Friday, January 13, 2017

Countries are banning spanking

France passed a national law banning the spanking of children. It is the 52nd country to do so. Spanking is certainly a difficult subject to have any nuanced discussion about. People tend to be strongly one one way or the other. By seeking middle ground you'll end up finding both sides angry at you. But it is possible to have two opinions on a matter: an ideological stance and a pragmatic stance. To the former I am opposed to bans on spanking, but I understand that pragmatically the benefits may outweigh the downsides. I'll look at both angles in turn.

Ideological argument

I condone spanking, but I don't encourage it. I am quite a fan of Stefan Molyneux and his Peaceful Parenting methodology. That means no hitting, no restraining, no yelling. He takes a zero-tolerance to those things. I respect that, but I see it as an ideal, something to strive for. I think parents should always have Peaceful Parenting in mind, and when they violate it, they should do so out of reason and not emotion. I would recommend a parent never violate Peaceful Parenting when they are frustrated or angry because they will go too far, and typically end up regretting it.

The law bans the infliction of physical pain. But pain can also be emotional. Should there also be a ban against inflicting emotional pain on your child? How would you even legislate that? And emotional pain, I would argue, is not nearly as damaging as inflicting guilt, shame, self-hatred, and any number of emotional issues that bad parenting can cause. And I go so far as to argue that inflicting minor amounts of pain on another person, in general, is neither good nor bad.

The amygdala is considered to be the emotional center of the brain. It triggers fear and emotional pain. The amygdala receives inputs from all over the brain, and matches for patterns that previously caused negative outcomes. Phobias are rooted in the amygdala. For instance, for most of my early childhood I was terribly afraid of dogs. I later found out that when I was a toddler a dog had jumped me and knocked me to the ground (not in an hostile manner). Later, as a young child, I was afraid of dogs, even though I had no conscious memory of the bad encounter. That was the amygdala. It operates at a subconscious level. It is why we can't consciously control our phobias. Most people are afraid of public speaking, and have learned that no amount of positive self-talk helps overcome the anxiety. Only by gradually exposing oneself to speaking, in ways that don't lead to disaster, can one train their amygdala to stop triggering anxiety in these situations.

This makes the amygdala sound like it serves a very negative role, but remember it exists to keep you safe in the way that physical pain keeps you safe. Physical pain causes us to avoid harming the body. The amygdala causes us to avoid dangerous circumstances. It may sometimes feel like an outdated function in a world where saber-toothed tigers don't lurk behind every tree and human tribes don't exist in perpetual states of warfare, but still it serves a vital role.

Amygdala development is absolutely necessary for proper emotional function. It may seem intuitive that a weakly developed amygdala would be, well, weak, and inactive. That might actually be a benefit in our very safe society, where fear reactions tend to be unwanted. But in actuality a poorly developed amygdala is overactive. Unable to discern subtle differences between safe and dangerous circumstances, it tends to fire when in doubt. A paranoid or neurotic person is someone who's amygdala function is so overreactive that it has learned to fear the amygdala itself. Most people who are afraid of public speaking are more afraid of getting uncontrollably nervous in front of a crowd than they are that they'll say something very awful. The unhealthy amygdala becomes a positive feedback loop. On the other hand a healthy amygdala is able to discern nuances of danger and can react proportionally.

Pain is what develops the amygdala. Pain teaches children how to walk. A one-year old falls all the time, and gets hurt. They learn to behave in a way that reduces the risk of injury. They are guided by emotional pain too. My 3-year-old can be incredibly sensitive. Even mild rebukes may devastate her. There is an evolutionary reason for this. The child is primed to receive feedback from her parents to train her amygdala. We evolved in an environment where if children didn't learn quickly from their parents, they didn't survive. Thus children are very sensitive to physical and emotional pain. This is the amygdala in training mode. Without any pain inputs it will not develop well. I read of a study a while back which determined that children of nagging mothers had better outcomes. It's counterintuitive, but those mothers were constantly training their children. To this day I can't stand to put my elbows on the table. My mother always rebuked me when I did, and that habit has persisted.

The problem with banning spanking is that it is a form of pain input. We hope that it never comes to spanking, and rarely when it does, but sometimes it does. I have trouble believing that the people opposed to spanking never cause any sort of pain to their children. Never a rebuke or a firm grasp to get their attention? If they don't, they are doing their child a tremendous disservice. Sparing your child the training they need because it makes you feel bad to inflict pain is narcissistic parenting. You are more worried about your feelings than the child's best outcomes. Parenting is dirty business. You have to deal with all kinds of body fluids and sometimes you have to make your kid cry. No one likes doing either one, but it's what loving parents do.

I have to say that I think the law is a reflection of two larger trends I see in society that I don't like. One is the reaction against all social hierarchy. Many have the conviction that all hierarchies are oppressive, and seek to dismantle them wherever they are found. They promote equality everywhere, even between parents and children. They seek to remove authority of the parent over the child, and what is more authoritarian than corporal punishment? But still, well-meaning though they may be, I think they are putting a social agenda before the child's best interests.

Second, there is the growing conviction that every social ill can be solved through education. In Europe, where migrant rape is rampant, the solution offered is more education. Apparently migrants simply don't know rape is frowned upon in Western society. We also see this constantly in how the left addresses conservatives: they call them ignorant. If only conservatives were more informed they'd come to the proper political conclusions. I fear this mindset is now being applied to parenting. The dogma is that when a child misbehaves, we must calmly explain why they were wrong, and the child will understand and correct the behavior, with no need for any pain or negative emotions. Of course it is the preferred approach if it will work. But it can't work all the time. The amygdala must be developed as well. If the amygdala is weak, no amount of reason will correct the behavior of an unruly child.

Pragmatic argument

With all that said, a ban may be beneficial because many parents who spank do so in an abusive or harmful manner. I don't know how prevalent it is, and I don't think anyone really does. The legislation is based on studies that show children who are spanked are more likely to exhibit all sorts of antisocial behaviors. But that is only a correlation. It may very well be that children who behave poorly require more spanking, because the child is under poor parenting to begin with, or because of the inherent nature of the child. It's really tough to say. 

Certainly bad and abusive parenting will cause lifelong damage. We all see it, and we hate it. On the other hand, when the government starts reducing parents' ability to train their children using pain input, they limit the tools at the disposal of good parents. There's a slippery slope. Will yelling at kids be banned? Stern voices? What about restraining, or rough handling? What about handling that's not particularly rough but not very soft either? I would suspect that a particularly malicious parent will find ways around any laws applied to them. It may very well be that the law reduces violence against children that damages them, but it may also be that weakening parental authority will cause even more negative outcomes. I'm not sure if studies can even be devised to isolate all the complexities of the issue. So while I concede the bans may be pragmatically beneficial, it is the burden of the state to effectively make that case before they start impeding parental behavior, and I'm not convinced they have done so.

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