One of my readers forwarded me some information about a recent child death caused by parental abuse. It is always horrible to hear that a child was killed by his or her own parents, though I seem to hear of these incidents constantly. This instance, however, had a particularly intense emotional impact on me. I feel as if I am choking back tears as I write this now.
In 2010, a couple named Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz were charged with murder for killing their 7 year old adopted daughter during a “training” session in which they engaged based on advice given in a childrearing book by Michael and Debi Pearl called “To Train Up a Child”. The Pearls’ teachings have a significant following.
According to the Pearls’ website, Michael Pearl is a pastor, missionary, and evangelist with the couple’s ministry “No Greater Joy Ministries” (“NGJ”). One of the most widely promoted tenets of NGJ relates to childrearing. According to language on the Pearls’ website and in their literature, their childrearing methods lead to joyful, well-behaved and loving children. They promote corporal punishment that necessarily inflicts pain using implements and tools beginning from infancy to teach children to be well-behaved. They frequently repeat the biblical retort concerning sparing the rod as their justification.
One of the practices promoted by the Pearls on their website is the use of plastic plumbing tubing which according to them can be purchased at any hardware store and keeping it around the house in various locations. This is apparently the Pearls’ modern version of the biblical “rod”. Here is their description of it in one of their advice artcles on the NGJ Ministries’ website:
“The rod we speak of is a plumbing supply line that can be bought at any hardware store or large department store. It is a slim, flexible, plastic tubing that supplies water to sinks, and toilets. Ask for ‘1/4 inch supply line.’ They cost less than one dollar. I always give myself one swat before I swat the child to remind myself how much force to exert. It stings the skin without bruising or damaging tissue. It’s a real attention-getter. Michael demonstrates its use in our new Seminar videos.”
The Schatz’s were engaging in the use of the plastic tubing to “train” their 7 year old adopted daughter for several hours because she mispronounced a word in a children’s book. This training led to her death. The Shatz’s regularly engaged in this form of discipline with their children based at least in part on the Pearls’ advice in their popular book “To Train Up a Child”, though with more vigor applied to the teachings inflicted on their adopted children than on their biological children. In this instance, not only did the training kill their 7 year old Lydia, but it also gravely injured her older sister Zariah, whose injuries included kidney failure.
I looked up some reviews for “To Train Up a Child” and was deeply disturbed by the numbers of glowing pronouncements concerning the childrearing methods promoted by the Pearls and how well-behaved people felt their children were after having applied the Pearls’ biblical methods.
The following is a summary of the results of some recent research on the subject.
Corporal punishment leads to violence and aggressive behavior, as well as other social problems
In a study out of Duke University, researchers found that spanking (but not verbal punishment) at age 1 predicted child aggressive behavior problems at age 2. (Berlin, L. J., Ispa, J. M., Fine, M. A., Malone, P. S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Brady-Smith, C., Ayoub, C. and Bai, Y. (2009), Correlates and Consequences of Spanking and Verbal Punishment for Low-Income White, African American, and Mexican American Toddlers. Child Development, 80: 1403–1420.)
In addition, researchers have found a link between parents who use severe physical discipline and children who become overly aggressive.(Lehigh Researchers Examine Link Between Abusive Child-Rearing, Overly Aggressive Behavior; ScienceDaily (Feb. 6, 2001) [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/02/010202073032.htm])
In another study, two researchers named Eric P. Slade and Lawrence S. Wissow followed a group of 1,966 children younger than two years old to test the hypothesis that the frequency of spanking before age two is directly correlated with the probability of having significant behavior problems four years later. (Slade E., Wissow L. Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behavior Problems: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers, Pediatrics, vol. 113, no. 5, May 2004).
The researchers collected data about 1,966 children and their mothers who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Mother-Child Sample, a large-scale national study of youth ages fourteen to twenty-one. Some of these young people were mothers with children. Data were collected on the mother-children groups when the children were under two years of age. Four years later, after the children had entered elementary school, the researchers interviewed the mothers to explore their hypothesis. Mothers were asked if they spanked their child the previous week and how frequently they spanked their children. They were also questioned about the child’s temperament, mother-child interactions, and whether they had ever met with the child’s teacher due to behavioral problems.
Slade and Wissow found that, compared with children who were never spanked, children who were frequently spanked (five times a week) before age two were four times more likely to have behavioral problems by the time they started school. (Slade E., Wissow L. Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behavior Problems: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers, Pediatrics, vol. 113, no. 5, May 2004).
