Statistics, smacking and bad science.

Smacks
smacks I spent a good deal of yesterday ranting under my breath about correlative and causative data.

Why? Because of this story in the Daily Mail about how children who are smacked grow up to be more successful. Of course, being the Daily Mail, the story was followed by hundreds of comments from people saying that of course this was the case, smacking children made them better people.

But there's a HUGE difference between correlation (two events that tend to happen together) and causation (two events, where one is directly caused by the latter). So it may be that children from homes where they were smacked ended up more successful, but this doesn't mean the smacking was the cause of this success.

A great illustration of this idea is used in Freakonomics. American politicians looked at children's educational success and what was happening in their early years. They found that children from homes where there were lots of books tended to perform well at school. So they spent billions of dollars on a pre-school programme that gave books to poorer children, presuming this would improve educational performance. And it didn't make a bit of difference. 

The reason? Because the fact of books being in the home and the higher educational achievement of those kids was correlative not causative – meaning one didn't cause the other. In fact, closer analysis of the data showed that children who came from homes with lots of books out-performed other kids even when their parents didn't read those books to their kids.

So rather than books making kids smarter, it was more likely that the parents who bought the books were both smarter and wealthier, and were also the sorts of parents who were more likely to stress the importance of education to their children. (Incidentally, this very same study showed smacking or not smacking made zero difference to outcomes).

Despite all the claims you might read on the children's educational
activity websites about how their classes promote this skill or that educational outcome, I've yet to see a single one of these companies provide ANY kind of
statistical proof that these benefits are real. And certainly not attributable to their services.

Actually, I suspect it's like the books example – parents who take their children to educational classes are pre-disposed to think education is important and those children would tend to perform better on average, anyway. Certainly my experience of taking Flea to one of those classes when we first moved to Lytham was that it was full of middle-class kids who had absolutely zero need of a class to boost their social and communication skills. Pfft.

What this means for parenting – and yes, I do have a point – is that you can relax. Most of the things that will have a major influence on the outcome of your child's life have already been set. Your age when your child was born, your socio-economic status, your level of education – all of those things have a far more significant impact on your child's life than whether you took them to the right pre-school or whether they're learning phonics at the age of two. Really, what's the point? Isn't it better that they should just have the opportunity to, say, play? Have fun? Be kids?

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

19 Comments

  1. 5th January 2010 / 11:03 am

    HEAR HEAR! I couldn’t agree more, well done you for saying it.

  2. 5th January 2010 / 11:34 am

    Fantastic! So my slightly half-arsed parenting is excused. Love this sort of post – has put a positive spring in my step!

  3. 5th January 2010 / 11:34 am

    The real problem are the readers of the Mail who are under the impression they’re reading a proper newspaper and not a tabloid. For all it’s faults, the Sun doesn’t pretend to be a serious paper, so its less “evil” than the Mail.
    The same issue is also very pertinent in the carcinogens in food debate. Aspartame is always linked to cancer but over 200 reports have failed to prove it as carcinogenic. Just because people who take diet drinks get cancer doesn’t mean diet drinks give people cancer.

  4. 5th January 2010 / 12:39 pm

    I noticed when I arrived in the UK that using surveys ‘lies and damned statistics’ to ‘prove’ all manner of things was the UK PR’s tool of choice. It’s the same flawed logic that ‘proves’ that 1/3 men are rapists. Sigh.

  5. angelsandurchinsblog
    5th January 2010 / 1:14 pm

    Love that, thank you! Just realised I’ve finally made a New Year Resolution: to ignore my inner paranoid parent, scared of letting Jnrs down by not signing up for extra maths or Mandarin. I’d quite like to smack the writer of the article, though.

  6. Marta
    5th January 2010 / 3:54 pm

    Hi there! A very interesting post. Regards from Barcelona 🙂

  7. 5th January 2010 / 6:34 pm

    The article is absolutely stupid!I will be venting for the rest of the day.

  8. 5th January 2010 / 7:01 pm

    It was first written about a day before in the Times, where the original headline was “A smacked child is a successful child”, (I think – something like that anyway.) I left a comment, which wasn’t allowed, that it was an extremely irresponsible headline. They did change the headline though.
    Since smacking has become less and less acceptable as a disciplinary method, most of the people in the survey were probably smacked as a matter of course. If they did the same survey in about ten years time, they would probably find that successful young people weren’t smacked. The results have less to do with the method than the practices of the time.

