Review: Robert Surgenor's
"No Fear: A Police Officer's
Perspective" Providence House Pub., Franklin, TN, 1999
Surgenor claims that teenagers in his jurisdiction are assaulting their parents at an unprecedented rate. Unfortunately there is no way to independently verify his claim, since neither the UCR, the NCVS, nor the local Cuyahoga County data distinguish between juvenile violence against parents and the much more prevalent juvenile violence against siblings, or against any other family members. All domestic violence by juveniles is lumped together in the UCR and Cuyahoga County data, regardless of the relationship between arrestee and victim. The NCVS breaks down domestic violence by relationship type, but unfortunately does not distinguish between a child of 15 assaulting a 40 year old parent, and a "child" of 50 assaulting a 75 year old parent. Surgenor cites his own case files as evidence of a specific rise in child assaults on parents, but provides his readers with no hard numbers at all, merely repeating throughout his book that child assaults on parents in his jurisdiction are "up 700%," (pp. 7, 45, and 200). This is followed by the usual claim that nonspanked children cause "98.1%" of child-on-parent assaults on his beat. Juvenile records are sealed, so no one will ever be able to examine and independently verify the actual raw data upon which Surgenor bases this claim. We are required to just take Surgenor's word for it.
The most unlikely statistic in Surgenor's book is the one which he repeats most often: that 98.1% of teenagers in his jurisdiction who commit domestic violence against their parents were never spanked as children.
"A statistic that alarms me more is that of those children charged with physically assaulting their mothers and fathers, only 1.9 percent were ever spanked by their parents. This is more glaring evidence that the lack of corporal punishment is contributing to the increase in juvenile delinquency." (p. 7)
"In fact, of those juveniles arrested for committing assaults against their own parents, only 1.9 percent were spanked as they were growing up. Are the modern-day psychologists correct in assuming that spanking a child makes them violent? No. The opposite is true." (p. 89)On a local Cleveland-area television news program in July of 2000, Surgenor repeated this same claim, that of the children in his district arrested for assaulting their parents, "only 1.9% were raised with any type of corporal punishment at all." (Click here to view the TV segment. If you don't already have it, you will need get RealPlayer.)
This dubious and unverifiable statistic is at the very core of his argument. His "98.1% unspanked" figure is wildly at odds with all available published research on spanking and aggression. Surgenor mentions Dr. Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire as the source of the figure of 10% as the percentage of American parents who never spank (p. 123). If 98.1% of the child-on-parent domestic assaults were truly perpetrated by the 10% of children whose parents never spanked them, this would mean that an unspanked child was 465 times more likely to assault a parent than a spanked child. If this extremely strong correlation truly existed, why hasn't anyone else besides Robert Surgenor noticed by now? Violence in general and spanking in particular have been the subject of scientific scrutiny for years. Thompson (in press) found that nearly all of the 88 studies on spanking over the past 40 years found it to be associated with worse rather than better behavior in children. A brief and by no means exhaustive review of relevant research studies follows.
Gunnoe & Mariner (1997) found that the more the children in their sample were spanked at the beginning of the study, the more their Antisocial Behavior Scores had increased when they were followed up years later. Straus et al., (1997) replicated this result independently, and also reported that as a group, the children who were spanked the least or not at all showed an improvement in behavior over time. These two studies were published side by side in a pediatrics journal, and influenced the American Association of Pediatrics to officially take a stand against all forms of spanking a few months later in April of 1998. Kantor & Straus (1994) found significant correlations between corporal punishment in adolescence and a variety of negative long term effects, including elevated rates of domestic violence. Maurer (1974) in a now-classic study of death row inmates at the San Quentin Prison, failed to find a single inmate who had not been physically punished as a child, typically in abusive ways. If lack of physical punishment really turns children into violent criminals, logic suggests that they should be over-represented among the ranks of the most hardened felons, not under-represented. If nonspanked children grow up to commit disproportionate amounts of serious crime, why aren't prisons full of them? Maurer and Wallerstein (1987) found that 95% of their sample of juvenile delinquents had been physically punished to a "severe" or "extreme" degree while 0% of these delinquents came from nonspanking homes. The authors also quote Dr. Ralph Welsh, a psychologist who examined over 2,000 delinquent youths:
"The recidivist male delinquent who has never been exposed to the belt, extension cord or fist at some time in his life is virtually non-existent. As the severity of corporal punishment in the delinquent's developmental history increases, so does the probability that he will engage in a violent act."MacMillan et al. (1999), in their study of 9,953 residents of Ontario, Canada, found highly significant (p < 0.001) correlations between spankings in childhood and drug abuse, alcoholism and antisocial behavior later in life. Subjects who reported never having been spanked as children were half as likely to exhibit these problems as subjects who were spanked. Strassberg et al. (1994) reported that kindergarten children who were not physically punished by their mothers exhibited significantly less aggressiveness towards other children at school than children who had been. Children whose parents used abusively severe corporal punishment even once in the child's life were, as a group, the most aggressive of all. Straus (1991) found that juveniles who had been physically punished were nearly twice as likely to have committed theft and over three times as likely to have hit a non-family-member with an object in comparison with unspanked children. Straus & Mouradian (1998) reported that children whose mothers never spanked them in their entire lives were significantly less antisocial than even the most infrequently-spanked children. Brezina (1999) found that the more children were physically punished by parents at the beginning of the study, the more likely they were to hit a parent a year and a half later.
