Spanking Kids

Posted: December 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther faced off with Michael Pearl on Anderson Cooper. I applaud her for her courage. On her post, I made two comments I want to preserve on my blog. The first is simply my reaction to her post and her courage for speaking out.

Way to go EE!

And the truth is that kids are resilient. (The older we get, the less resilient we seem to get, but we often still have surprising capacity in that area.) Some break. Sometimes even those who experienced much worse don’t break and find healing. Some experience things that boggle the minds of others and become relatively unscathed adults.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. A child can be loved, given structure and boundaries, and given many other advantages, yet still walk dark paths as an adults.

Parenting matters, and can matter a great deal. But neither good nor bad parenting can assure any particular outcome. And in many ways that’s a good thing. After all, aren’t most of us a mixed bag as parents? It’s good that our mistakes don’t really “scar our kids for life” even if that also means the things we do right don’t guarantee a positive outcome.

I think that’s an important, but overlooked point. Our kids are free human beings just as we are. The fact that we can’t do anything that will guarantee a positive outcome is the corollary to our freedom from every mistake we make having a permanent effect on our children. You can’t have one without the other.

The second comment is one I made to someone who described themselves as a former pediatric trauma nurse and asserted that ‘spanking’ was an overall good in order to ‘keep kids from running into the street.’ I’m tired of that meme being abused, especially by someone asserting professional authority, so posted (if EE approves it) the following.

I wasn’t going to say more than I had mentioned above, but in describing yourself as a pediatric trauma nurse you have made an appeal to authority (in this case professional authority) while making an assertion of fact that is contrary to psychological findings. I don’t defend the language of the person to whom you were responding and their blurring of categories. But you’re appealing to medical authority and your statements are contrary to fact. I don’t want to leave that unchallenged.

This is one of the peer-reviewed articles I can find available online for free. (That’s actually an ongoing problem when discussing science.) I’ve read many more in other media and its results and conclusions are consistent with other peer-reviewed studies I’ve read.

http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1284539.pdf

Now, that might be a bit much for people not accustomed to reading scientific papers. I come from a family of scientists, though I am not myself a scientist. My mother is many things, but those things include two masters degrees in psychology and art therapy.

Personally, I have experienced abuse and my older son was seriously abused by his biological mother at a young age. (Lots of medical and legal bills and bankruptcy followed that experience, but I regret none of that part of the cost. I do regret that I wasn’t able to learn to be a better parent any faster than I did.) I had the ability to read and understand the research and the motivation to do so.

Here is the key point. The only “positive” thing that has been shown to correlate with corporal punishment is short term (less than five seconds) behavior modification. It’s good at doing that. It’s pretty poor at moral internalization and every other positive long-term measure. And it correlates with some pretty negative long-term outcomes.

What does that mean when it comes to “running into the street”? Well, it shows a number of things (which other peer-reviewed studies have also shown). First, if you are close enough to strike a child, then you have no need for short term behavior modification. You can physically restrain the child from running into the street. (Or they have already run into the street, you’ve caught them, and you are striking them because they frightened you.)

So if short-term behavior modification is not the goal, then moral internalization must be the goal. (You want the child to internalize that they should not run into the street and restrain themselves in the future.) But corporal punishment is one of the worst approaches to moral internalization. That’s not to say that it never works, but it usually doesn’t. And there are many other things you could do that would be more likely to result in moral internalization. Studies have shown precisely that as well.

Once I read the studies and thought about it, I realized there really aren’t any situations where I’m primarily concerned about immediate compliance (short term behavior modification) when my children are within arm’s length. Yes, my children can sometimes embarrass me. I got over that a long time ago. But as a parent, my goal is always moral internalization. I want them to internalize what I’m trying to teach so it becomes something they can do for themselves without me forcing compliance.

