Methods: Participants were 3,279 families who participated in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a population-based cohort study of families from 20 large U.S. cities (N = 4,898). Demographic data was collected at baseline (the child's birth). Maternal physical discipline was measured when the child was 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years of age. Maternal warmth (HOME scale), child aggressive behavior (CBCL 1.5-5), and child positive behavior (Adaptive Social Behavior Inventory) were measured at 3 years and 5 years of age. Models controlled for demographic characteristics (measured at the child's birth) as well as child temperament (measured at age 1). Cross-lagged statistical models were conducted in Mplus.
Results: All models provided an excellent fit to the data. There was a strong within-time correlation between mothers' physical discipline and child aggression. At age 1, maternal physical discipline was associated with higher levels of child aggression at age 3; similarly, maternal physical discipline was associated with higher levels of subsequent child aggression at age 5 but child aggression also significantly predictor higher levels of maternal physical discipline. Maternal warmth did not change the nature of these associations. There was no association of maternal warmth and child aggression at any time point. Child positive behavior and maternal physical discipline also were not associated at any time point. However, maternal warmth at age 3 was positively associated with child positive behavior at age 5.
Conclusions and Implications: Using cross-lagged path models analysis, the results of this study indicate that at all time points, maternal physical discipline was associated with subsequent child aggression, but not positive behavior. In contrast, maternal warmth was associated with the child's positive behavior, but not child aggression. Moreover, the results of this study point to the strong influence of maternal physical discipline in early childhood. Specifically, beginning as early as age one, maternal physical discipline is stable across time and predictive of child behavior problems. Implications are that maternal warmth does not counteract the negative consequences of the use of physical discipline. Parenting interventions need to more explicitly focus on decreasing use of physical discipline, and future research should examine how to effectively communicate this information to parents.