Evidence-Based Parenting, Spanking, and Authoritative Parenting Styles: or, How to Get My Daughter to Brush Her Teeth

Crying Baby, but not My Crying Baby from Flickr user donnieray (CC By 2.0)
A crying baby, but not *my* crying baby from Flickr user donnieray (CC By 2.0)

My daughter doesn’t like to have her teeth brushed. She’s not even two years old, yet, so while that worries me, I guess it’s something we’ve still got time to correct. But one question I often wonder about is whether there’s something we could do differently to change her behavior. She’s maybe twenty-five pounds, right now, so one possibility is to hold her down and force her mouth open. I’ve had to do that to administer medicines, so I know it can work, and that she’ll forgive me afterwards. But frankly it’s terrible, and if it hadn’t been necessary to do to preserve her physical health, I wouldn’t have done it. I tried everything else on the bribe/bargain and disguise/distract continua first, I assure you.

But my personal style, which is also my parenting style, is one that avoids force and authority. Spanking makes me uncomfortable, for instance, though I’m amenable to evidence there too. And it turns out that there’s a lot of data on that.

The American Psychological Association opposes it, and so that’s become something like the default position, sometimes even ensconced in law. Much of the concern there is that open-handed, conditional spanking (i.e. “If you steal from the grocery store, you will get five carefully administered slaps on the buttocks later in the day after an explanation for the reasons for the spanking.”) can lead to more immediate and customary physical abuse, like facial slapping or the use of instruments like belts or canes, when the behavior returns. The evidence seems to suggest that spanking is closely associated with many, many bad outcomes, including noncompliance, aggression, adult spousal abuse, and more.

But that work, primarily linked to one researcher’s meta-analysis, has been seriously challenged in the last decade. It seems reasonable to protest that lumping caring and careful parents in with child abusers may muddy the data a bit, especially when the anti-spanking research was quickly transformed into advocacy that led to outlawing spanking of any sort in more than thirty countries. There was always the risk that the correlation between, say, noncompliance or aggression and spanking ran the other way: noncompliant, aggressive children got spanked because parents had exhausted other options.

So the work of Larzelere and Gunnoe is relevant here. They have also done meta-analyses, but tried to account for more variables, including differences in spanking style and positive developments like school performance. And what they’ve found is that conditional, open-handed spanking for children between two and six years old is associated with positive outcomes later in life.

I think this is a great case for research that challenges the orthodoxy (which is no spanking) but doesn’t actually resolve the question. We thought we knew spanking was unequivocally bad. Now we don’t. That doesn’t mean we know that spanking is good, though.

In fact, even Gunnoe’s research is not clear that spanking is the cause of the positive developmental factors associated with it. In fact, it may well be that willingness to spank is merely a marker for authoritative parenting syles more generally. Being authoritative is associated with both positive outcomes for children and spanking, and Gunnoe tries to argue that it’s really that style that is the cause of the positive developmental outcomes.

Which is a problem. Because even if I was willing to spank my daughter, I don’t think I could do it in a way that evinced authoritarian parenting more generally. Like the medicine I had to force her to take, I’d be deferring to the authority of the experts in my use of force. Call it the Obedient Parenting Style, deferring to the authority of experts. No thanks.

I’m kind of okay with this being a place where the facts are too murky and our values take over. But that makes parsing the data, when it does become available, a difficult task that raises all sorts of concerns about the role of science in law-making, the effects of subtle political biases on research, and the ways that motivated reasoning and motivated skepticism can impact results.

Second Opinions