Epistemic Spot Check: Spare the Child (Philip Greven)

Introduction

Once upon a time I started fact checking books I read, to see if they were trustworthy. I called this epistemic spot checking because it was not a rigorous or thorough investigation; just following up on things I thought were interesting, likely to be wrong, or easy to check. Eventually I became dissatisfied with this. It placed too much emphasis on a binary decision about a particular book’s trustworthiness, and not enough on building models. So I started working on something better. Something that used multiple sources to build robust models of the world. This book is part of that attempt

Spare the Child (affiliate link) is a history with the thesis that Protestantism engenders corporal punishment, that this flows from their doctrine rather than being a cultural artifact, and that this punishment damages children. It fails to prove any of these.

Claims

 

Claim: A bunch of first-person accounts of corporal punishment

Verdict: Accurately quoted, but hard to draw conclusions from.

I’m going to spare you the repetition of all of these: section 2 of the book is just a bunch of quotes of famous Protestants talking about corporal punishment they either received or doled out. You can see them in my notes if you’re really curious.

That said, I have no way of knowing how representative these quotes are and Greven makes no attempt to tell me.

 

Claim: “For centuries, Protestant Christians have been among the most ardent advocates of corporal punishment” (p46)

This is one of numerous points at which the author asserts or implies Protestant Christians hit their kids more than other groups.

Verdict: He’s not wrong, he’s just an asshole.

First, the book constantly equivocates between Protestant and Evangelical/Conservative Protestant. Some of that is that he’s often talking about the time before Evangelical and “Mainline” split off from each other, but the lack of precision really grates on me.

Second, the book provides zero evidence for this claim. It can’t, because it doesn’t provide any information on other demographic groups*. Rule one of doing comparative analysis is you have to present data on at least two parties.

[*The words Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu don’t appear in the index at all, “Jews” appears only 3 times, “Catholics”  6)

That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. A moderate amount of searching found surveys that, among Americans, Evangelical/Conservative Christians were indeed more likely to use spanking or other corporal punishments (notes). But I’m not confident by how much, or if these are the same populations Greven is referring to, whether this is a recent development or has always been true. The studies are also restricted to Americans, which Greven may be doing as well, but never declares such. This lack of precision really grates on me.

 

Claim: Corporal punishment leads to worse outcomes for children subjected to it (repeated, implicit).

Verdict: Surprisingly controversial.

Again, despite a whole section on the consequences of abuse (which, to be fair, I only skimmed), Greven provides no evidence of his claims. I think everyone, including parents who accidentally beat their children to death, agree that there is a line past which punishment is damaging. But where it is is surprisingly hard to pin down and perhaps dependent on context- there’s research that e.g. spanking is leads to worse outcomes in children in social classes where spanking is frowned upon, but not where it’s viewed as a sign of love (I read this in Nurtureshock and saw it referred to in some of my research for this piece but haven’t dug into it yet). Could those studies be wrong, or missing subtler problems? Definitely. But “what amount of what punishment leads to what outcomes?” isn’t something Spare the Child even tries to address.

This is especially on my mind because as I read the book I couldn’t shut up my inner Alfie Kohn saying “it’s not the nature of the punishment, it’s the concept of punishment in the first place.” Greven repeatedly talks about how the Bible gives Protestant parents the goal of “breaking their child’s will” to save them; I don’t think there’s a method of achieving that goal that I would approve of.

Claim: “Love is natural; hate is created” (p 123)

Image result for citation needed

More seriously; this is a major assumption with major implications. And I disagree with it. If he’d provided citations or even an explanation I might have been able to grapple with and learn from his assertion, but he didn’t, so I’m at a loss.

Conclusion

As psychology research gets hammered I become more interested in history as a way to investigate questions like “What kind of outcomes do different child rearing practices produce?”. Spare the Child makes me more pessimistic about that strategy. It’s not equipped to answer the questions it’s asking, and its most interesting claims are asserted without justification, and sometimes not even explicitly made. I have no reason to doubt its presentation of primary sources and facts, but don’t trust its interpretations at all.

 

 

Thanks to my Patreon patrons and the Long Term Future Fund for support of this research.