s two major errors in one paragraph. How about we go for three? The use of the phrase, “although some fundamentalist Christian groups disagree,” implies that only fundamentalist Christians disagree with what is “universally condemned among most.” First of all, I can guarantee that fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only group that disagrees (nor are they the only group that points to the Bible as backing for corporal punishment). Secondly, this kind of pejorative use of “fundamentalist” is often used as a weapon, effectively serving as a code-word for “backwoods, uneducated, and ignorant.”Alvin Plantinga has memorably summarized this function of “fundamentalist”:
On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’. (Warranted Christian Belief [Oxford: OUP, 2000], 245; as cited in the delightfully playful and incisive, “A Lexical Analysis of ‘Fundamentalist’ in Bart Ehrman’s HoPo Piece“)
This appears to be exactly the function “fundamentalist” serves in this case, serving only as a foil to pejoratively label as ignorant anyone who would argue against the “universal” conclusion by “most” reasonable people that corporal punishment is bad. By lumping any Christians who might spank their children under the “fundamentalist” label, James has effectively marginalized all who disagree with her perspective, ignoring the fact that many “conservative” Christians are not fundamentalists.
Amazingly, after such strong (and misleading) rhetoric, the very researchers discussed in the article immediately contradict James’ assertion:
[Study author George] Holden agrees that an “occasional spank” might not have a long-term negative effect on a child, “unless it was so hard it resulted in child abuse or injury. The problem is when parents rely on physical punishment, they are more likely to escalate when the kids misbehave if they do not stop,” he said. “They come back and they hit harder and are indeed more at risk to abuse them.”
Robert Larzelere, a psychologist in the department of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University, argues that “conditional spanking” — two swats with an open hand on the bottom — is not detrimental to a child.
One of the most vocal opponents of spanking bans, Larzelere said non-abusive spanking is more effective on 2- to 6-year-olds than a dozen other tactics, including reasoning, verbal threats, privilege removal, ignoring, bribes, restraint and diversionary tactics.
“When you look at all the studies, conditional spanking led to less disobedience and less aggression,” he said.
Wow, I had no idea fundamentalist Christians were so prevalent within the field of child development and family science. I mean, if these guys are going against what “most” have “universally condemned,” they must be fundamentalist Christians thumping their Bibles and quoting a verse that’s not even in the book, right?
After all this, James manages to finish her article with yet more rhetoric advocating raising “kids without physical punishment,” ensuring to give extra space to the researcher who muses about the continuing practice of corporal punishment,
The belief in American society is hard to shake. But parents believe in their heart of hearts that spanking works when others things don’t.
Perhaps that’s because the research (as was acknowledged by all the experts in the article) suggests that this may in fact be true.
I should add that I do agree that what was recorded on the audio was inappropriate. But I actually have at least as big of a problem with the recorded verbal abuse as I do with the physical contact on the recordings. Verbal scars can last a whole lot longer than the sting of a spanking, and that’s something that gets too little attention in this discussion. A distinction should also be made between a slap and “spanking,” which are not necessarily the same thing (for example, the first soundbite on the ABC sample is likely a hand getting smacked, and a child getting slapped across the face is pretty different from getting spanked on the bottom).
(Go here for more discussion on the data linking spanking to bullying and aggression—and the correlation/causation problems overlooked by many who uncritically cite this research. As for myself, I don’t think spanking—provided it is not overdone or performed while angry—is inherently worse than any other form of punishment, though, as with many other punishments, it is prone to abuse. Punishment itself is about the exercise of authority and power and necessarily involves a violation of the so-called “right of physical inviolability,” whether via direct application to the body or preventing the body from going wherever the person wills. I would have thought Foucault’s Discipline and Punish made that clear enough. Much like the recent academic discussions of the humaneness of flogging versus imprisonment, I would rather have been spanked as a child than put into “timeout” for hours on end.)