  9. 5th January 2010 / 7:21 pm

    Well said! God, I hate those self-satisfied, ignorant xxxxxx’s who write stupid stuff like that. The same stupid people who write one week that tomatoes give you cancer, and the next week an article extoling the health virtues of… you’ve guessed it, the tomato.
    It’s just rubbish – anyway, I was smacked and I’m not successful! so there!

  10. 5th January 2010 / 7:43 pm

    The Daily Mail often write a load of nonsense as you know. I really enjoyed Freakonomics too. You may have already read them, but if you enjoyed Freakonomics, you will probably like Outliers, The Tipping Point and Blink, all by Malcolm Gladwell.

  11. 5th January 2010 / 7:49 pm

    Love the earlier comment about the Mail being “evil”! Quite agree. My children weren’t smacked (well only on very rare occasions when I just lost it and then felt awful for days) and they are successful, beautiful, saintly and utterly gorgeous in every way.

  12. 5th January 2010 / 9:28 pm

    Well said Sally. The Mail is such a vile ‘news’paper.
    Surely low achieving children were smacked too in the good old days? Perhaps the Mail are having a go at woolly liberals and blaming us for society’s decline because we choose not to smack our children?!

  13. 5th January 2010 / 9:30 pm

    I wonder how The Mail would report it if it was pointed out to them that people in prison tended to have been smacked too….. 🙂

  14. 5th January 2010 / 10:41 pm

    Very good post. And you are so right. I’m always worrying about what I’m doing wrong, but there’s no need. At least I don’t smack them… but now maybe I should start. 😉

  15. Liz (LivingwithKids)
    6th January 2010 / 12:06 am

    Totally agree. What struck me about the survey report was that it was carried out by a professor at a Christian Reformed college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And as my mother the former child social worker turned psychologist, always says, if you smack children, sooner or later they’ll turn round and hit you back, one way or the other.

  16. Sally
    Author
    7th January 2010 / 12:28 am

    @Victoria – No worries. It drives me mad how keen the media are to parents feel responsible for every little thing in their children’s lives. No wonder so many Mums worry about every little thing.
    @Dawn – Yay for half-assed parenting!
    @Alex – absolutely, I’ve often argued that journalism post-grads like the one I did should offer statistics along with shorthand and media law. So few journalists know how to read this sort of report.
    @Vegemitevix – Yes, and I was reading about the origins of the 1 in 5 kids has been grommed online statistic this week in Vanity Fair. Apparently the true figure from that report is more like 1 in 300 – but that’s a less impressive headline, I guess.
    @angelsandurchins – that’s a perfect resolution!
    @Kim @Marta @Cecilia – thankyou!
    @ExPat Mum – that’s a very good point, I suspect the data was gathered when smacking was prevalent.
    @Mummymania – arf. I wasn’t smacked, although I do like to remind my Mum about the time she chased me round the house with my own judo belt! I’m not sure I’m particularly successful though – maybe she should have tried harder to catch me!
    @Rosie – thanks, I’ll definitely look those up.
    @Elizabeth – the Mail is evil. Utterly. I don’t know why I read it, it’ll give me an ulcer one day.
    @Sandy – yes, you woolly liberals are almost as bad as us single mums. I broke Britain single-handedly, it seems.
    @Simon – VERY good point!
    @Brit – I can agree with that. I found it so liberating to realise those extra classes and educational nonsense is just a total waste of time and money. Hurrah for the park and the beach!
    @Mwa – I think lots of us just spend too much time worrying about tiny things that have almost no impact. Let me know how the smacking works out 😉
    @Liz – Ah, I knew there was a reason we bonded so well on these issues. I, too, was raised by social workers. Not in care, I should add, my parents were social workers!

  17. angelsandurchinsblog
    7th January 2010 / 4:44 pm

    Sorry to drop in a link to a post, but hoped you’d applaud Lenore Skenazy. She was once branded America’s Worst Mum because she, er, let her 9-year-old ride the subway on his own. She’s launched an entire parenting movement called Free-Range Kids, and I suspect would laugh in the face of this mad article. I also suspect her thinking would also resonate with yours, from what I’ve read on your blog – see what you think: http://bit.ly/7b9uJp

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