Not one published peer reviewed research study has ever produced evidence of any form of measurable long term benefit to children from spanking, despite efforts by prospankers in academia to do so.
Why do Surgenor's numbers so drastically contradict all other available research? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As we shall now see, Surgenor's "evidence" in support of his extraordinary "98.1% nonspanked" claim fails to adhere even to the standards of ordinary scholarly data, and falls far short of extraordinary.
At various points throughout his book, Surgenor asserts that parents widely believe that spanking their child is against the law, and think that any form of corporal punishment of a child puts the parent at risk of criminal prosecution:
"The problem is that parents today are not cognizant of the law and, therefore, are afraid of being charged with child abuse if they spank their child. Nothing could be further from the truth." (p. 66)It should therefore come as no surprise to Detective Surgenor that when bluntly asked by a police officer if they have ever spanked their child, most parents will deny having ever done so in their child's entire life. If Surgenor is correct that most parents believe spanking to be a crime, to confess to even a single incidence of spanking in response to Officer Surgenor's question would, in the minds of most parents, be tantamount to making an incriminating statement to a law enforcement official which could be used against them in a court of law. Even if Surgenor assured these parents that spanking is legal, as he probably did, many of them doubtlessly continued to deny it, suspecting that an attempt was being made by law enforcement to trick them into an incriminating admission.
Parents whose child is in trouble with the law for hitting them may also deny having ever physically punished the child simply because they do not want to appear in any way blameworthy, even if these parents do recognize that spanking itself is not illegal. Furthermore, any parents with an undiscovered history of physical abuse of their child have a self-interested motivation to deny all use of corporal punishment in their child's life, since any scrutiny in this area could lead to discovery of genuinely prosecutable behaviors by the parent. Given the strong correlation between violent criminal behavior and abuse in childhood observed by Maurer (1974) and others, it is likely that a disproportionate number of juveniles who assault their parents had a history not only of physical punishment, but of abusive physical punishment. Hence, a disproportionate number of the parents of these children would have reason to deny all use of corporal punishment when questioned by police, to steer police away from making incriminating discoveries about the parents' past behaviors. These factors alone compromise Surgenor's entire data set and irrevocably taint any conclusions about the prevalence of spanking in the early lives of parent-assaulting juveniles in Surgenor's sample. However, there is an even more troubling reason to doubt the validity of Surgenor's numbers.
