Methods: This study utilized three waves of data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). Maternal frequency of spanking at ages 1, 3, and 5 was measured on a scale from 0 (never in the past month) to 2 (a few times or every day in the past week). Child externalizing behavior at ages 3 and 5 was measured with the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; White: α = .85, African American: α = .86, American Indian: α = .87). The final sample consisted of 3,632 children (266 American Indian, 2,183 African American, 1,183 White). The majority of mothers were unmarried (75.8%) and had an educational attainment of high school (31.42%) or less-than-high-school (33.4%). Multiple-group autoregressive cross-lagged models were used to examine the longitudinal associations between spanking and child externalizing behavior. Structural invariance testing was used to examine whether associations differed between American Indian, African American, and White children.
Results: When comparing American Indian and African American groups, model fit was good (CFI = .98, RMSEA = .02) and the χ2 difference test was non-significant (χ2Δ = 4.68, CD = 0.37, ΔP = 2), meaning structural invariance was achieved. Maternal spanking at age 1 predicted child externalizing behavior at age 3 (African American: β = .08, p < .01; American Indian: β = .06, p < .001), and maternal spanking at age 3 predicted child externalizing behavior at age 5 (African American: β = .08, p < .001; American Indian: β = .07, p < .001). When comparing American Indian and White groups, model fit was good (CFI = .97, RMSEA = .03) and the χ2 difference test was non-significant (χ2Δ = 2.99, CD = 0.72, ΔP = 2). Maternal spanking at age 1 predicted child externalizing behavior at age 3 (White: β = .09, p < .05; American Indian: β = .08, p < .01), and maternal spanking at age 3 predicted child externalizing behavior at age 5 (White: β = .10, p < .01; American Indian: β = .08, p < .001).
Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest the effects of maternal spanking on child externalizing behavior are similar across American Indian, African American, and White groups. These results have implications for the development of policies to reduce spanking. Like White and African American children, American Indian children may benefit from policies that prevent parents’ use of spanking and promote culturally appropriate non-violent parenting techniques. Future research should examine culturally sensitive ways to promote positive forms of punishment in the American Indian population.