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Life Arts    H3'ed 8/23/09

Hitting Doesn't Make Kids Better or Stronger

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Many people still hold that converting naturally unruly children into socialized adults requires a certain amount of parental abuse. "Spare the rod and spoil the child." "If people don't fear punishment, they won't behave." Psychologist George Madoff reported in Moral Politics: how liberals and conservatives think (2002), that this mindset is well correlated with political conservatism. Its close corollary is the conviction that parental harshness produces the toughness needed to survive in a very harsh world. Now, thanks to developments in neuro-psychology, both of these delusions can be countered with powerful empirical evidence in addition to rational, humane argument.

Real strength means being able to deal with a wide variety of threats and stressors, cooley. People are most competent, are least weak, when not ruled by emotions at a time of crisis. This is what psychologists call self-regulation. Louis Cozolino, in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: attachment and the developing social brain (2009) presents rapidly expanding evidence of how the achievement of self-regulation occurs within our brains. Simply stated, in order for us not to be dominated by the powerful fear based emotions triggered by a perceived threat, the left-brain part of our frontal cortex must gain ascendance over the right-brain part of our amygdala, the fear center of our limbic system. The frontal cortex, evolutionarily younger than the limbic system, and the even older and more reactive "reptilian" brain stem, is also far less rigid than either. The cortex's plasticity has allowed it to strengthen itself, and as a result to become increasingly adept over millennia at modifying our emotional responses to potential threats. Under extreme conditions amygdala and brainstem can still over-ride and overwhelm all efforts at rational temporizing. The cortex's potential for growth and development is a genetic given, but the strengthening process itself, the ascendance of self-regulation, occurs by means of a special kind of interpersonal relationship. This is the relationship of mother-child attachment. It is also, though to a lesser degree, the relationship of learners to other socializers: therapists, mentors, and teachers throughout our lifespan. To a vastly greater degree than the concept socialization implied before the explosion of neurobiological research over the last several decades, our brains are the product of these social relationships

In The Developing Mind (1999), Daniel Siegel tells us how neuro-psychologists infer self-regulation to occur. One's first socializer, one's mother ordinarily and ideally, is genetically equipped and powerfully driven to resonate with her infant. Like one violinist mimicking another, playing the same chords in the same sequence, tempo and volume, she perfectly mirrors her child. Later in life, as cognitive educational psychologist Carl Pickhardt tells us in Stop the Screaming: How to Turn Angry Conflict With Your Child into Positive Communication (2009), parents who wish to stay connected with their adolescents learn to "dance with them." This means accepting the flow of their interaction with the world, however bizarre. Psychotherapists operate similarly with adult patients. Only through the achievement of inter-personal resonance can a socializer's wisdom transfer to the brain of a learner. Learning occurs not by criticism, not by threat but by example. It occurs when a socializer subtly modifies the qualities of her resonance with a learner — calms the rhythm of the dance, incrementally -- and the learner integrates these changes. New neurons are added to his brain which enhance his growing powers of self-regulation. The partnership between the learner's own cortex and amygdala shifts from lopsided to the right, to lopsided to the left. Ideally.

How does corporal punishment fit into this empirical, increasingly validated theory of normal social development? A parent striking a child, any socializer striking any learner, of any age, however "benevolently," short circuits interpersonal resonance — disconnects the dancers. Without this resonance, this dance, self-regulation cannot flourish. Hitting, and make no mistake, spanking, however gently, is still hitting, may produce people tough on the outside; but cognitively-emotionally the effect is crippling. One may wonder why Western conservative tradition holds this practice in such high esteem. In Born to Be Good: the science of a meaningful life (2009), Dacher Keltner comments upon early Puritan's stress on punishment, disapproval of parent-child hugging and kissing and proscriptions against adults dancing and singing. These social controls undermined brains' release of chemicals which studies now show enhance our motivation to form strong, caring communities. Circumspectly, he does not over-reach his data and speculate that oligarchs may long have understood how disrupting connectedness produced more malleable citizenries. But his own research, and that of his colleagues, leaves this question hanging provocatively.

Many conservatives argue, of course, that the world is not ideal. Most parents are poor socializers Better a citizen who has learned to fear the consequences of improper behavior than one un-spanked, but not self-regulating either. Of course this way lies hopelessness and despair. Might as well feed kids heroin early on because they probably won't be able to cope with life anyway. The potential for a better world may well inhere in healthier parent-child relations. Perhaps nothing more clearly differentiates liberals and conservatives than that conservatives dwell on punishment, while liberals prefer to dance.


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Since receiving his doctorate in sociology in 1968, David Weiner has worked as an educator, community organizer, corporate recruiter and trainer and management consultant. The first two of these pursuits have paid the least and been the most (more...)
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