Sad Dads Spank Kids (?)

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The news report. NPR says that, against a baseline of 13%, depressed dads spank kids at a rate of 41%.

Incredible, right? Triple the baseline! If only we could just cure those depressed dads of their spanking ways, the rate of spanking would plummet from 15% to…

… er… 14%.

Yeah. The report conveniently neglects that only 7% of the dads in the sample were depressed. 41% of those nets you well over 2% of total spankings; 13% of them (the baseline rate) nets you just under 1%. Even if we wiped out spanking entirely in that population, perhaps through the use of potent hypnotics or aversion therapy, the overall rate of spanking wouldn’t change much.

It’s almost boring to say the obvious, that the report is clearly much more concerned with the children than the dads. Except I guess that’s not exactly true, because nothing about the children was measured in the study. The study is all about the dads. This isn’t awful, it’s the kind of thing that I’d forgive without thinking about it if a friend of mine had done the study, but think about it for a second: This isn’t except by distant proxy a study of the effects of dads’ depression on children. It’s a study of its effects on what dads do. Or, since the study was based on self-report, what they think they do. Whether these behaviors have any effect on kids relative to the broader emotional landscape of a parent’s depression — whether they might, in that context, even be psychologically protective for the kids, unlikely as that certainly is — is unknowable from these results.

Meanwhile, the same study reports that depressed dads are much less likely (or think they’re much less likely) to read to their kids regularly. I was not spanked as a child, so I can’t speak to the lasting harm of corporal punishment. But I do know that reading to your kids is critical for their intellectual development; and I know that I’m going to grow old in a country whose fate is steered by the kids of these depressed dads; and, much as I would like them all to grow up happy, I’m a hell of a lot more worried that they’ll grow up dumb. 

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About pulchrifex

Postdoctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience.

9 Responses to Sad Dads Spank Kids (?)

  1. MarcusB says:

    Best analysis I’ve read on this site yet.

  2. Comus says:

    One has to remember here that correlation does not imply causation. It can also bee that dads that spank their kids become depressed. “I have to spank my kids” ergo “I’m a terrible father” -> depression. Or it can be that there is a confounding variable that explains both of these issues, and without they are not intertwined. Maybe 41 % of the now-dads were spanked as a child, now they’re depressed, and they use the learned model of spanking kids. So in this hypothesis the explanatory force is on the experienced spanking.

  3. jlanctot says:

    Is it me, or are we beginning to find out how wide-spread scientific and statistical illiteracy is among the elites? Not only among the media–examples abound–but even among people who should know better, like professors in the social “sciences”. Even the harder sciences are making some unusual conclusions: here’s a study which concludes it should be impossible to grow corn in Texas. (It isn’t.)

    Who will call them out on this? After all, they are the “elites”, the “experts”…

    (By the way: I’m not hankering for some “golden age of scientific enlightenment” here. That has never happened. But I am thinking about a time when people weren’t presumptuous enough to declare themselves experts outside their fields without doing the legwork. Or reading the study.)

  4. BluegrassJack says:

    All in all, NPR has been having a bad March. All of it has been self-inflicted.

  5. Pingback: sad dads spank kids (?) « the pulchrifex papers

  6. pulchrifex says:

    @Comus: Good point. If spanking causes depression, then taking antidepressants may just make dads feel better about spanking. Whereas if it’s a third variable, depression and learned disciplinary behavior may just be orthogonal — ameliorating their depression won’t help them learn how to discipline their kids differently.

  7. stevenbagley says:

    Presumably if the spanking rate in depressed men were lowered to the base rate, then the overall rate would be the base rate of 13%. Of course, if by “cure” you meant reduce spanking rate to 0%, then the overall rate of spanking would become 12.1%. In any case, the point is well-taken, as the population attributable risk is (calculations not shown) 19.1%, that is, 19.1% of the spanking in the whole population can be attributed to depression. Of course, all these public health discussions presume that (1) the depression is causal of spanking (as noted previously, there are many ways this could be wrong) and (2) that there exists a 100% effective cure for depression, which there isn’t.

    I note with wry amusement that the NPR blog post displays a photo from “iStockphoto.com,” (what could be more blandly manufactured than that) and that one of the photos for another post shows bare hands holding a needle–so much for universal precautions.

    • pulchrifex says:

      Well, that’s embarrassing. Got caught up in rhetoric and rounding, didn’t think things through. Thanks for that, and for the expansion.

      By “cure” I meant “make depressed people exactly like normal people,” i.e. “reduce spanking to the base rate,” not that it matters much.

  8. Thorzdad says:

    I never spanked my kids, and probably the most deeply depressed dad you’ll ever meet. So there.

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