Rethinking the Carrot and the Stick.

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There was no shortage of criticism when Fryer first proposed this idea. And as Fryer himself admits with Stephen, it’s not clear yet whether or not it will work. But he’s right in recognizing that incentivizing high performance in inner city schools is a completely different animal.

What’s more interesting to me, though, was Stephen’s (and Fryer’s) joke about the effectiveness of a good, old-fashioned ass-whipping as a disincentive for poor performance. While that seems like common sense for a lot of people — my mom certainly was not averse to using the belt — there’s plenty of evidence that that kind of stern tough love approach makes for worse students — and might actually contribute to the achievement gap.

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, two child psychologist at the University of Kansas, published the results of a 10-year-study in which they researched how 42 families in Kansas City communicated with their young children, who were newborns at the beginning of the study.What they found was startling: By age 3, children born into families where the parents were professionals had vocabularies more than twice as large as children whose parents were on welfare, and that the children’s I.Q. was tethered tightly to their vocabularies. Average I.Q. among the professional children? 117. The average I.Q. the children on welfare? 79.

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.

That’s a difference of about 20 million words by age 3. But it wasn’t just the number of words that differed, but also the kind of words that the children heard from their parents that affected children’s intelligence.

By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.

Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up.


Geoffrey Canada (who coincidentally appeared on Colbert a week after Fryer) runs the ambitious and influential Harlem Children’s Zone, which aims to scoop up the neighborhood’s children at a very young age and put them on a “conveyor belt” to higher education. One of HCZ’s initiatives is called Baby College, which stresses to parents the importance of reading to their children, but it also emphasizes that parents use other forms of discipline besides corporal punishment.

PAUL TOUGH: Physical and verbal punishment has a huge effect on a child’s emotional development, and on cognitive development, too. For most parents in Baby College, though, these are pretty foreign ideas. Dominique [the Baby College instructor] wants the parents to talk about alternatives to corporal punishment, like negotiating, time-outs, talking to a child. The parents don’t seem all that convinced. One mother speaks up, and says Dominique has forgotten to mention her favorite kind of discipline.

MOTHER: Old-fashioned discipline.

PAUL TOUGH: She pantomimes giving a child a smack. There’s a feeling in the room that if the only tool you have to deal with your kids acting up is talk to them and just tell them to be good, they’ll misbehave like crazy. As one mother put it ‘with some children, you just gotta pop ’em.’

GEOFFREY CANADA: Here is, what I think, is one of the things that frustrates a lot of us who live in and work in really poor communities. People telling kids, “Sit down!” “Shut up!” and “Get over here!” That’s a two-year old you’re talking to! Who talks to a two-year-old like that? Lots of people who really believe the parent’s job is to make this child listen and become passive, so the child does whatever you want and has no opinion to express, doesn’t leave you, doesn’t walk away, doesn’t touch anything without your permission. A lot of our parents really believe that a child who looks like this is a good child. And so you see all this energy put into shutting a child down, into making them stop, without the realization that that is how children’s brain’s develop. A child’s brain develops through exploring their world.

A recent Berkeley study found that 9- and 10-year-olds from different socioeconomic backgrounds “have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.” The poorer kids in the study had brain function not unlike an adult who had frontal lobe damage.

The good news is that there’s a lot of evidence that these cognitive deficits can be ameliorated. Take Michael Oher, for example. The Ole Miss left tackle is likely to be an early first round pick in the N.F.L. draft next year, and was the subject of Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side. He lived on the streets and essentially raised himself. When his I.Q. was measured when he was in elementary school, it was in the low 80s and learning disabled. When he was measured again as a teenager — and after having been adopted by a wealthy family who used their resources to get him up to speed — his I.Q. jumped nearly 20 points, placing him in the average range. Intelligence, on the lower end, can be very elastic.

Resources obviously matter a great deal, but we should be discouraging parents from modes of discipline that exacerbate the serious disadvantages caused by structural factors. So, um, put down the belt.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • robynj

    I remember reading about that U of K study in the NYT mag when it was published. What I don’t know that I’m getting, is how the results of that study relate to HCZ’s efforts to discourage the use of physical punishment or discipline. Maybe I missed it, but the data doesn’t seem to evaluate physical discipline as a factor in how children develop. Seems like a (somewhat) different ball of wax to me.

  • Robyn: The argument is that a child who is being dissuaded from walking around, interacting and exploring their world is not learning because what your reinforcing with physical discipline is passivity.

    “A lot of our parents really believe that a child who looks like this is a good child. And so you see all this energy put into shutting a child down, into making them stop, without the realization that that is how children’s brain’s develop. A child’s brain develops through exploring their world.”

    True the data doesn’t evaluate physical discipline but if the ratio of *verbal* reprimands to reinforcements has such a marked effect, it not hard to imagine that using corporal punishment would be even worse.

  • quadmoniker

    When I listened to this episode of TAL all I could do was cry. What’s annoying to me is that all of the studies about brain elasticity, meant to help children born into poverty, have been co-opted by companies who try to market useless things to upper-middle class parents terrified of not giving their child every advantage. The recent New Yorker piece on over-parenting was really enlightening.

    Also, that might be the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.

  • robynj

    UE: Hmmm… I don’t know. I’m having trouble making that leap. Since the study only evaluated the effect of WORDS … and specifically the effects of negative language, I’m not sure I’m prepared to assume that that’s automatically part of the physical discipline package.

