Behavior Trouble May Follow Early Spanking
Some toddlers who are often spanked appear to be more likely to have behavioral problems when they get older, researchers report.
Some toddlers who are often spanked appear to be more likely to have behavioral problems when they get older, researchers report. In a new study, behavior problems at school age were substantially more common in white non-Hispanic children who were spanked frequently before age 2 than among those who were not spanked very often. In contrast, there was not a significant association between early spanking and behavior problems in African-American and Hispanic children, according to a report in the journal Pediatrics. The study is just another piece in the larger puzzle of the effect of spanking on children, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Eric P. Slade at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “There is nothing in this study that says it is spanking per se that led to later behavior problems in white children,” Slade said in an interview with Reuters Health. “The context within the family where spanking takes place probably influences its effect on kids,” Slade said. If there is a lot of tension within a family or if a child has persistent anger directed at him or her, “then spanking might have more of an effect,” Slade said. There is little research on the effect of spanking on children younger than 2, but Slade and his colleagues were concerned that spanking could be riskier for younger children than for older children. Before age 2, children have a relatively limited ability to understand what punishment is about and to follow directions, Slade explained. “It may be more traumatic for them to be spanked at that age.” Children form their sense of security with their parents before age 2, so another concern was that spanking could interfere with this, Slade said. He noted that children who feel more secure at an early age are less likely to have emotional and behavior problems later in childhood. In the study, Slade and his colleagues followed more than 2,000 children younger than 2 years old until they started school about 4 years later. Parents were interviewed about their spanking habits and their children’s behavior. Among white non-Hispanic white children, frequency of spanking was a factor. For example, white non-Hispanic children who had been spanked five times in a week before age 2 were about four times more likely to have a behavior problem at school that required a parent-teacher meeting. Among Hispanics and African Americans, however, this kind of association was not apparent. The researchers took into account several factors that could have affected the results, including family income and the sex of the child, as well as the mother’s educational level and marital status. One possible explanation is that spanking may be more widely accepted among African Americans, meaning that black children and their parents may be less likely to view spanking as harsh, the researchers suggest. Whatever the explanation for the racial and ethnic differences, Slade noted, “There is lots of variation among families within groups.” He also noted that any harmful effects of spanking in African Americans and Hispanic may have been “washed out” by other factors that the researchers did not take into account. “Parents are the best judges” of whether they are balancing their children’s well-being and safety with the need to enforce rule and standards of behavior, according to Slade. If a parent becomes concerned that punishment is beginning to dominate in a family, “that’s a red flag,” Slade said. Parents who are worried about their child’s behavior should speak to a physician or a mental health care provider, he advised. (SOURCE: Pediatrics: Reuters Health News: May 2004.)