Tag Archives: child abuse

Family estrangement and modern parenting

I caught 1A with Joshua Johnson the other day, and was happy to hear my friend Joshua Coleman featured. The discussion was about family estrangement, which is Joshua’s clinical specialty (he’s a psychologist), and the subject of his book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. Joshua works with a lot of parents who have been estranged by their adult children, which in the social media era doesn’t necessarily mean being cut off, like it might have once upon a time — now it might mean being subjected to constant reminders of children’s social and family lives that deliberately exclude parents.

Of course, the freedom to estrange oneself from a family is very important, and a great thing about modern family life. But it’s also often awful. And it highlights the intense and rapid generational changes we’re going through as well. So this is something to wrestle with, which is what the show did.

I took the liberty of transcribing a few of Joshua’s comments, which I then ran by him for permission and a quick edit, and present here more or less in their original form. Joshua said:

One of the things that’s confusing for so many of the estranged parents I work with is that what gets called abusive or traumatizing behavior today would not have been considered abusive or traumatizing in their generation. This relates to what [Nick] Haslam refers to as “concept creep”: the process of expanding the definition of what is considered harmful behavior. From my perspective as a psychologist this causes some adult children to justify their estrangements or negative evaluations of their parents’ actions.

Much of what gets labeled as abusive or traumatizing today on the part of the parent, does not strike me as genuine abuse or trauma. For example, being controlling, manipulative, intrusive, even critical at times is not necessarily abuse. At the very least, not abusive enough to alter the trajectory of a life in the way that it’s commonly portrayed. But part of the problem is that we live in a culture that’s very much dominated by a kind of  psychological narrative where people are led to believe that the way that their lives turn out are almost exclusively explained by their childhoods, while contemporary research doesn’t really show that to be case. In fact, parents play a relatively small role in adult outcome while genetics, social class, economics, peer group, and random good or bad luck can all be considered equal if not more powerful determinants of outcome. [Post-show addition: As Jennifer Silva wrote in her book Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty: “Family pathology is invoked both to explain (to themselves and to others) why they have not achieved traditional adult milestones and to map meaning, order, and progress onto their experiences of stagnation in the present.”]

We also live in a society, and at a time where so much is being put onto parents’ shoulders, that other cultures have the wisdom to not put onto the parents’ shoulders. For example, in most Western industrialized nations there is free or highly subsidized childcare, free or highly subsidized college, free or highly subsidized insurance – while in America this is all up to the parent. So there’s a reason that today’s parents are deeply worried and over-involved and concerned about their children’s safety and well-being because it’s all on them. Not only are their adult children sometimes accusing them of not doing enough or doing it well, but so is everyone else including self-help authors and politicians.

When host Joshua Johnson asked for clarification, Joshua Coleman added:

There is of course real abuse and trauma that occurs at the hands of parents; I’m not saying it never occurs, I’m just saying the concept has been so greatly expanded that it’s becoming more of a problem than an asset.

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Survivor bias and the 92% of Southern Black men who support spanking

In today’s New York Times both Michael Eric Dyson and Charles Blow write about spanking. Blow doesn’t mention race and the South, but that’s in the background when we writes:

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

Dyson goes further, and ties the practice back to slave plantations:

Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

Here are a couple of logical points, and then some data.

First, please note that the rationale some Black parents use doesn’t need to explain all of the practice of beating children, just the difference between Blacks and Whites. Blacks are more likely to support spanking than Whites, but a strong majority of both groups in this country agree spanking is “sometimes necessary.” So not every case of Black parents beating their children is attributable to slavery and racism. Some may be, and the rationale no doubt is in many cases, but that’s not the whole story.

Second, it’s common for people who suffer some disadvantage and survive to attribute their survival to the hardship they suffered. NFL player Adrian Peterson, who beat his 4-year-old son with a stick, said, “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”

If there were 15 boys on a lifeboat, and one survived, he would probably say, “I have always believed that my lifeboat experience has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.” If he were successful in his post-lifeboat life, people might agree with his explanation. In fact, statistics might even show that lifeboat survivors are more successful. Statistically, that’s a survivor bias – the people who should be dragging down the average aren’t alive to weigh in.

A more subtle effect is not just statistical bias but real survival selection — the one lifeboat guy who lives was probably the strongest. So his story seems credible, even though lifeboat populations have very high mortality. In fact, the “Black-White mortality crossover” is a classic puzzle upon which many demographers (including me, though I sadly didn’t get it published) have cut their teeth: At old ages, Blacks have lower mortality rates than Whites (here’s a recent update). That’s partly because to live to old age in Black America you have to be tough (and partly because some old Blacks exaggerate their age, intentionally or unintentionally, which is a cultural expression of the same thing).

Data

Anyway, kudos Harry Enten at 538 for turning to the General Social Survey to show trends in spanking attitudes. He shows that born-again Christians, Blacks, Southerners, and Republicans are all more likely to support spanking. And he did a regression showing those variables all predict spanking agreement when entered together. However, what he doesn’t show is the the interaction most important for today’s news: The support for spanking among Black men raised in the South. (Enten uses the GSS code for where people currently live, when for a question like this I think it’s more appropriate to use the code for where people lived when they were age 16.)

To get a decent sample size (this is down to 211 Southern Black men), I pooled three administrations of the GSS (2008, 2010, 2012), to get this:

spanking race and region.xlsx

Notice the huge gender gaps, which Enten for some reason didn’t consider.  And see that the Southern-at-age-16 people have higher rates of supporting spanking than the currently-Southern. If spanking were a reasonable adaptation to hardship, necessary for children to toughen up and learn to follow orders so they don’t get killed by Whites, why would Black men support it more than Black women?

So 92% of Southern Black men support a “good, hard spanking,” and Charles Barkley was probably right, empirically, when he said spanking was ubiquitous in the South in his childhood. But 75% of non-Southern White men support it, too. So it’s variations on a nearly-universal theme.

And the people who think it helps children because it helped them are not alone among the survivors of difficult childhoods. But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Clarification: Don’t take the term “survivor” too literally. The lifeboat analogy is just an extreme version of, “15 people experienced harsh beating as a child, and one ended up a successful football player.” People who suffer and succeed often incorrectly attribute their success to their suffering.

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