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Archive for Saturday, November 19, 2005

Family relationships can defy scientific study

November 19, 2005

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Q: What does behavioral research tell us about the best way to raise children? Have scientific studies spelled out what works and what doesn't, especially regarding how to discipline properly?

A: My answer may sound like heresy coming from a man who spent 10 years of his life as a professor of pediatrics, responsible for medical and behavioral research, but I don't believe the scientific community is capable of determining the best parenting techniques. There have been some worthwhile studies, to be sure, but the subject of discipline almost defies definitive investigation.

Why? Because the only way to study this topic scientifically would be to place newborns randomly in "permissive" vs. "disciplined" families, and then keep them under close observation for 10 or 15 years. Since it is impossible to do that, researchers have tried to tease out information where they could find it. But family relationships are so multidimensional and complicated that they almost defy rigorous scrutiny.

Indeed, most of the studies reported in the literature are scientifically useless. For example, Dr. David Larson, psychiatrist and formerly a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, reviewed 132 articles in professional journals that purported to investigate the long-term consequences of corporal punishment. He found most of them flawed in design. Ninety percent of the studies failed to distinguish between good homes where spanking was administered by loving parents, and those bordering on (or actually inflicting) child abuse. This distinction is critical for obvious reasons.

Dr. Larson concluded that the findings were invalidated by this failure to consider the overall health of family relationships. To repeat, the consequences of various approaches to parental discipline appear to be beyond the reach of social research. It is simply not possible to study this complex subject scientifically without warping families to set up the research design. Even if such studies were conducted, the researchers would be studying contrived families - not typical parent-child relationships.

Q: It seems to me that children are far too familiar - too informal - with adults today. When I was a kid, we always addressed grown-ups by "Mr." or "Mrs.", or if they were in the family, we called them "uncle" or "aunt," or "Grandpa" or "Grandma." We would never have referred to an adult as Sam or Alice. But today's parents don't teach that courtesy to their children. Some of them introduce 4-year-olds to adults by their first names. Am I the only one who is concerned about this? What can I do to counteract this trend with my own son and daughter?

A: I've been bothered by that same observation. It's a byproduct of a cultural shift within society itself. We are less respectful of one another today in many ways. Fifty years ago, for example, men didn't curse around women and cultured women didn't curse at all. How that has changed! Both men and women used to address each other with formal titles (Mr., Mrs., Miss, etc.) unless they had become very close friends. Now, a waitress whom you've never met approaches your table and says, "Hi, I'm Stephanie and I'm going to be serving you today."

I don't suppose today's informality is harmful, although I agree that children should be taught to speak to their elders with a certain deference. I still like to hear them respond with "Yes ma'am" and "No, sir," instead of "yeah," "yep" and "nope." When their manners are respectful, their entire demeanor is on a higher plane.

As for how you can instill these and other courtesies in your child, you simply make up your mind to do it. You might explain that there are many things your family does differently than others: For example, "We don't use bad language, we don't attend certain kinds of movies, and we don't (fill in the blank.) Why? Because we've set a higher standard for ourselves. This is what makes us unique as a family. Someday you will understand that, too."

- James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.

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