Further Reading

Does abusing kids help their recovery?


Does using profanity and chastizing kids facilitate recovery in any way? In other words, does "tough love" really work?

Mike Wells

Dear Mike:

No, abusing children doesn’t work, even when it is supposedly done in a good cause.

One of the favorite daytime TV shows has children who are out of control being screamed at by a man in a military uniform, exposed to prisoners who likewise abuse them, and forced into prison (boot) camps. People love these shows – it expresses their failure to be able to discipline or direct their own children.

My question for Maury Povich and others who have large adults scream at children: “Is this how you treat your children when they misbehave?” Of course, the most elementary observer understands that these children have a family problem – indeed, one unusually scrupulous TV program followed two boys who were returned to their homes after a boot camp. The parents quickly undermined and attacked the children’s improved behavior and sense of well-being, until they went off the deep end.

Abuse of children was popularized when “Scared Straight!” narrated by Peter Falk (whose alienation from his own college-age daughter was well publicized), won an Academy Award in 1979. “Straight” showed kids being screamed at by lifers at Rahway State prison in New Jersey, with claims that 80-90% of the kids who came to Rahway had no further delinquency or criminal problems. The idea is that, by showing children how bad the lives of criminals are (through being screamed at by dominating male criminals) will discourage them from pursuing lives of crime.

That exposure to crime, criminals, and prisons does not discourage crime in children is self-evident – children in high-crime neighborhoods are the fodder for future jail cells. In fact, a Rutgers criminologist, James Finckenauer, evaluated the Rahway “Lifers” program. In the first place, he had to control for the initial criminal activity of the children (since many who were being taken to the program were not delinquents in he first place). Children’s criminal involvement was then tracked following exposure to the lifers. Children exposed to the program had an enhanced likelihood of criminal activity following "Scared Straight!" (This finding is worth the exclamation point that actually follows the title.)

Of course, abuse towards children was pioneered in substance abuse programs. It may be valuable in some cases (far fewer than occur) for children to be removed from their homes to receive help, help that engages them in constructive activity, builds their self-esteem, and prevents them from engaging in self-destructive activity. However, even when programs succeed at this, reintroducing them to their families, communities, and peer groups is about the rest of their lives. And the best programs cannot accomplish this with a child in isolation.

Incidentally, I wonder if it indicates some disillusionment that a popular new Walt Disney movie, “Holes,” is a feel-good comedy about kids who escape a court-ordered boot camp run by sadists.

See “Don’t Panic” and other publications about adolescent treatment programs at http://www.peele.net/lib/index05.html.