The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

It Turns Out That You Do Catch More Flies with Honey Than Vinegar: The Associations of Maternal Warmth and Physical Punishment with Children's Positive and Aggressive Behaviors

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 11:00 AM
Executive Center 1 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Inna Altschul, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Shawna J. Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background: Parents use a range of practices to elicit positive behaviors from children. Specifically, parents may model positive behaviors in interactions with their child, thus eliciting a positive reciprocal response from the child. Alternatively, parents may use punishment, including spanking, to change a child’s negative behaviors with the hope of eliciting subsequent positive behavior. Although research shows that parents’ use of physical punishment is associated with increases in child aggression, along with other negative child outcomes, parents continue to spank young children at high rates, presumably to elicit positive behaviors from them. However, few studies have examined whether spanking leads to positive child behaviors and, if not, what other parent behaviors do elicit positive child behaviors. Using longitudinal data for children (ages 1-5) we examined the reciprocal associations between maternal warmth and physical punishment and children’s positive and aggressive behaviors.

Methods: Participants were 3,279 families in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a population-based, longitudinal study of families from 20 large U.S. cities (N = 4,898). Demographic data was collected at baseline (child’s birth). Maternal physical punishment was measured when children were one, three, and five years old. Maternal warmth (HOME scale), child aggressive behaviors (CBCL 1.5-5), and child positive behaviors (Adaptive Social Behavior Inventory) were measured at three and five years of age. A cross-lagged path model estimated in Mplus 6.1 assessed within-time and across-time associations between maternal and child behaviors. The model controlled for children’s sex and temperament, mothers’ parenting stress, depression, alcohol use, intimate partner violence, mothers’ race, age, education, relationship status and family income.

Results: The model provided a good fit to the data (χ2(18)=41.68, p=.001; CFI=.990; RMSEA=.020). Within- and across-time, there were significant bidirectional relationships between maternal physical punishment and child aggression. At age 1, maternal physical punishment was associated with higher levels of child aggression at age 3 (ß=.069, p<.05); maternal physical punishment at age 3 was associated with an increase in child aggression by age 5 (ß=.114, p<.001); and child aggression at age 3 predicted an increase in maternal physical punishment by age 5 (ß=.064, p<.001). Within the same time point, maternal warmth and positive child behavior were positively associated, while maternal warmth and child aggression were negatively associated. Maternal physical punishment and child positive behavior were not associated at any time point. Finally, greater maternal warmth at age 3 was associated with an increase in child positive behavior at age 5 (ß=.091, p<.001).  In sum, maternal physical punishment was associated with child aggression within and across time, while maternal warmth was associated with child positive behaviors. Maternal punishment was not associated with positive child behavior.

Conclusions and Implications: These results point to the influence of reciprocal parent-child relationship patterns such that positive parent behaviors elicit positive child behaviors, and aggressive parent behaviors elicit further aggressive child behaviors.  These findings reinforce the importance of urging parents to use positive parenting techniques to elicit positive child behaviors and avoid using physical punishment, which only further exacerbates aggressive child behaviors.