Race and Spanking in the US: A Spank is a Spank is a Spank

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Yes, it is no secret how we at child-psych.org feel about spanking.  Nestor and I have both posted on it before.  Still, there remain arguments that spanking is less detrimental for children when cultural context is taken into account.  That is, if spanking is more acceptable and part of the norm within a certain cultural group, then the negative behavioral fallout from spanking is lessened.  Gershoff and colleagues recently published a study in the journal Child Development and their findings suggest that this argument is bunk.

The researchers used data from a nationally representative sample of over 11,000 children gathered in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study’s Kindergarten Cohort of 1998-1999.  Children included in the study were from one of four racial groups: White/Non-Hispanic, Hispanic, Black/Non-Hispanic, and Asian.  Using data from both kindergarten and third grade for the students, they collected information on spanking, child externalizing behaviors (e.g., arguing and fighting), and parent background (e.g., family income-to-needs, parent education, marital status, and employment status).

Information gathered at kindergarten showed that most mothers (80%) spanked their child at some point, but only 27% reported currently spanking their child.  Fifteen percent of mothers reported spanking their third grade child.  At both points in time, Black mothers reported significantly more frequent spanking than any of the other mothers.  Hispanic moms were more likely to spank during kindergarten than White and Asian moms.  Teacher reports showed that acting out was highest at both kindergarten and third grade for Black students.  White and Hispanic children acted out more than Asian children in third grade.

After controlling for a whole bunch of variables (e.g., child gender and age, family income and size, parent education, marital status, parent employment status, and race), the researchers found that early spanking predicted more externalizing behavior over time regardless of the child’s race.  And here’s an additional interesting outcome: increased acting out predicted more spanking.  So we have a spank-act out-spank-act out cycle.  In other words, the very behaviors that parents try to squelch with spanking increase with spanking and the impulse can be to, you guessed it, spank more!

It is worth speaking further on the findings for Black children in this study.  There is absolutely no refuting the fact that corporal punishment served as a survival technique for African Americans during earlier times in our society.  To not keep one’s child in line could literally lead to far harsher punishment and/or death at the hands of the slave-owner and under the not so distant Jim Crow laws.  It is more than understandable that African American parents would have done anything and everything to protect their children in this type of society.

What we know now, however, is that the desire to immediately put behavior in check through spanking appears to have an unwanted effect over time.  The very behaviors that parents want to end increase instead.  Old habits and doing as we were raised to do are hard to change, very hard to change.  No matter what your race is, it looks like it’s both time and worth it.  What, you may ask, in the heck do we do instead?  You can start with poking around the How To section on the site and see if something strikes a chord.  And please let me know if there is something else that you would like to see.  Post your questions and open up important dialogue with other parents.

Thanks for reading.  –Anita

Source:  Gershoff ET, Lansford JE, Sexton HR, Davis-Kean P, & Sameroff AJ (2012). Longitudinal Links Between Spanking and Childrens Externalizing Behaviors in a National Sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Families. Child development, 83 (3), 838-43 PMID: 22304526