Friday, January 26, 2007

Repeated punishment

In Slate, Emily Brazelon discusses proposals to outlaw spanking of children. Ultimately, there are two forces at work here. The first is the fact that violence -- even restrained beating -- is outlawed between adult to adult. The second are concerns about what damage spanking children might do. The former is enough for me not to spank our children but the idea of outlawing it for everyone has to be based, at first instance, on the evidence. If it turned out that the evidence was favourable (that is, it did little harm and helped with discipline), then we would have to move on to morals to deal with the policy issue.

But the Slate article tells us that the evidence is mixed but ultimately stacks up against.
This is the sort of research impasse that leaves advocates free to argue what they will—and parents without much guidance. But one study stands out: An effort by University of California at Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind to tease out the effects of occasional spanking compared to frequent spanking and no spanking at all. Baumrind tracked about 100 white, middle-class families in the East Bay area of northern California from 1968 to 1980. The children who were hit frequently were more likely to be maladjusted. The ones who were occasionally spanked had slightly higher misbehavior scores than those who were not spanked at all. But this difference largely disappeared when Baumrind accounted for the children's poor behavior at a younger age. In other words, the kids who acted out as toddlers and preschoolers were more likely to act out later, whether they were spanked occasionally or never. Lots of spanking was bad for kids. A little didn't seem to matter.
This seems broadly sensible and likely. It is the repetition of spanking as a punishment that is a problem. It could suggest that parents are unrestrained and relying on it too easily. Alternatively, it could suggest that as a punishment, for some children it does not work. To repeat it over and over again just doesn't help.

This blog hasn't looked at punishment yet. It is a little surprising because economics and game theory have lots to say about it. The economic theory of punishment is simple: set the punishment at just the level to deter behaviour. If the offender understands this, the possibility of punishment will deter the behaviour and no punishment will actually be given. That is, punishments that work, deter behaviour and are not repeated.

So if spanking is used as a punishment, if it is repeated, that means it isn't working. Stack that up with the evidence that it is the repetition of this type of punishment that causes damage and you have a case for outlawing repeated spanking. As Brazelon argues, if that involves outlawing the whole lot and then only prosecuting the worst offenses, then the case for the policy is made.

Notice that notions that spanking is the "only thing a child will understand" do not change the policy here. Repetition indicates it is not being understood the right way and so if that leaves a parent with nothing in the toolkit, so be it. The point here is spanking is not really in the toolkit. The other point, as I heard somewhere, is that this same argument also applies to tourists who need directions; a mild flogging is the only thing they will understand!

But the same principle -- repetition means failure -- applies to any sort of punishment. When it comes down to it, even those like myself who will not engage in any physical pain as punishment, shouting, incarceration and other forms of punishment, are not guaranteed to be any less emotionally damaging at a first order. And their repetition will likely generate the same ill effects as spanking.

In our house, the main form of punishment is the "dreaded" corner; that is, incarceration. Our house doesn't actually have many corners -- some rabid architect did away with them -- but do the place called the corner is a little dark space just inside the door to the garage. What this means is that being sent to the corner means isolation but also a mild chance of being hit by an inswinging door (so I guess we have a chance of physical punishment!).

Many offenses can entail being sent to the corner. Rudeness, tantrums, violence towards siblings, inability to resolve arguments, refusals to obey 'orders.' So the punishment is dealt out quite often. But it is not repeated often for the same offense.

But we also have orders of magnitude of increasing punishments. Corner first, denial of television, sent to room and sent to bed early all can be employed. Occasionally, things get out of hand. One day my eldest daughter at 3 years old, refused to do pretty much anything. Punishments escalated until she was in her room, naked and screaming with no toys. Not a pretty moment nor a proud one for me and it required a second parent to resolve the whole thing. But that is the exception that proved the rule. In that situation, punishments per se, didn't work. Something else was going on that would require more effort to resolve.

Our second eldest son was another matter. Whereas our daughter would be dutifully distressed being sent to the corner (something that indicated to me the message have been delivered), our son wouldn't react at all. He would go to the corner. Sometimes we would hear him singing, "I'm in the corner, I'm in the corner." It was a merry ditty but it often triggered discussions as to whether it was working. Well, forget immediate distress, the truth is, the behaviour wasn't repeated. That is the measure of success rather than looking at distress.

To my mind, there is a part of me that enjoys being innovative about punishments. I like irony. Failure to share a toy properly can lead to confiscation. Confiscation does not mean the toy is removed from sight. No, instead it is put high on a shelf but on display for all to see and not forget. Of course, real irony would be to take the toy and slice it in half. I have threatened this but not had to carry it out.

But you don't always have the time or energy to be creative. What you need then is credibility. As a game theorist, I worked out how to do this and managed to build a reputation in short order. I also know that their imagination is much more active than my own. So when I am not getting compliance with a request or order -- such as getting ready for bathtime -- I stand there and close my eyes and saw "I am thinking up a suitable punishment and if, when I open my eyes, you haven't done x, I will tell you it." Well, a flurry of activity always ensues. I do not think I have ever had to actually think up a punishment and who knows what they think it might be if I ever did! Technically, this is a situation where there is no punishment, just a credible threat of one. It will be interesting to see if this ever comes up in a future therapy session.