Plays Well With Others Ⅱ- Woodmam

Everyone’s heard that it damages children to be witness to their parents’ fighting, especially the kind of venomous screaming matches that escalate into worse. But what about plain old everyday conflict? Over the last decade, that question has been the specialty of the University of Notre Dame’s Dr. E. Mark Cummings.

Cummings realized every child sees parents and caregivers carping at each other over such banalities as who forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, pay the bills, or whose turn it is to drive the carpool. In studies where Cummings has parents make a note of every argument, no matter how small or large, the typical married couple was having about eight disputes each day, according to the moms. (According to the dads, it was slightly less.) Spouses express anger to each other two or three times as often as they show a moment of affection to each other. And while parents might aspire to shielding their kids from their arguing, the truth is that children are witness to it 45% of the time.

Children appear to be highly attuned to the quality of their parents’ relationship—Cummings has described children as “emotional Geiger-counters.” In one study, Cummings found that children’s emotional well-being and security are more affected by the relationship between the parents than by the direct relationship between the parent and child.

So are parents distressing their children with every bicker? Not necessarily.

In Cummings’ elaborate experiments, he stages arguments for children to witness and monitors how they react, sometimes taking saliva samples to measure their stress hormone, cortisol. In some cases, two actors go at it. In others, the mother too is a confederate. While waiting with the child, the mother gets a phone call, ostensibly from the “father,” and she begins arguing with him over the phone. (Her lines are mostly scripted.) In other variations of this experiment, the child just watches a videotape of two adults arguing, and she is asked to imagine the on-screen characters are her parents.

In one study, a third of the children reacted aggressively after witnessing the staged conflict—they shouted, got angry, or punched a pillow. But in that same study, something else happened, which eliminated the aggressive reaction in all but 4% of the children. What was this magical thing? Letting the child witness not just the argument, but the resolution of the argument. When the videotape was stopped mid-argument, it had a very negative effect. But if the child was allowed to see the contention get worked out, it calmed him. “We varied the intensity of the arguments, and that didn’t matter,” recalled Cummings. “The arguments can become pretty intense, and yet if it’s resolved, kids are okay with it.” Most kids were just as happy at the conclusion of the session as they were when witnessing a friendly interaction between parents.

What this means is that parents who pause mid-argument to take it upstairs—to spare the children—might be making the situation far worse, especially if they forget to tell their kids, “Hey, we worked it out.” Cummings has also found that when couples have arguments entirely away from the kids, the kids might not have seen any of it but are still well aware of it, despite not knowing any specifics.

Cummings recently has shown that being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for children—if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the dispute is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers. Cummings noted, “Resolution has to be sincere, not manipulated for their benefit—or they’ll see through it.” Kids learn a lesson in conflict resolution: the argument gives them an example of how to compromise and reconcile—a lesson lost for the child spared witnessing an argument.

This is obviously a very fine line to walk, but it’s not as thin as the line being walked by Dr. Kenneth Dodge, a professor at Duke University. Another giant in the field, Dodge has long been interested in how corporal punishment incites children to become aggressive.

At least 90% of American parents use physical punishment on their children at least once in their parenting history. For years, the work of Dodge and others had shown a correlation between the frequency of corporal punishment and the aggressiveness of children. Surely, out-of-control kids get spanked more, but the studies control for baseline behavior. The more a child is spanked, the more aggressive she becomes.

However, those findings were based on studies of predominately Caucasian families. In order to condemn corporal punishment as strongly as the research community wanted to, someone needed to replicate these results in other ethnic populations—particularly African Americans. So Dodge conducted a long-term study of corporal punishment’s affect on 453 kids, both black and white, tracking them from kindergarten through eleventh grade.

When Dodge’s team presented its findings at a conference, the data did not make people happy. This wasn’t because blacks used corporal punishment more than whites. (They did, but not by much.) Rather, Dodge’s team had found a reverse correlation in black families—the more a child was spanked, the less aggressive the child over time. The spanked black kid was all around less likely to be in trouble.

Scholars publicly castigated Dodge’s team, saying its findings were racist and dangerous to report. Journalists rushed to interview Dodge and the study’s lead author, Dr. Jennifer Lansford. A national news reporter asked Dodge if his research meant the key to effective punishment was to hit children more frequently. The reporter may have been facetious in his query, but Dodge and Lansford—both of whom remain adamantly against the use of physical discipline—were so horrified by such questions that they enlisted a team of fourteen scholars to study the use of corporal punishment around the world.

Why would spanking trigger such problems in white children, but cause no problems for black children, even when used a little more frequently? With the help of the subsequent international studies, Dodge has pieced together an explanation for his team’s results.

To understand, one has to consider how the parent is acting when giving the spanking, and how those actions label the child. In a culture where spanking is accepted practice, it becomes “the normal thing that goes on in this culture when a kid does something he shouldn’t.” Even if the parent might spank her child only two or three times in his life, it’s treated as ordinary consequences. In the black community Dodge studied, a spank was seen as something that every kid went through.

Conversely, in the white community Dodge studied, physical discipline was a mostly-unspoken taboo. It was saved only for the worst offenses. The parent was usually very angry at the child and had lost his or her temper. The implicit message was: “What you have done is so deviant that you deserve a special punishment, which is spanking.” It marked the child as someone who has lost his place within traditional society.

It’s not just a white-black thing either. A University of Texas study of Conservative Protestants found that one-third of them spanked their kids three or more times a week, largely encouraged by Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. The study found no negative effects from this corporal punishment—precisely because it was conveyed as normal.

Each in its own way, the work of Cummings and Dodge demonstrate the same dynamic: an oversimplified view of aggression leads parents to sometimes make it worse for kids when they’re trying to do the right thing. Children key off their parents’ reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself.
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