Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16547 Who Is Left Spanking? Harsh Corporal Punishment and Child Behavioral and Cognitive Outcomes Through 5 Years-of-Age

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 8:30 AM
Franklin Square (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Michael J. MacKenzie, PhD, Assistant Professor, Columbia University, New York, NY
Eric Nicklas, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Columbia University, New York, NY
Jane Waldfogel, PhD, Professor, Columbia University, New York, NY
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child and Parent Development and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background and Purpose: Few domains of research on child development attract the attention and passions of the public to the extent of studies on parental discipline practices, and the use of harsh physical discipline in particular. In any area of research focused on rearing practices so intimately tied to cultural and family traditions, evidence must be clear and studies conceptualized and measured in such a way that conclusions are firmly rooted in the results. Despite a large and growing literature pointing toward an association between spanking and aggression, the use of corporal punishment remains a widely endorsed parenting tool in U.S. families and proponents have not been swayed by the evidence to date. This study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study (FFCW), to examine the prevalence and determinants of spanking of children from birth through 3 years-of-age, and the associations between spanking and externalizing behavior and receptive verbal ability at age 5.

Methods: We use the data on 1,110 families from the FFCW study to estimate four sets of models. The first set of models examines the prevalence of maternal spanking when the focal child is approximately 1 years old. The second set of models explore the antecedents and prevalence of spanking at 3 years-of-age. The third set of models analyzes the focal child's Child Behavior Checklist externalizing behaviors at approximately age 5. The focal outcome for the fourth set of models is the child's score on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test administered during the Year 5 In-Home interview.

Results: Overall, about 15% of children were spanked at 12 months, rising to 55% by three years-of-age. Mothers who are young, who report more stress, or report difficult child temperament were more likely to spank. Boys were at increased risk of being spanked within African American families, and maternal employment was associated with a greater likelihood of spanking in Hispanic families. Mothers facing greater stress and those who spanked earlier were more likely to spank at age 3, whereas those who report a supportive partner during pregnancy and those who were not U.S. born were less likely to spank. Mothers in communities where spanking was more normative were also more likely to spank. High-frequency maternal spanking at age 3 was associated with externalizing behavior and receptive vocabulary at age 5, controlling for an array of ecological risks, earlier behavior, and verbal capacity. We explored potential interactions and found no evidence that race, parental warmth, or child gender moderated the association between spanking and outcomes.

Conclusions and Implications: This set of analyses adds to a growing foundation of research highlighting the risks for later aggression associated with the use of physical discipline. We also add novel information about the role of fathers' spanking as well as add to an emerging literature on the impact of spanking on cognitive outcomes. These findings also highlight the need for research that explores alternative effective discipline practices and addresses parent questions of what else they could, or even should, be doing.