Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Science and parenting

In Slate, Alan Kazdin looks at the evidence on corporal punishment. His lament is that lots of parents still hit their kids despite the scientific evidence that it likely does harm. But the discussion is more about why parents do not pay attention to scientific research.
Part of the problem is that most of us pay, at best, selective attention to science—and scientists, for their part, have not done a good job of publicizing what they know about corporal punishment. Studies of parents have demonstrated that if they are predisposed not to see a problem in the way they rear their children, then they tend to dismiss any scientific finding suggesting that this presumed nonproblem is, in fact, a problem. In other words, if parents believe that hitting is an effective way to control children's behavior, and especially if that conviction is backed up by a strong moral, religious, or other cultural rationale for corporal punishment, they will confidently throw out any scientific findings that don't comport with their sense of their own experience.
The issue is that a parenting behaviour can appear to work right away (and so be affirmed) but actually do more harm later on or be otherwise ineffective. Scientific research can inform about the latter. And it is not just corporal punishment. Consider sleeping, eating and all sorts of other things where it is difficult to weigh the present and future.

The argument in the article is that governments need to ban violence against children and Kazdin again laments the lack of political traction in the US on that. But come on, is he really surprised. The same parents are the voters and if they see corporal punishment as effective and morally OK, why would they vote to ban it.

This suggests that the way to get parental behavioural change is not the public equivalent of corporal punishment -- bans and penalties for infractions. Instead, my guess is that social norms and changes will be more powerful. I have not looked into it, but my guess (hope) is that the degree of violence against children has fallen: e.g., less using of hard objects and more using of hands. Why has this occurred? Social pressure mainly.

The key to social pressure is exposure. And that is the issue with parenting. So much of it is within the confines of a household and not exposed socially. That is why pressures to breastfeed are stronger (as you leave the house sometimes) while punishment is another matter. Then again, how often are we seeing physical punishment performed outside the house? The point here is that we need to think far less from the hip and far more using science (this time on parenting behaviour) to actually produce changes.