So I decided I would do the best I could to use approaches to discipline correlated with greater success at moral internalization. Which is not to say I don’t ever yell (a lesser form of the same sort of thing as spanking), but I don’t hit my children. And I’ve gotten pretty good at apologizing when I do yell and explaining why I did. Doesn’t make it all right, but kids mostly want to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. They forgive easily.

Have I screwed up and will I screw up tomorrow? Sure. But I don’t hit those I love the most. And maybe that’s a start toward learning not to hate those I love the least.

So my cards are on the table. What say you? But be warned, I will remove comments I believe cross the line. I’m not interested in the sort of comment war I’ve seen on other blogs. If you assert something, you better have more than your opinion or an anecdote behind it. This is something about which I feel strongly, and experience tells me if you push me, I’ll tear what you say apart. So be prepared. Or just walk away if you have your own strong opinions and believe it would be mutually counter-productive to engage.

UPDATE: I wrote the comment below later on EE’s blog and wanted to preserve it here as well.

“Right” and “wrong” are moral judgements (unless they are used to mean factually correct and factually incorrect, when usually isn’t the case in these discussion). That wasn’t the point of my comment at all.

Rather, if your goal is moral internalization (teach the child not to run into the street in the future so they restrain themselves) then corporal punishment is one of the least effective means you can choose to accomplish that goal. That’s not a moral judgment, that’s a statement of fact.

The question then becomes, why do parents do something that’s ineffective at their stated goal? And why do they often perceive it as effective when it isn’t? (In other words, why do their perceptions fail to coincide with reality?) That’s another discussion, entirely.

Here I was simply pointing out that your assertion of fact (that spanking a child is an effective means of teaching them not to run into the street in the future) was incorrect. That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s as close as you get to an established fact in behavioral science confirmed in multiple studies by lots of researchers over the course of decades. Corporal punishment is pretty good at very short term behavior modification. It sucks at moral internalization.

Heck, I even read a study from more than a decade ago (not available online as far as I know) that didn’t rely on parental reporting on the specific subject of ‘running into the street’. Instead, they used a control group of parents who reported using spanking to correct that behavior (and controlled for as many factors as they could). And then they taught a study group of parents a relatively simple and straightforward disciplinary approach to teach their small children not to run into the street. Then they observed both sets of families as they were outside under similar conditions for similar periods of time each day over the course of a  period of time. (It was something like 2 weeks or a month.)

Over that period of time, the control group of kids who were spanked showed little or no reduction in their attempts to run into the street. The group that was effectively disciplined very quickly fell to almost no attempts to run into the street.

The same study also asked the parents questions designed to determine their perception of the effectiveness of their disciplinary approach. And this was the strange part. The study group correctly perceived the effectiveness of the approach they used, even though it was new to most of them. However, the group of parents who spanked also reported that they perceived their efforts as effective and further significantly under-reported the number of times their children tried to run into the street.

That’s a good illustration why our perceptions of effectiveness — without objective measures — are not particularly trustworthy. Heck, Michael Pearl perceives his approach as effective.

And I’m not particularly interested in sympathy for myself or my son (who’s doing pretty well for himself with a family of his own now). I was just explaining why I was motivated to actually learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to discipline.

And corporal punishment doesn’t work in any of the areas I care about, and which I believe most parents care about, when it comes to disciplining children. (Even when compliance — short term behavior modification — matters, which isn’t very often, there are other approaches to achieve it that don’t have the negative outcome correlations of corporal punishment.)

I did notice one thing that I don’t think was clear in my abbreviated overview of the ‘running into the street’ study I described. All the parents normally spanked their kids. (I think this study was from the late 80s or early 90s when it would have been much harder to find parents in the US who wouldn’t have given their small children a swat for running into the street.) They first observed the entire group for a period of a week or two to establish norms in the study situation. They then taught a selected study group a different approach and continued the study for another week or two. Obviously they didn’t tell the control group that they were the control group and as little as possible to either about the purpose of the study. (I think they told the study group they were evaluating a ‘new’ idea for a parental discipline technique or something like that.) In human behavior studies, you can never control for everything. But I thought it was a pretty well-constructed study. That’s one of the reasons it lodged in my brain all these years.