In a different study, one of a series of studies of physically abused schoolchildren, Salzinger and colleagues looked at 87 children aged 8 to 12, finding that children who had been subject to severe corporal punishment exhibited problematic social behaviors, including lower peer status, less positive reciprocity with peers chosen as friends, ratings by peers as more aggressive and less cooperative, by parents as more disturbed, and participation in social networks with more insularity, negativity and atypicality. (Salzinger, S., Social Relationships of Physically Abused Schoolchildren (1993-1997), including The Effects of Physical Abuse on Children’s Social Relationships, Salzinger, Suzanne; Feldman, Richard S.; Hammer, Muriel; Rosario, Margaret, Child Dev, 1993, 64, 1, 169-187, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development.)
Corporal Punishment Leads to Lower Intelligence Levels
In one study, University of New Hampshire professor Murray Straus led a study which he presented on September 25, 2009 at the 14th International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, in San Diego, California, in which he and his colleagues made finding concerning IQ and spanking both in the United States and worldwide. (Straus, Murray A. and Mallie J. Paschall. Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Development of Children’s Cognitive Ability: A Longitudinal Study of Two Nationally Representative Age Cohorts. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment & Trauma, 2009; 18 (5): 459 DOI: 10.1080/10926770903035168.)
In the United States, Professor Straus and Mallie Paschall, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, studied nationally representative samples of 806 children ages 2 to 4, and 704 children ages 5 to 9.
Four years later, they retested both groups. They found that the IQs of children ages 2 to 4 who were not spanked were 5 points higher four years later than the IQs of those who were spanked. The IQs of children ages 5 to 9 years old who were not spanked were 2.8 points higher four years later than the IQs of children the same age who were spanked.
Further, the frequency of spanking made a difference in cognitive development and ability. The more a child was spanked, the slower was the development of the child’s mental ability.
Professor Straus and his colleagues also studied the effects of corporal punishment worldwide. In 32 nations, Straus and his colleagues used data on corporal punishment experienced by 17,404 university students when they were children, and found a lower national average IQ in nations in which spanking was more prevalent.
According to Straus, the link could be caused by the intense stress experienced by children subjected to corporal punishment, particularly continuing corporal punishment, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, which are associated with decreased IQ’s.
Another study at Duke University found that (among other consequences) children who were spanked as one year olds did not perform as well as other children on a test measuring thinking skills at age 3 (the Bayley mental development test). (Berlin, L. J., Malone, P. S., Ayoub, C. A, Ispa, J., Fine, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., Brady-Smith, C., & Bai, Y. Correlates and Consequences of Spanking and Verbal Punishment for Low Income White, African American, and Mexican American Toddlers. Child Development. 2009.)
In an earlier study, Straus at the University of New Hampshire and colleagues released evidence which showed that the more often a child is spanked, the lower the child scores in IQ tests four years later. Their paper was described by Straus at the World Congress of Sociology on August 1, 1998 in Montreal, Quebec. They examined 960 American children who were between one and four years old between 1986 and 1990. (“Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Child’s Cognitive Development: A Longitudinal Study” (Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH; a paper presented at the 14th World Congress of Sociology, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1998.)
Thirteen percent of the parents studied reported spanking their children seven or more times a week. The average was 3.6 spankings per week. Twenty-seven percent reported using no physical punishment. Those children who were spanked frequently averaged 98 on their IQ tests — a below average score. Those who were rarely or never spanked scored 102 — an above-average score. The four point average decline in IQ among the spanked students is sufficient to have a negative functional effect on those children. (Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Child’s Cognitive Development: A Longitudinal Study, Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH; a paper presented at the 14th World Congress of Sociology, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1998.)
Additionally, repeated corporal punishment can lead to the development of PTSD or other stress disorders, the process of which interferes with optimal cognitive development. (Carrion VG, Weems CF, Watson C, Eliez S, Menon V, Reiss AL. Converging evidence for abnormalities of the prefrontal cortex and evaluation of midsagittal structures in pediatric posttraumatic stress disorder: an MRI study. Psychiatry Res. 2009; 172 (3): 226-34. Carrion VG, Weems CF, Richert K, Hoffman BC, Reiss AL. Decreased prefrontal cortical volume associated with increased bedtime cortisol in traumatized youth. Biol Psychiatry. 2010; 68 (5): 491-3.)
Researchers have also found a link between post traumatic stress symptoms in children subjected to interpersonal violence and lowered verbal IQ. This indicates that children who may develop PTSD based on continuing and/or severe corporal punishment may develop lower verbal IQ scores. (Saltzman KM, Weems CF, Carrion VG. IQ and posttraumatic stress symptoms in children exposed to interpersonal violence. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev.2006 Spring;36(3):261-72.)
While I do not want to pronounce my own judgments on any religion and recognize that people of all religions have used religious rhetoric to justify child abuse, I have to say that it appears particularly pernicious to me to use God and love as precepts to justify our own infliction of cruelty and violence on the innocent and helpless children we have been charged with protecting. In addition, I want to point out that it is violence and cruelty by a child’s own parents inflicted when the child’s brain is just developing that imprints in that child’s brain architecture that very same cruelty and violence which the parents claim to be preventing.