The latest study to investigate spanking and its long-lasting effects again finds negative outcomes, particularly for African-American children.
Understanding the impact of parenting style and temperament on children is challenging and riddled with controversy. There is a myriad of variables, none of which can easily (or ethically) be controlled. Also, the development of a child plays out over decades, and no infant is brought up in a vacuum.
The impacts of physical punishment have been hotly debated over the years, but the overwhelming consensus is that they have a negative effect.
According to the American Psychological Association, "Many studies have shown that physical punishment - including spanking, hitting, and other means of causing pain - can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury, and mental health problems for children."
However, although attitudes have changed over the years, two thirds of the population of the United States still approve of parents spanking their children.
As Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D. - a leading researcher into physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin - told the American Psychological Association, "I can just about count on one hand the studies that have found anything positive about physical punishment and hundreds that have been negative."
Still, the exact interaction between parental methods and child outcomes continues to be a tough area to study, and there are many specific questions still to be answered. For instance, previous studies have tended to be relatively short: generally they have lasted just 1 year, and they have rarely looked at families in, or near, poverty.
The results of the new study were recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
The long-term effect of physical punishment
Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Missouri in Columbia set out to look at the effects over a longer period of time, up until the children were in the fifth grade.
Prof. Gustavo Carlo, director of the Center for Family Policy and Research at the university, explains why they decided to get involved in this area of study. He says, "Long-term studies on the links among parenting, temperament, and children's social behaviors have been limited, especially among racially diverse, low-income populations."
The researchers took data from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. In all, 1,840 mothers and children were enrolled. All participants were either at or below the federal poverty line, and they were either European-American (960) or African-American (880). The children were almost equally split between male and female.
Data were collected from children at the age of 15 months, 25 months, and in the fifth grade, and information came from surveys taken by the mothers and children, home visits, and interviews with fifth-grade teachers.
Once the information was analyzed, the researchers found differences in outcomes for European-American and African-American children. African-American children who experienced severe punishment at 15 months were likelier to exhibit "aggressive" and "delinquent" behavior in the fifth grade. Positive behaviors, including helping others, were less likely to be seen in these children.
In European-American children, there was no link between punishment and negative emotions. However, European-American children with parents that demonstrated negative emotions such as irritability were more likely to have negative emotions themselves.
Culture, parenting, and change
The research will no doubt spark debate and open up new questions to be studied. The researchers hope that the findings will help parents, educators, and other involved parties to understand the impact of early parental techniques and attitudes, as well as the interplay between parenting, temperament, and culture.
"Our findings show how parents treat their children at a young age, particularly African-American children significantly impacts their behavior. It is very important that parents refrain from physical punishment as it can have long-lasting impacts. If we want to nurture positive behaviors, all parents should teach a child how to regulate their behaviors early."
Prof. Gustavo Carlo
As with any study in this field, the conversation is likely to be long-lived. Studies of this type are always going to uncover correlations rather than firm evidence of cause and effect; that is the nature of the beast. However, these findings back up reams of other data reaching similar conclusions.