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 Children’s Externalizing Behaviors in a National Sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Families. Child development, 83 (3), 838-43 PMID: 22304526

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6 Responses to Race and Spanking in the US: A Spank is a Spank is a Spank

  1. Myron G. says:

    Nice post… we always hear about opposition to spanking, and I’ve always thought it was just people trying to politically correct. I find it very interesting that there is evidence to suggest that spanking does more harm than good. Nice article.

  2. Here are some more questions for people to consider, because the controls in this study certainly are not exhaustive. 1. Did the researchers control for mood of parent when spanking 2. They conclude that negative behaviors are more likely in kids who were spanked. What percentage of them? 60? 70? 80? HOW likely the effect is to occur also gives us some insight into how strong a conclusion can be made. Anita you make a valid point about history and the African-American population, but something to consider there is that the “greater consequence” issue is still there for a lot of parents because they live in noxious environments. Children are not statistics. Just as much caution should be used in applying the results of these studies as should be used in spanking a child. Here is more on my take: http://www.drkwamebrown.com/spanking/

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Thank you for your comments, Kwame. Points well taken. As with any research, there are limitations. My goal in writing these posts is always to get the wheels turning, to think about things critically whether or not we agree with research or positions on an issue. I certainly urge people to take a good hard look at their use of spanking and see if they are getting positive outcomes…and if they are, then take that a step further and see if they might get those same positive outcomes without hitting their kids, even when they do so with the calm and love that you mention. I thank you specifically for responding to my statement about historical spanking-for-survival patterns within the African American community and going further to state that many African American children are still spanked by parents in the hopes of keeping them safe in hostile environments.

  3. Dr. Kwame M. Brown’s question on “mood” of parents when spanking is the very same question I had when I started spanking my 2 daughters- eldest is now 25 years old and youngest is 16 years old. For me, clarity in terminology should be expressed when you speak of corporal punishment- spanking is 3 quick swats on the bottom. It is the attention getter. I then talk with them telling what the behavioral issue was that got the attention getter, why that behavior is not acceptable and I give 2 positive choices/behaviors that can be used. I spanked for each child less than 5 times a year. I never spanked in anger. I would tell them to go sit on sofa not go to their rooms (too many things for them to play with in distracting their minds). After the positive redirection, I would ask them if they understood what I said and to repeat it. If they could repeat the gist of what I stated, I knew they “listened” (taking it into the brain) to what I said and not just “heard”(skim over) me. I am an advocate of “1,2,3 Magic” as well. I know from experience “time out” doesn’t work.
    I am a 37+9 Black mom.

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Ms. Teague, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It sounds like you had a comprehensive approach to disciplining your children and placed great value on the teaching component. When our kids internalize our messages, that is when they begin to understand how and why to act/interact. I do feel the need to say a little something on time-out. I am wondering if it might help to reframe “time out doesn’t work” as “time-out, in the way that I tried it with my two children specifically, wasn’t effective.” There are many parents, including myself, that find it very useful when it is implemented with compassion rather than anger in the way that I outlined in a previous How To post. Just as you mentioned in your response, we have to be clear about how we define our responses to misbehavior. Time-out is not meant to be punitive (or entertaining, thank you for that clarification!), but rather a way to get calm, shift gears, and move toward a place of being able to process what happened and how to learn from it.

      • Lydie Griffiths says:

        Hello, Some studies suggest that when spanking is part of a discipline strategy and, therefore, not used impulsively and with low level of emotions such as anger or frustration, it would be less used than when parents are in psychological distress. Also, when used as part as a discipline strategy, spanking would be less associated with adverse child outcomes such as aggression and anxiety (Dieter-Deckard & Dodge, 1997; McLoyd & Smith, 2002; in McLoyd, Kaplan, Hardaway, Wood, 2004). Besides, the use of spanking impulsively, as opposed to a controlled way would make children perceive that they have less control over when and how they are spanked, leading to feelings of helplessness and a decline in their sense of self worth.
        Both controlled and impulsive/hostile physical discipline would be positively correlated with child depressive symptoms, however the variable frequency is not taken into account (?).
        Baumrind (1997) would have defined spanking as striking the child on the buttocks or extremities with an opened hand without inflicting physical injury. However, even without causing physical injury, the spanking can prove extremly painful for the child even when the adult seems to think that they have not been harsh.
        Lydie Griffiths, undergraduate Psychology student, Glyndwr University, North Wales.

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