Children spanked when they were as young as 15 months old displayed negative temperament and were less likely to show positive behaviors in the fifth grade and even into their teenage years, researchers at the University of Missouri say. The finding was vastly more pronounced in African-American children than those of European origin.
“How parents treat their children at a young age … significantly impacts their behavior,” says Gustavo Carlo, a study co-author who is a Milsapp professor of diversity at the university and director of its center for family policy and research. “It is very important that parents refrain from physical punishment as it can have long-lasting impacts. If we want to nurture positive behaviors, all parents should teach a child how to regulate their behaviors early,”
Past research has indicated physical punishment can have negative consequences on children’s development, but previous studies only examined short-term impacts.
In the new study published in Developmental Psychology late last month, Carlo’s team analyzed data from 1,840 mothers and children who were at or below the federal poverty level and identified as either of European or African descent. Information was collected when children were about 15 months old, 25 months old and in the fifth grade. Researchers used surveys of mothers and children, home visits and interviews with fifth-grade teachers to complete the study.
Long-term effects of severe discipline, such as increased aggressive and delinquent behaviors, were only found in African-American children, according to the study. Previous research, however, has shown short-term negative effects for children of all races and ethnicities. Carlo says that disparity might be tied to more frequent and more severe disciplining of the African-American children involved in the study.
Parenting expert Carole Lieberman, who authored Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror says physical discipline is bad for any child and wonders if the parents of European-descent children involved in the study were less forthcoming with how much physical discipline they used.
“With each spanking, children experience physical pain as well as emotional pain as a sign that their parents don’t love them,” she says. “Spanking conveys a message to them that they are not good. It causes them to become aggressive later on in their lives.”
Carlo stressed the study does not suggest that the use of physical disciplining automatically means any child exposed to spanking or other physical discipline will end up maladjusted. However, this research, along with the majority of existing studies, highlight the use of such practices significantly increases the likelihood of problems later in life.
“If we think about child development as a jigsaw puzzle where many things are affecting our kids, this is one piece of the puzzle that increases the chances of negative child outcomes,” he said. “As a parent, it is worth considering whether it is worth the risk, especially when there are many other alternatives available.”
Alternative techniques to discipline children include time outs, distractions, removing them from the situation, moral conversations and loss of privileges, Carlo says. While physical punishment and yelling are both relatively bad for children, verbal discipline might not be so harmful if done in a controlled manner that relays a message that the child’s behavior is unacceptable.
Psychologists have known for many years that physical punishment is detrimental to the development of children and this study provides further evidence for that relationship, says Brian Johnson, Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Northern Colorado and Co-author of WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression.
“Physical discipline, including spanking, is associated with increased aggressive behavior and lower self-esteem in children,” he says. “Spanking models for children that using aggression is fine when one is upset, or has a conflict.”
Parents often resort to spanking because they see quick changes in their children’s behavior. Unfortunately, Johnsonsays, any positive behavior changes are seldom long-lasting, while the detrimental effects on behavioral and emotional health can be.
“Spanking suppresses behavior quickly, but does not change it,” he says. “Spanking also increases a child’s anger, resentment, and desire to get revenge.”