Sunday, 22 October 2017

On Smacking Children

As those who know me will predict, I'm not comfortable with the Scottish government's ban on smacking children - I don't think governments running a country in loco parentis is a good thing. That said, I don't think smacking children is the best way to teach children, and even though I don't want it to be illegal, I think parents do their parenting best when they don't smack their children (in a previous Blog post I talked about an important distinction between disapproving of things and banning them).

My reasons for thinking smacking children is not a good idea are fairly straightforward:

1) I think it is entirely desirable (and entirely possible) to bring up well turned-out kids without having had to smack them. My one caveat is the possible exception of a reactionary smack on the back of the leg to warn them of the severity of dangers and hazards - such as if they'd just attempted to run into a busy road, or gone near a fire, or something like that. But that should only be a light leg slap on children not old enough and too short-term in their mentality to rationalise the utility of incentives through things like longer-term financial punishments and rewards.

2) It is obvious from watching parents who regularly scream at their kids and smack them with infuriation that the kids can easily become desensitised to it, and it therefore often fails to have the desired effect. This then increases the chances of parents losing control of their disciplining measures and further taking it out on their young ones, which increases the chances that children will grow up to be similar to how their parents were.

On that last point, the New Scientist had an article out yesterday telling us about the future harms of smacking children. They tell us how children who are smacked are more likely to misbehave, and to engage in delinquent, criminal or antisocial behaviour, more likely to go on to experience emotional and physical abuse and neglect, more likely to go on to be aggressive themselves, and that they are also at a higher risk of having low self-esteem, depression or alcohol dependency.

All this may be true, but it's quite possible that the New Scientist article writer, Jessica Hamzelou, has misunderstood the causality, or at the very least failed to ask the proper question an economist would ask: Does being smacked really have a big effect on those future harms (as Jessica Hamzelou reasons, and for which she cites evidence), or is it more so the case that people in the group that are most likely to experience those future harms are also people most likely to be brought up in environment in which smacking is common?

Or to put it more directly, the less well off you are, on average, the less educated (and possibly more frustrated, marginalised and psychologically maladapted) you are likely to be, and the more likely you are to use smacking as a form of discipline (I read research on this a few years ago, which I've dug up for you here and here

There are fairly obvious economic reasons for this. Wealthier people have on average more options available to them, a frequently less-tough and challenging time bringing up children, more ways to discipline and disincentivise children from bad behaviour (withhold generous allowances, take away the child's laptop and mobile phone, send them off to boot camp for four weeks in the summer holidays, etc), as well as stronger social and familial groups in which to parent.

I was only smacked about four or five times as a child, from what I can recall to memory, and it did no good - all it taught me was the experience of a few isolated moments (in an otherwise wonderful childhood) of my father temporarily being unable to instil any rational method of discipline - that in those snap moments he was unable to choose a more suitable method of punishment.

But on one occasion I experienced the hardest punishment of my whole childhood for something I'd done wrong. I was forced to go without my computer and television and books for a period of time and was instead sent to bed early to think about what I'd done wrong. That was agonising - the unbearable experience of childhood boredom, devoid of the things I loved to do.

So if you want to incentivise children to behave better, my advice would be, don't smack them - either hit them in the pocket by withdrawing their allowance, or take away their privileges like the Internet, computer games and television until they've learned their lesson. You'll turn them into little angels in no time!