This isn’t a moral judgment like any discussion of abuse must be. (Though I will note that there seems to be a pretty huge gray area between things that almost everyone would agree are non-abusive corporal punishment and the things that almost everyone would agree are clearly physical abuse. That’s another problem to discuss at another time.) This is a discussion of reality and the fact that so many parents’ perceptions of reality with their parenting techniques and children don’t coincide with what is actually happening.


A Fractured Mind

Posted: April 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

A Fractured MindI have a difficult time knowing where to begin with my thoughts and reactions to A Fractured Mind by Robert B. Oxnam. That task is further complicated by a need to carefully edit what I should and should not say in a public forum. But I found this a powerful book and I want to encourage others to read it, so I’ll do my best to walk that particular razor’s edge.

Robert B. Oxnam is, by most measures we tend to use, a highly successful and accomplished man. Ivy League education. Scholar and academic in Asian studies from a time when that was less common than it is today. Head of the prestigious Asia Society for nearly a decade. Appearances on the Today Show and other media outlets. His curriculum vitae is quite impressive.

Robert B. Oxnam also discovered late in life, as everything crumbled around him, that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder or DID. That’s the clinical DSM-IV name for the disorder formerly (and still popularly) known as multiple personality disorder or MPD. This autobiographical book captures the story of that journey in an unique manner. Robert records the experience of his discovery of the disorder and his journey through treatment from the various perspectives of each personality. It’s a glimpse into the inner world of those who have a disorder which is difficult to understand from the outside.

The book also includes an excellent epilogue by Robert’s therapist, Dr. Jeffery Smith. If you read the book, don’t skip the epilogue. Dr. Smith provides an excellent overview of DID as well as a description of what he was trying to accomplish in the various stages of therapy and how he approached Robert’s disorder and his various personalities.

Dissociative identity disorder is not as bizarre or strange as people often consider it. Rather, all of the elements which together create it are normal pieces of the way our brains function and protect themselves. It’s just that in DID, each of those pieces is pushed somewhere close to its maximum extent. I want to take a moment to examine the primary two components.

First there is our capacity to, in effect, function as different people in different situations and settings. We all do this to one degree or another. Personally, when I’m focused on solving technical computer design or programming problems I tend to enter into a place where my mind is working at a level of abstraction that renders me less verbal. If you try to communicate with me while I am in that place, you are likely to get a blank stare initially if you get any response at all. It’s not that my ears didn’t hear the sounds you made, it’s that my brain is not engaged and operating in a way that allows me to immediately interpret those sounds as language. Now, I can fairly readily switch gears from that state into one that’s better able to communicate, but those around me can observe the shift. When I’m in the office, I find my coworkers understand that shift (most of them experience something like it themselves) and when they need to talk to me will wait for a moment to be sure I’m engaged with them. When I’m working from home, my family is less familiar with that process and they have a tendency to start telling me something before I’m ready to absorb it. I find I often have to tell them to stop and backup a bit when they need to talk to me while I’m working. They don’t experience that when I’m in the office because they have to call me and the process of hearing and responding to a ringing phone provides me all the time I need to shift gears.

However, while that’s the first example that comes to my mind, it’s hardly the only one. We all tend to present different aspects of ourselves in professional settings, in casual social settings, with more intimate friends, and with those who are closest to us. It’s so easy and natural that we hardly even think about it unless the “face” we are compelled to portray in a particular context feels so alien to us that it becomes a “mask”. Even then, we don’t have any particular problem pulling off the required masquerade. It just feels unnatural. But for every “mask” we notice, we likely have a hundred “faces” that we don’t. So even though we all feel like a single, unified person, the reality is that we are constantly and largely unconsciously rearranging the elements of our personality to meet the demands of particular settings and circumstances.

