Thursday, March 26, 2009

WSJ Review: Don't spare the rod!

The first US review of Parentonomics (non-Amazon that is) has come in and it is from a big media outlet, the Wall Street Journal. I won't dress it up, the reviewer, Dan Akst didn't like it. Put simply, he seems tired of pop economics books and certainly didn't want to read one where the author uses his own experiences as the base (or to use his term a "bore").

But there was actually more to it. He has a very different view of how to punish kids, to me, jaw droppingly, so.
Some of the author's child-rearing ideas will not strike such a universal chord. Mr. Gans doesn't believe in spanking, but he admits that he and his wife frequently punish their children by means of shunning -- making their kids stand in a corner, in keeping with the modern preference for emotional pain over corporal punishment. At one point Mr. Gans even uses hunger as a weapon, sending a helpless child to bed without her supper (prompting in him a meditation on whether the punishment is costlier to parents or child). Wouldn't a quick swat to the tush and a full belly be preferable all around?
Wow. And I was getting in trouble for suggesting using incentives with kids. I know parents angst over whether 'time outs' are effective but they are usually not reaching for the rod as an alternative. This was definitely a new kind of reviewer.

So I figured I might investigate some more. And when you look at Mr Akst's past writings, this is not a new theme. Take this offering from the WSJ back in 1999:
I say "mere," but it’s startling how casually this creepy technique is advocated. A whack to the bottom is held to violate the taboo against violence, but for some reason ostracism, physical isolation and emotional withholding are broadly approved, often in the widely adopted form of the "time out," which for the uninitiated resembles very closely what Dennis the Menace’s parents must have inflicted when the cartoonist drew him sulking in a rocking chair in the corner.

With its emphasis on silence and isolation, coupled with its faith in rehabilitation, the rise of the time out recapitulates the Quaker-inspired embrace of solitary confinement prison generations ago as a proper response to transgression. The idea was that the the wrongdoer could reflect on his sins without distraction. The time out is supposed to have the same effect, and justreplacement for corporal or other punishments in society at large. And just as America is a world leader in penitentiaries, American parents seem to lead the world in time outs (as well as in disrespectful children, it sometimes seems)., so too are we world leaders in incarceration.
Actually, I call it "incarceration" in the book (p.138) so I hardly glossed over these issues. But that was after, for the book at least, a fairly thoughtful and research-informed look at spanking that basically said, if you have to do it often, it is a bad and ineffective idea (and by the way, that is consistent with the economics of punishment).

But he goes on.
As the With its sporty name and air of thoughtful "hold everything," The time out is the emblematic punishment of our times, the time out is . It’s in keeping, to cite one example, with our preference in recent years for economic sanctions in lieu of war. Leaving aside our recent belligerence in Iraq and Yugoslavia, generally speaking we prefer to punish rogue countries nowadays by expelling them "from the community of nations." Diplomatic ties are broken, and trade is at least threatened. If you can’t be good, we won't let you play in our markets.

On a more prosaic level, the time out reflects a certain feminization of culture in which traditional fatherliness has become as dispensable as fathers themselves. Calling a time out--shunning your child until he does what you like--substitutes emotional manipulation for physical force, thereby replacing one dubious form of compulsion with another. Its lasting effect, such as it is, arises from the fear of psychological rather than physical pain, and contrary to appearances, its widespread adoption is based not on kindness but on weaknessselfishness. Except in the case of abusers and other sickos, whacking a kid’s bottom probably does hurt parent more than child, and inflicting pain on the psyche has somehow come to seem more palatable.
That theme comes through even more strongly here. But before you think that Mr Akst is favouring spanking, reading on, he is in favour something else:
Aside from these humane ploys, I’m a pragmatist. On mornings when it's up to me to dress bmy sons, for instance, I throw shirts and pants onto them as fast as I can, regardless of what they think or whether they're ready. I know I'm supposed to solicit their views in all this, but that usually results in a wrestling match. Work fast, and by the time they figure out they're missing a golden opportunity to argue, it's too late: they're already dressed. I figure if I keep this up, before I know it pretty soon they'll be old enough to read Bartleby instead of emulating him.

And neither of us will have to suffer through too many time outs or sore bottoms along the way.
He just goes for full command and control. No wonder he didn't like the book. At its heart is the idea that we are parenting kids so they can exercise good judgment themselves. Punishment is one means of communicating the dimensions of that judgment. If you decide instead to give them no control, you avoid the need for punishment and much else. Mr Akst doesn't like books like Parentonomics for a reason. Its philosophy shares much with that of economics that we want to allow people (including children) to make their own choices but to feel the consequences rather than to deny the choices themselves. Forget the spanking issue, this is an area where we seriously disagree,