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.
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 stated.
"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
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,
SOURCE: Pediatrics, May 2004.
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