Dissociative identity disorder is a disorder because this natural function of the mind becomes cast in iron as distinct and divided personalities rather than more fluid “faces”. Those walls between the personalities are built through dissociation. But dissociation itself is a very common defense mechanism. It’s one of the ways our minds protect themselves from trauma.

One of the dissociative disorders that people are pretty familiar with today is post-traumatic stress disorder. While dissociation is hardly the only feature of PTSD, it is a significant piece of it. The dissociation can take the form of a total amnesiac block of the traumatic memory. You will still suffer to some degree from the trauma, even without the specific memory, but it seems to lessen the overall impact and allows the person to continue to function, even if in a diminished capacity. In other cases the dissociation can take the form of some sort of detachment, where you can recall the traumatic event, but it’s almost as though it’s from a third-person perspective.

My father is a Vietnam veteran and by the confluence of a number of events, he served in a particularly dangerous role. I remember a time when the sound of a breaking glass suddenly placed him back in a memory from the war from which he had dissociated until that moment. Dissociation helps us keep functioning in the face of trauma, but it’s not necessarily permanent. The traumatic memory isn’t actually gone. We just don’t have full access to it. (In fact, traumatic memories, by their nature, are the memories least likely to fade. They are seared into our psyche.)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have never yet experienced trauma of this sort, consider yourself blessed. Try to remember that many of the people with whom you interact each day have not been as fortunate.

While I’m not inclined to share details, I will say that my earliest memories are like the shattered shards of a mirror. I see bits and pieces of scenes, but they are in confusing disorder and slide from one to another without connection or transition. There are also other periods across my childhood where I can see evidence in my mind of dissociation. I will give one example to illustrate my point.

I remember a number of nights at a young age (no older than 7, though I can’t place my exact age or place) when I would lie in bed and imagine that my life was a very realistic dream. I would pick a point in the past where a younger me was asleep and dreaming and I would try to convince myself that everything since that point in time was just a dream and soon the younger me would awake and the dream (or perhaps nightmare) would fade. As an adult, I can recognize that that is not exactly a typical train of thought for a young child. But I can’t remember why I wanted some significant portion of my life at that time to be a dream. Nothing. That part of my memory is simply gone.

And if I’m speaking truthfully, given the nature of much that I do remember, I’m not certain I really want those memories. That’s the sword of Damocles hanging ominously within dissociation. If the memories were not traumatic, there would be no need to dissociate. As a result, at least speaking for myself, there is a reluctance to try to pierce the veil and something of a fear that the veil might one day drop on its own.

So the various elements of dissociative identity disorder are either part of our normal, everyday mental capacity or  pretty common defense mechanisms. But in this disorder, they are ratcheted up to the Nth degree. Typically it’s the result of severe abuse at a very young age with no hope of escape. And it’s often the result of such abuse over an extended period of time. The traumatic memories are divided up between personalities to hold them. Some element of the ethos of the abusers tends to be encapsulated in other personalities. And finally, personalities that do not have any of those memories are created to function in the outside world. It’s a survival response in the face of an otherwise unbearable onslaught. Dissociation forms the walls between the personalities or identities. In order to survive, the whole person shatters.

Usually, the dominant personality or personalities are not aware of each other or of the inner selves who protect the secret. And since the entire construct of personalities were created in the face of severe trauma and typically exist to protect secrets, they are masters at hiding. As such, it’s a notoriously difficult disorder to diagnose.

And that’s the case in this book for Robert B. Oxnam. As “Bob” he functioned in the real world for decades without any awareness of the world within him. He achieved high degrees of success, even if he also suffered a host of chronic problems. It was only as “Bob” burned out and began to collapse that he reached a point where another personality revealed himself in the context of a therapy session. The book records his journey of discovery and healing from that point onward.

This book does an excellent job of taking us into the inner world of a disorder we have a hard time understanding and which, unfortunately, is the subject of much skepticism and humor. Take the time to read it. You won’t regret the experience.