There is a tremendous amount of overlap between types of aggressive and violent behavior within families. Child maltreatment is more common in homes where intimate partner aggression and violence (IPAV) occur.1–4
And data are evolving to suggest that corporal punishment (CP), a strong risk factor for child maltreatment,5,6
co-occurs with IPAV as well.7,8
The link between CP and IPAV also is intergenerational as experiencing CP in childhood raises risk for subsequent aggression5,9
and both CP and conduct disorder increase risk for later IPAV perpetration.10,11
Hence, reducing the use of CP might assist in curbing the cycle of family and community violence.
US prevalence estimates of CP use are high, ranging anywhere from 35% to 90% depending upon moderating factors such as the age or gender of the child and the type of punishment specified.12
Approval of CP use also is high with nearly three quarters of US adults thinking it is okay and sometimes necessary to spank a child;13,14
however, such findings tend to vary demographically with approval being highest in the South15
and among Blacks,16
persons with lower socioeconomic status (SES) and education18
, and persons who experienced CP as a child.19,20
Such a link, however, has been more equivocal among adults that were physically or psychologically abused as children.16,19,21
Primary prevention of violence requires a careful assessment of potential root causes that are both significant and malleable. Having a positive attitude toward the use of CP is consistently one of the strongest predictors of CP use22–27
and, based on declines of CP approval in other countries, it is clear that such attitudes are malleable.28,29
Yet, little attention has been paid to understanding specific modifiable predictors of these attitudes, particularly those set in the social environment.
The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)30
suggests that perceived social norms regarding CP use might be such a predictor. Social norms can be injunctive (indicating approval of a behavior, or what persons ought to do) or descriptive (indicating prevalence of a behavior, or what most persons actually do).31
Empirical studies focused on behaviors such as speeding,32
and classroom aggression34
suggest that both types of perceived norms might have roles in shaping beliefs and behaviors. Importantly, such subjective assessments of the social environment might be just as or even more important than objective assessments in shaping parenting.35
Thus, while objective, community-level measures of the social environment have been linked with harsh or abusive parenting (e.g., neighborhood poverty,36
concentrated disadvantage, and murder rate statistics),37
subjective measures of related social contexts, such as parents’ perceptions of neighborhood danger, lack of adequate public services,36
or their normative environment regarding CP, might also be important in shaping parenting attitudes and choices. The latter will be the focus of the present study.
TPB and prior evidence also suggest that parents’ expectations for outcomes of CP use and for their children are linked with attitudes toward and use of CP. Persons less inclined to think that CP could lead to physical harm are likely to have more positive attitudes toward CP use.19
And mothers that expect CP to result in positive child outcomes, such as immediate compliance and long-term learning, but not in negative child outcomes, such as child distress, spank more frequently.38
Unfortunately, many adults have expectations for their children that are inappropriate to the child’s age,39
and this can impact parents’ disciplinary choices. For example, one study found that parental attributions about their children’s cognitive and behavioral competence and responsibility for negative actions were associated with parents having more approval of power-assertive child discipline and less approval of reasoning and explaining.40
Thus, parents that expect positive outcomes for CP and that have unrealistically high expectations for their children might be inclined toward approval and use of CP.
The current study aims to add to the literature by using the TPB and a social ecological framework to uncover modifiable predictors of parents’ positive attitudes toward CP, with a particular focus on examining the importance of perceived social norms regarding CP. A social ecological framework41
suggests that multiple levels of the social environment are likely to influence parenting and childhood risk.42
Prior research on social norms and CP has focused on the potential modifying
effects of descriptive norms regarding CP43,44
and perceived neighborhood social cohesion45
on the link between CP use or harsh parenting and poor outcomes, such as aggression, in children. The present study, however, examines parents’ perceived injunctive and descriptive norms regarding CP use as possible predictors
of parents’ own attitudes toward CP use. In particular, we asked parents about 2 types of injunctive norms regarding CP: those that they perceived from professionals they sought advice from about child discipline, and those that they perceived from close family and friends. We also asked about the descriptive norms they perceived about CP within their social network of parents.
The primary aim of this study then was to examine associations between these perceived injunctive and descriptive norms regarding CP use, along with parental outcome expectancies of CP use and knowledge of child development, and having positive attitudes toward CP. As a secondary aim, we conducted these analyses controlling for a multitude of important demographic constructs known to be linked with attitudes toward and use of CP, including family structure; SES; religiosity; aggression in the family of origin; and child characteristics, particularly age and gender. This survey was conducted among an urban, population-based sample of parents with the intent of informing community interventions designed to shift social contexts associated with approval and use of CP.