Thursday, December 8, 2011

Correlation, causation, and the proof in the pudding

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words ... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint." – Hesiod, 8th century BC

In the wake of the “viral” videotape of a Texas family court judge whipping his teenage daughter, there’s been no shortage of discussion of corporal punishment (CP) of children, pro and con.

One problem with the dialogue is that no two people can agree on the meaning of the terminology. Is “spanking” a pop on a toddler’s diapered butt? Or is it administering 20 lashes with a metal-studded leather belt? This is like lumping the bow-and-arrow together with the atom bomb and calling them both “weapons of mass destruction.” If we can’t agree how to define the words, I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere.

But there are two bigger problems: perception vs. reality, and disagreement about what causes what. I mean, everyone knows that kids today are pretty rotten, especially compared to when we were their age. Smoking, drinking, drugs, violence, and sex … today’s teens are worse than EVER! And what could be causing this monstrous behavior? Well, obviously, it’s linked to the drop in popularity of CP at home and in the schools.

But the perception of “kids today” simply isn’t accurate. In fact, in many ways, “today’s kids” are BETTER than we ever were.


Let’s take the example of violence. Mom vs. the World” writes: “Spanking does not cause violence. The proof is in the pudding! Look at the youth of today and then come back and tell me the kids are less violent today than there were 20 years ago. You can’t do it … All you have to do is watch YouTube for a few minutes and see that violence among kids has grown not declined.”

Well, as long as we’re going to use the word “proof,” then maybe we can look at some actual, factual information. According to FBI national arrest statistics, the arrest rate of juveniles for violent crime (murder, robbery, rape, and aggravated assault) has declined each year since 1994, and is lower now than in any year since at least 1980.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime in schools has declined dramatically during the same time period. The annual rate of serious violent crime in 2007 (40 per 1,000 students) was less than half of the rate in 1994.

Literally hundreds of studies are showing the same results. In her blog, “Mom” says she doesn’t trust the “experts,” but I can’t help but ask the question: Why are so many different experts doing different studies and coming up with the same data? (Especially when many of these studies are conducted by entities that could receive more government funding if they OVERSTATED the problem…? Stick THAT in your blog and type it.)

It’s important to remember that correlation does not always imply causation. I certainly don’t believe we can prove a direct link between the drop in youth crime and parents spanking less. But it’s obviously inaccurate to claim that “teens are more violent today” and then to blame this “fact” on a reported decrease in CP.

In defense of CP (not simply “discipline,” which I think most parents agree is a necessity), “Mom” also says, “Kids need to learn about consequences when they are kids so they can gain a healthy respect for the laws and rules when they become adults.” This is the classic “I spank my kids to keep them out of jail” argument.

But here again, the data’s clear. A childhood background of CP (which may, or may not, be defined as abuse) is ubiquitous in the prison population. Based on a study of more than 2,000 delinquents, Dr. Ralph Welsh developed “The Belt Theory.” "The recidivist male delinquent who has never been exposed to the belt, extension cord or fist at some time in his life is virtually non-existent,” he says.

We can’t say for certain that CP caused these inmates to commit violent, illegal acts. However, it’s obvious that the punishment didn’t PREVENT these acts either.

By the same token, we can look at populations that, statistically, tend to rely heavily on CP – such as African-Americans and people without college degrees. Both populations are over-represented in our penal system. Perhaps CP didn’t cause their behavior, but again, it didn’t seem to PREVENT it. And wasn’t that the point?

Violence isn’t the only example. Drug use? Yes, it’s edged up a bit recently, but it’s still 50 percent lower than it was in 1979 (the year I entered high school). Drinking? Also down, and “much less a problem than it was 20 years ago,” says Dr. Robert Foss, senior research scientist at the Highway Research Safety Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smoking? After a peak in 1996, it’s been declining.

But surely, more kids are having sex? I mean, look at all that garbage on TV! Well, sorry to disappoint, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen pregnancy is at its lowest rate in two decades and other indicators (age of first sexual activity, STDs, the abortion rate) are showing improvement as well.

Here we go with that pesky correlation-and-causation thing again. Over the past few decades, fewer parents are using CP routinely (or at least, this is what they report). Meanwhile, today’s kids aren’t perfect, but they’re not all going to hell in a handbasket either. So where’s that connection again…?

Of course, we all know things started going sour when they stopped CP in schools. But it seems that most people don’t realize that CP is still legal in the school districts of 19 states, and it’s not rare; last year more than 200,000 students were subjected to CP (disproportionately and repeatedly administered to minority, poor and special education students).

The top 10 states for CP (paddling) in schools: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky. And, as Gomer Pyle would say, surprise-surprise: by almost every measure (graduation rates, standardized test scores, violent crime and teen pregnancy, among others), things are worse in these states than in states where CP is illegal.

Golly gee. I’d like to pull a “correlation is causation” out of that hat, but I can’t. Perhaps there’s no link at all. Perhaps there is some unknown factor, like the color of the dirt or the prevalence of moths, in these 10 states, which simply appears to link school CP with negative life outcomes.

I don’t know. But I’d be interested in finding out what’s in the pudding that “Mom” is eating.


SusanJ said...

Thank you ... for being so clear on this subject. Thank you for showing this 'CP is essential and the world is dying without it ' to be a total lie.

Pro spankers can't see the wood for the trees - and don't want to in a majority of cases either.

They can't see that hitting a child - ie using violence on a child is counter productive ... in a HUGE way...

So much for ' I was spanked and I'm ok '.. yeah ... right .... !!!!

dulce de leche said...

Excellent! Sharing on my FB page. :)

bobbiwrites said...

Well done, Teresa, as usual. :o)

Peter and Nancy said...

This was a terrific collection of facts and statistics! Thanks for taking the time to put it together.
(another WI pastor's wife)

Your Intrepid Blogger said...

Excellent, as always.

Anonymous said...

@SusanJ - The pro-spanking argument that "I spanked and I turned out fine!" annoys the heck out of me. No, pro-spanker, you didn't turn out fine. Growing up with the belief that hitting people to get your way is NOT "fine"!

Dea said...

Love this post! I agree with you - while definitions sure do need to be clarified the research shows, again and again, that CP is correlated with poorer outcomes. Parenting Beyond Belief did a podcast interview on this topic and she did an excellent job of explaining the research.

BTW, I just CRINGE when I see that special education students are victimized by the paddle LEGALLY in this day and age.