Photo courtesy of Sheena Rice
Lead researcher Gustavo Carlo explains recent study on effects of physical discipline on children.
A new study finds that “spare the rod and spoil the child,” may not hold up in the lab as well as it does in the Bible. The University of Missouri study
concluded that physical discipline, including spanking, of infants can have negative consequences on their outcomes even ten years down the line. However, these effects differed between European American and African American children.
The current research builds upon past studies regarding physical discipline on children, according to Gustavo Carlo, a lead researcher on the study and professor of diversity at University of Missouri.
“I think we know in general that the use of physical punishment and harsh parenting seems to be detrimental to children’s development,” Carlo says. “But we don't know enough about what the long-term consequences of that are.”
The study analyzed data from 1,840 low-income parents and children enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. The study tested the degree to which three main factors — severity of discipline, temperament and self-regulation — contributed to negative outcomes later in life.
The impact of harsh discipline, the study found, was very real for African-American children. Those who experienced severe punishment at fifteen months were more likely to exhibit increased aggressive and delinquent behaviors in the fifth grade. They were also less likely to show positive behaviors, such as helping others.
For European-American children, there was no clear link. Instead, among those children, temperament was a bigger predictor of negative outcomes.
The study looked at children over years. When the children were fifteen months old, the researchers collected the first two pieces of data — the child’s temperament and the parents’ discipline level — from each family. To measure temperament they used a common and well-validated scale, according to Carlo, asking parents about their child’s negative emotions and irritability. To measure severity, parents completed a survey with parent-child conflict scenarios. They were asked to explain how they would react if, for example, their child threw a temper tantrum in public. These responses were coded and categorized on a scale of one to five, with level-1 parents reacting by distracting the child, for example, and level-5 parents using physical punishment.
“Even though these are hypothetical situations, the measures are well-validated enough to let us know that this is likely how they would actually respond if their own child threw a temper tantrum,” Carlo says. “These measures are also getting at the parents’ beliefs on how acceptable the use of physical discipline is.”
The third factor, self-regulation, was measured when the children were 25 months. This measure determines how well a child copes with frustration, change and conflict — helping connect the dots between early biological and environmental factors and negative outcomes down the line.
“We thought, what might help us explain why these early characteristics are linked to these outcomes?” Carlo says. “One possible mechanism is, maybe temperament and physical discipline are affecting the child’s ability to self-regulate, and that, in turn, is affecting these outcomes.”
Nine years later researchers learned a peculiar truth: children of European American descent were more negatively affected by temperament. Children of African American descent were more negatively affected by whether they'd been harshly disciplined.
When the children were in fifth grade, researchers collected the final pieces of data. To measure negative outcomes, they asked parents to report about their child’s aggression level, and they asked children to report any delinquent activities they’d gotten into. To measure positive outcomes, each child’s teachers reported his or her level of compliance and also his "pro-social behavior," or how spontaneously helpful he is. Receiving these different measures from different sources helped develop an accurate record of each child, according to Carlo.
Researchers felt it was important to measure both positive and negative outcomes, because these two are not always two sides of the same coin.
“There are kids who are both high in aggressive behaviors, for example, but also very helpful,” Carlo says. “A good example is gang members. Gang members are very altruistic, but only towards members of their own gang.”
While previous studies show that severe discipline facilitates higher levels of negative outcomes, they don’t necessarily demonstrate that severe discipline reduces positive outcomes.
Photo courtesy of Sheena Rice
Lead researcher Gustavo Carlo
“Because in the end that’s what we all want to see from our kids,” Carlo says. “Of course we don’t want our kids to be violent or aggressive, but we also want more than that. We want our kids to be happy, well socially-adjusted and helpful.”
Though Carlo can only speculate, he believes the racial disparity in the study's results could come from a variety of factors.
For one, researchers noticed that African American parents, in general, reported more severe discipline than their European American peers.
“Perhaps there is some sort of tipping point, or some level where the effects of severe discipline sort of overwhelm the effects of the child’s temperament,” Carlo says. “So because African American parents seem to report more and higher use of severe discipline than European American parents, maybe it just has a stronger effect, and that effect may be overwhelming the temperament of African American children.”
It’s also possible, according to Carlo, that physical discipline is more normative among African Americans, and this belief could be reinforced in other aspects of children’s social environment.
“When you’re talking about African American parents and kids, there may be additional dangers and risks that are race-related like exposure to discrimination and racism,” Carlo says. “This might make it even more important for those parents to be more strict and discipline more severely.”
In addition, because this is the first long-term study in this subject, it’s possible that severe discipline does negatively effect European American children, but those effects are not sustained over time, as the study found for African American children.
“We don’t have the ability to answer with certainty why we found these effects,” Carlo says.
Though the negative effects of physical discipline were most prominent among African American children, Carlo doesn’t recommend any parents use it. He also encourages new school policies, laws and educational programs to deter the use of physical discipline.
“There are no studies that show benefits from it and we see time and time again the negative consequences,” Carlo says. “Why risk it?”