Further exacerbating the serious reportage problems just described, there is also the matter of Surgenor's eagerness to place juvenile parent-assault perpetrators among the 98.1% whom he claims were never physically punished by their parents, despite evidence to the contrary. A example of Surgenor's zeal to classify a juvenile domestic violence perpetrator as "never physically punished" appears early in his book:
"Another trait that I have recognized in kids who have never been spanked is an uncontrollable anger and a hatred toward the parent who has reared them in such a manner. This correlation became very obvious to me very early in my career. Today's researchers are attempting to convince us that a spanked child is an angry child. My findings are the complete opposite! [emphasis his]The fact that this child's mother did not approve of spanking does not mean that the male figures in her life never once laid a hand on her. The mother reported her husband for physical child abuse of Barbara on three separate occasions, but what the father had done was "within the guidelines of the law." This indicates that Barbara was physically punished on at least three occasions. Surgenor does not claim that young parent-assaulters were only spanked "within the guidelines of the law," or that three times or less doesn't count. His oft-repeated claim is that 98.1% of them have never received corporal punishment of any kind. Surgenor concludes his case history of Barbara by referring to her mother "trying" to protect Barbara from the father's "physical discipline." This clearly implies that such maternal efforts were less than successful and that Barbara did experience "physical discipline" from her father despite her mother's attempts to intervene. Yet, against all evidence, Surgenor defines a physically punished child like Barbara as "never spanked" for the purposes of his "study."
With unintended irony, Surgenor even recounts an anecdote about how he himself, in a manner of speaking, physically punished 13 year old Barbara in his office one day for getting out of her chair "in an aggressive manner." He writes:
"I leaped out of my chair and grabbed her by the neck, lifting her up and into the wall behind her." (p. 10)Let us hope that he never tried this at home.
One is struck by Surgenor's stubborn lack of interest in any alternative explanations for the unlawful behavior of troubled youngsters, aside from an alleged lack of fear born of an alleged "lack of physical punishment of any kind." Barbara grew up through two divorces, and her current parents are so divided on the subject of how to discipline her that the police have been called on three occasions by her mother to file physical child abuse charges against her father. As someone who works with numerous troubled youths, one wonders why Surgenor seems so oblivious to the possibility that this girl's disordered family situation and divorce-ridden early years might have something to do with her violent acting out behaviors as a teenager.
The "98.1 percent" group of "never spanked" children obviously contains an unknown and unknowable number of subjects with a history of physical punishment in the home, whom no bonafide researcher would ever classify as "never spanked." But Surgenor classifies them as such in an apparent pursuit of a useful, quotable statistic for his one-man pro-spanking crusade. Surgenor had the option of presenting whichever case history best fit his thesis. He chose Barbara's. The fact that this case history is the best example he could find of a "never spanked" child arrested for violence against a parent discredits Surgenor's unreplicable "98.1% never spanked" statistic and discredits Surgenor himself as a self-proclaimed "researcher."
In the previous five pages, we have seen that Surgenor's argument for a juvenile crime wave cannot be supported by evidence, nor can his claim of a large scale abandonment of spanking by American parents. His statistics based on his personal case files suffer from tainted data gathering conditions and a blatantly inaccurate classification of an unknown number of his violent juvenile subjects as "never spanked" despite a history of physical punishment in the home. Hence, all of Surgenor's arguments, whether based on national crime statistics or on his own research, crumble under critical scrutiny. All that remains of Surgenor's argument are unsupported assertions and scores of quotations from the Bible.
For those seeking information and insights
concerning spanking and its effects on children, "No Fear: A Police Officer's
Perspective," is worse than useless. It is a pastiche of half truths,
unverifiable dubious claims, and outright errors. This book contains
no original contributions to human knowledge. Readers are well advised
to spend their book purchasing dollars on other volumes which do.
Brezina, T. (1999). "Teenage violence toward
parents as an adaptation to family strain:
Gunnoe, M.L. & Mariner, C.L. 1997.
"Toward a Developmental-Contextual
Kantor, G.K. and Straus, M.A. 1994.
"Corporal Punishment of Adolescents
MacMillan, H.L.; Boyle, M.H.; Wong,
M.Y.-Y; Duku, E.K.; Fleming, J.E.;
Maurer, A. 1974. "Corporal Punishment."
Strassberg, Z.; Dodge, K.A.; Petit, G.S.
& Bates, J.E. 1994. "Spanking
Straus, M.A. 1991. "Discipline
and Deviance: Physical Punishment of
Straus, M.A. 1994. Beating
The Devil Out Of Them: Corporal Punishment
Straus, M.A. and Gelles, R.J
1990. _Physical Violence In American
Straus, M.A. and Mouradian, V.E. 1998.
"Impulsive Corporal Punishment by
Straus, M.A.; Sugarman, D.B. and Giles-Sims,
J. 1997. "Corporal
Thompson, E. E. (in press). "The short-
and long- term effects of corporal punishment
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