Although the acceptability of physical punishment, such as spanking, as a disciplinary practice continues to be debated among the public, research continues to build a strong case that parents' use of physical punishment is associated with negative child outcomes. Specifically, the more often parents physically punish their children, the more likely their children are to experience aggression, antisocial behavior, and mental health problems, and to suffer physical abuse at the hands of their parents (Gershoff, 2002). Yet, the majority of U.S. parents use physical aggression to discipline their children, often beginning when children are very young. Indeed, 30% of one year old children had experienced physical punishment at least once in the prior month (as reported in presentation #1 in this symposium) and 65% of three year old children had experienced physical punishment at least once in the prior month (Taylor et al., 2011).
Paper #1: Parental physical punishment of one year old children and risk for Child Protective Services involvement
Paper #2: Father's physical punishment and child externalizing behavior: A longitudinal examination
Paper #3: The association of maternal physical punishment and warmth to children's aggressive and positive behavior
Paper #4: An experimental evaluation of parent training, unskilled parenting, and child welfare involvement for adults in the community corrections system
The four papers presented in this symposium are novel for several reasons. First, presentations use data from both fathers and mothers in order to clarify the unique role that each parent may have in contributing to child wellbeing. Second, longitudinal data are used in all four presentations, with the first three studies beginning in early childhood (at one year of age) to capture the transactional parent-child processes over time. Third, we examine both the mechanisms associated with physical discipline and its outcomes for children, as well as present findings relating to an intervention designed to promote positive parenting among at-risk families.
The first three papers use data from the Fragile Families Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a large, community-based study of urban families. The final paper presents results from a randomized experimental study of a parenting intervention with fathers and mothers involved in the corrections system. Each paper will present clear implications for practice specific to that study. The symposium discussant will provide an overarching set of implications for social work intervention based on all four presentations. First, these studies strongly suggest that physical discipline – by mothers, fathers, or both parents – is neither a safe way to discipline children, nor effective at bringing about positive behavior changes. Practitioners must enhance efforts to educate both fathers and mothers about the consequences of physical discipline, and provide parents with alternative disciplinary practices that could be used in place of physical discipline. In addition, physical discipline of young children is associated with increased risk for Child Protective Services involvement. As a result, parenting programs in the child welfare context must explicitly focus on helping these at-risk parents to reduce or eliminate their use of physical discipline.