A complicated issue raised by recent meta-analyses is whether the robust associations that have been reported between corporal punishment and children’s externalizing behavior (see Gershoff, 2002
) are generalizable to both harsh and mild spanking, or whether these associations are accounted for primarily by harsher forms of spanking. For example, Baumrind et al. (2002)
have argued that spanking with objects is more akin to physical abuse, and that inclusion of this harsh form of spanking accounts for the positive relation between corporal punishment and externalizing that has been reported in the literature. Baumrind et al. hypothesized that “ordinary” physical punishment (i.e., spanking with an open hand at a frequency of less than once a week) would not be associated with increases in child externalizing. To test this hypothesis, the current study took two approaches. First, we used a three-wave design to examine differences in externalizing behavior among children who had not been spanked, who had experienced mild spanking (with a hand less than once a week), or who had experienced harsh spanking (with an object or with a hand once a week or more), controlling for prior externalizing. Children who had experienced harsh spanking had significantly higher levels of mother-reported externalizing than did children who had experienced no spanking or mild spanking, but children who had experienced mild spanking did not differ in mother-reported externalizing from children who had experienced no spanking, providing some support for Baumrind’s claim. Second, we examined the relation between mild spanking and externalizing in a subset of families in which children were never spanked with objects from age 6 to age 8. In addition, these children were either never spanked with a hand or were spanked at a mean rate of less than once a week across the three assessment years. We found that mild spanking was related to concurrent and prior mother-reported externalizing but not to subsequent externalizing. Results from this study support the general findings from a vast body of research that there is a positive relation between corporal punishment and child externalizing (e.g., Gershoff, 2002
), including findings from longitudinal work that controlled for Time 1 externalizing and demonstrated increases by Time 2 among children who are corporally punished (Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997
). However, as argued by Baumrind et al. (2002)
, the findings also suggest that the prospective links may be driven largely by harsher forms of spanking.
When teacher-reported externalizing rather than mother-reported externalizing was examined, the findings did not suggest links between mild or harsh spanking and child externalizing behaviors. Mothers’ and teachers’ reports of child externalizing were correlated significantly in each year (r
= .29, .33, and .36 at child age 6, 7, and 8, respectively, all p
< .001), and would be interpreted as medium-sized effects in Cohen’s (1988)
terms. These correlations between mothers’ and teachers’ reports are comparable to others that have been reported in the literature. Notably, Achenbach and Rescorla (2001)
reported an average correlation of .36 between mothers’ reports on the CBCL and teachers’ reports on the TRF externalizing scales, the same measures used in the current study. This moderate (rather than high) degree of consistency across informants might be expected given that mothers and teachers are reporting about children’s behaviors in different contexts (at home versus in school), and mothers and teachers have different reference points (e.g., teachers likely implicitly compare a given child’s behavior to the behavior of other students in the child’s class). Correlations between mothers’ and fathers’ reports of children’s externalizing problems are generally higher than correlations between mothers’ and teachers’ reports (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2001
). Neither parents’ nor teachers’ reports should be interpreted as being more accurate or “true” than the other (Thomas, Forehand, Armistead, Wierson, & Fauber, 1990
). Other research also has found stronger links between spanking and mothers’ reports of children’s externalizing problems than teachers’ reports of children’s externalizing (e.g., Larzelere & Kuhn, 2005
), perhaps in part because mothers are more likely to spank their children if they perceive the children as having externalizing problems. In the present study, two additional factors could have accounted for the differences in findings depending on whether mothers or teachers reported on child externalizing. First, mothers were the sole reporters of spanking, introducing same source bias when their reports of spanking were examined in relation to mother-reported externalizing. Second, a different teacher reported on child externalizing in each year, introducing an additional source of variability in the teacher reports of externalizing than in the mother reports.
Interestingly, the majority of mothers who reported spanking their children did not fit the criteria for mild spanking suggested by Baumrind et al. (2002)
. Instead, when their children were 6 and 8 years old, more than half of mothers who spanked used objects or, if they spanked with their hand, did so at a frequency of once a week or more. One risk of using any form of corporal punishment is that it will escalate into harsher forms in coercive cycles between parents and children (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992
). Indeed, our analyses revealed that compared to no spanking, mild spanking in a given year conferred a 50% increase in risk of harsh spanking in the next year.
During this period of middle childhood when even researchers who endorse the use of spanking with toddlers become more concerned with possibly negative effects of corporal punishment (Larzelere, 2000
), most mothers continued to spank their children. When children were 6 and 7 years old, fewer than 20 percent of mothers reported that they had not spanked their child in the last year; by age 8, fewer than 30 percent of mothers reported that they had not spanked their child in the last year. Thus, the majority of mothers continued to spank their children, and the majority of those who continued to spank used objects.