  • robyn: what do you think the differences in consequences are for spanking vs. negative language? Aren’t they both used to induce a child to be more passive?

  • verdeluz

    Disclaimer- couldn’t see the video, so I have only a vague idea of what the first part of this post is about.

    Quoting from page 81 of “Whatever It Takes”:

    “The middle-class style of discipline- negotiation, explanation, impulse control- was intertwined with the middle-class style of brain development. There was simply more talk in middle-class discipline, and thus more verbal stimulation.”

    HCZ is crazy inspiring and there was a lot I loved about the book, but it actually did not succeed in convincing me that an all-out ban on physical discipline was necessary. What I read of their reasoning made it seem like since they couldn’t trust people to either a) know where the line is or b) not to cross it, it was better to preach no-touch discipline across the board (the instructor all but comes out and says this on page 82). Maybe it’s valid, maybe it’s condescending, maybe sometimes it’s both.

    I think what we’re talking about here is a pattern, a link between parenting styles that tend to rely on a lot of physical discipline right off the bat and those that don’t allow for a lot of the questioning or freedom of expression that is so good for developing brains. I do not, however, think that the link is automatic, and I do think that there’s a limit- with some kids- to talking it out. This is about more than how parents choose to discipline, but when and why.

  • Robyn: You just wanna whup yo’ kids huh? But seriously though, I was spanked when I was a kid and I don’t have an issue with a touch of physical punishment here and there but like verdeluz is saying some people don’t know where the line is. I remember certain beatings really vividly, I think because they were so few and far between. Mom would half-heartedly swat at us on occasion but nothing major. For big issues dad would make us ‘go get the belt”. I remember being TALKED to a lot though. My folks for the most part for lay down what they expected of our behaviour and punishment would only come after those clear guidelines had been set. Some parents just start out wanting to go upside a child’s head, even when they are very young. It definitely is a matter of parenting style – Authoritaive vs. Authoritarian. One is firm and fair, one is dictatorial. Although I would like to note too that I think a point definitely comes where a child is just plain too old to be hitting. My most memorable beating was when I was 12 and I don’t remember feeling sorry about what I had done, just humiliated and angry about being hit. So that’s something to chew on too.

  • v: you’re right. i don’t think the link is automatic, either. But, hopefully, when HCZ pushes for taking the ‘nuclear option’ off the table, it means that the steps that would otherwise lead up to a beating — admonitions, scoldings, etc — might happen less reflexively and more conscientiously.

    One of the things that Annette Lareau said in “Unequal Childhoods,” (which was referenced in the NYT article I linked to) was that the benefits of that kind of childhood, in which the parents’ orientation toward their children is primarily that of a disciplinarian, actually disappear in the larger world outside of the home, where people instead tend to value skills that middle class children are more like to have (the ability to negotiate, a sense of entitlement, etc.) Besides the point that UE made — spankings yielding diminishing returns — it seems like there’s are larger social disadvantages to taking that tack.

    (This, of course, is to say nothing of the troubling normalization of physical force/coercion that is more likely to be a fact of life for people in inner cities.)

  • v: also, I just got my copy of “Whatever It Take” on Monday. The opening chapter, about the lottery to get into the Promise Academy, was heartbreaking. The turnout shoots holes in the pernicious idea that people in inner cities don’t want better educations for their children, and underscores just how difficult that goal is to attain. You gotta win a lottery to have a fighting chance? :-/

  • robynj

    GD: I don’t know that I know the differences in consequences between the two. But it doesn’t seem that anyone else does, either. I think it’s unfair to assume that those who physically discipline use that as the default or the only tool in the arsenal, and that it doesn’t come with some form of talking/explaining. This data doesn’t bear that out and I’m not prepared to assume physical discipline automatically equates to these children being talked to less leading to less-than- optimal outcomes.

    UE: Like you, I was hit as a kid. I was a relatively good kid so it didn’t happen often, and it was always with a hand… not that that matters much. But as someone who’s childless, I’m not advocating for one form of discipline over the other though. However, I’m not sure that physical discipline shouldn’t be a tool in the armementarium. I just think the link between what this data show and the potential consequences of physical discipline (not at all addressed in this data set) aren’t necessarily the same. To assume so is a bit of a leap, I think.

    V: Exactly. HCZ dismissing physical discipline as an automatic no-no is assuming that there’s nothing parents employ that goes along with whatever physical discipline they dish out. I’d like to think most of these parents aren’t hauling and whipping ass all willy nilly… so how about teach better techniques rather than assuming that’s all these folks know how to do. Unless there’s something I’m not seeing with HCZ’s strategy and rationale (something that’s very possible, I recognize), this whole schtick seems a skosh condescending.

  • aisha

    I was physically disciplined as well. Very rarely but I was early on and nothing too major. I also used to spank my cousins. Now I’m nearing the age of baby producing and when I think about spanking my cousins I have no idea what it gained me (at the moment) or them ( in the long run).

    Is HCZ taking physical off the table is that such a bad thing? I don’t know why anyone would criticize them for leaving it out. What makes us want to hold on to it as an option so badly? Also I’m just going to go right ahead with anecdotes and assumptions….physical discipline is often not paired with verbal reasoning. “Shut the fuck up or I’m going to beat your ass.” is usually what I see in my daily travels. Especially when folks fear spanking their children in public. I’m often shocked at the amount of parents that curse at their kids and I’m speaking of children under 5. I’m sure HCZ had data that led them believe that physical discipline was being overused.

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