Behavioral genetics studies generally find that a proportion of the variance in externalizing behaviors in adults and children can be accounted for by genetic factors (e.g., Arsenealut et al., 2003; Hicks, Krueger, Iacono, McGue, & Patrick, 2004
; Moffitt, 2005
; Rhee & Waldman, 2002
). However, the present study, like most of the research on child externalizing, did not control for the effects of genetic influences on child externalizing or for genetic influences on parental spanking. Moffitt (2005)
argues that research on the effects of “bad parenting” (p. 535) on antisocial behavior has rarely controlled for genetic influences on children’s aggression, genetic influences on “bad parenting” itself, a passive correlation between “bad parenting” and children’s aggression, or an evocative correlation between children’s aggression and “bad parenting.” Even studies using genetically informative designs have found that parenting matters (Burt, McGue, Krueger, & Iacono, 2005
; Stams, Juffer, & van IJzendoorn, 2002
). Future research will benefit from attempts to understand more fully how genetic and parental influences interact to shape children’s externalizing behavior.
As children increase their levels of externalizing behaviors, parents respond by increasing the frequency of their spanking, resulting in parent-child reciprocal transactions over time (e.g., Anderson, Lytton, & Romney, 1986
; Bell, 1979
; Lansford et al., 2011
; Lytton, 1990
). In our cross-lagged analyses, children’s externalizing behavior at age 6 predicted mothers’ use of mild spanking at age 7, and children’s externalizing at age 7 predicted mothers’ use of mild spanking at age 8, even after taking into account the stability of both externalizing and mild spanking over time. This finding adds to the growing literature on reciprocal models of socialization (Pettit & Arsiwalla, 2008
). In addition, the links between mild spanking in one year and externalizing in the next year were not significant. Although caution is always warranted in interpreting null effects, this finding suggests that mild spanking is not decreasing children’s subsequent externalizing behavior. Most parents who spank their children probably intend for the spanking to decrease future behavior problems; therefore, our findings suggest that spanking is most likely not having its main intended effect of decreasing subsequent externalizing.
Limitations and Future Directions
There were a number of limitations in this study. We examined child gender, ethnicity, family SES, family stress, mothers’ marital status, and mothers’ age as potential covariates, but the findings did not change substantively when these variables were included in the analyses. It is possible that other unexamined variables might have accounted for the pattern of findings. For example, although child externalizing is likely to be associated with spanking by both mothers and fathers, only mothers’ spanking was assessed in this study. Future research would benefit from including fathers’ reports of the child’s experience of spanking as well as fathers’ reports of children’s externalizing behaviors to help shed light on whether links between spanking and children’s externalizing generalize to different informants reporting about the child’s behavior at home but less so to school, versus being more idiosyncratic to mothers’ reports of the child’s externalizing. The spanking questions used a one-year timeframe, which has the possibility to introduce recall or recency biases if mothers did not recall accurately how frequently they spanked through the whole year and relied on a more recent time period. Furthermore, mothers were the only source of information about their spanking, and their reports might represent underreports of how much spanking children actually experienced, both because mothers may have underreported their own spanking due to social desirability concerns and because mothers may not have been aware of times when children were spanked by fathers or others.
Although the focus of this study was on examining relations between different forms of spanking and externalizing, different forms of spanking may have different effects on other behavioral outcomes as well. For example, severe forms of spanking (e.g., with objects) and less severe forms of spanking may have a different relation with anxiety or depression in childhood. Severe corporal punishment may be more of a risk factor than less severe forms for adult psychopathology. In addition, little is known about how severe versus less severe forms of corporal punishment may affect the parent-child relationship or how they may affect other relationships.
Finally, although questions still remain about the relation between corporal punishment and child externalizing, parents, policymakers, and practitioners who work with families are increasingly calling into question whether corporal punishment should ever be used, regardless of how it is related to children’s externalizing behavior. In the approximately 20 years since the spanking data in this study were collected, societal attitudes about spanking have been changing. During the same time period data for this study were being collected, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was introduced and ratified by all except two members of the United Nations (Somalia, which has announced plans to ratify the CRC, and the United States; United Nations, 1989
). The CRC asserts children’s right to protection from all forms of harsh treatment (including corporal punishment) and has become a major organizing framework in discussions regarding spanking of children (Jones & Welch, 2010
; Pinheiro, 2006
; United Nations, 1989
). Furthermore, the CRC has spawned an international study of violence against children (Pinheiro, 2006
), as well as many intervention efforts aimed at reducing or eliminating parents’ use of any forms of corporal punishment (see Lansford & Bornstein, 2007
). Thus, spanking has increasingly become an ethical and moral issue, not just a scientific one.
Despite these changes in attitudes about spanking in the global community, there is less evidence that American parents’ rates of spanking are changing. In interpreting the findings from the present study, we acknowledge the potential limitation of drawing on data that may be dated, given the study’s reliance on data collected from mothers of children who started kindergarten in 1987 or 1988. Nevertheless, spanking clearly remains a widespread practice among American parents today. For example, in a nationally representative sample of 11,044 children who started kindergarten in 1998 (10-11 years after the children in the present study started kindergarten), 80% of mothers reported that the kindergarten children had been spanked at some point (Gershoff, Lansford, Sexton, Davis-Kean, & Sameroff, in press), a number that closely matches the proportion of mothers who reported spanking in the current study. In data collected from 2008-2009, 37% of American mothers reported that their 7- to 10-year-old children had been corporally punished in the last month alone (Lansford et al., in press).