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Study Suggests Spanked Infants Grow Up To Be Troubled Fifth Graders

Physical punishments during infancy set kids up for a decade of problem.

Spanking your kids is a bad idea. Studies have shown that spanking tends to be counterproductive and, rather than teaching children a lesson, makes them more likely to display aggressive, antisocial, and violent behaviors. But that’s in the short term. Now, one of the first studies on how spanking impacts minority children suggests that African American kids who are spanked at 15-months are more likely to show signs of aggressive and delinquent behavior by the time they reach the fifth grade, and less likely to display positive behaviors such as helping their peers.

“There are no previous studies of the long-term impact of parenting and temperament in African American kids,” coauthor on the study Gustavo Carlo of the University of Missouri told Fatherly. “The comparison provides a broader context to understand the relative importance of parenting and child temperament on child outcomes from different cultural backgrounds.” Given that this study suggest the link between parenting temperament and race may be be related, Carlo says, the findings could have important implications for developing interventions.

father disciplines toddler

A 2016 meta-analysis, consisting of 50 years worth of spanking studies and 160,927 children, likely sparked the recent rise in spanking research. In that analysis, researchers found that kids who were spanked displayed a host of detrimental behaviors, including cognitive difficulties, aggression, and antisocial tendencies. Since then, researchers have published prospective studies confirming this link. More recently, an international study found that young adults across Europe, Asia, and North America are more likely to show antisocial tendencies if they were spanked as kids.

Carlo and his colleagues were acutely aware prior work, and the fact that low-income parents and racial minorities are quicker to spank. A mixture of social surveys and census data points to southerners, born-again Christians, and African Americans being least likely to spare the rod, and African Americans are disproportionately religious and southern. Call it a corporal punishment double-whammy. Carlo suspected that black parents may invest in harsher disciplinary measures because of negative cultural experiences. “African American parents might use more severity as a means to protect their children whom they might believe are in greater danger from discrimination and racism due to their race,” he says. Indeed, Stacy Patton, author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, echoes Carlo’s sentiments. “We were always a problem described by the larger white world, and our parents internalized those messages, and you could see them come out in the way they parented us from a place of fear,” she told Slate

To confirm this, Carlo and colleagues looked at data from 960 white and 880 black mother-child cohorts. Mothers were interviewed about their children’s behaviors, and the disciplinary actions taken when their kids were 15 months, 25 months, and in the fifth grade. Results showed that African American kids who were spanked at 15 months were more likely to show signs of aggressive and delinquent behavior by the time they reached the fifth grade, and less likely to display positive behaviors, such as helping their peers. However, Carlo says that this is likely because African American parents were, overall, more likely to mete out harsh punishments. “The greater impact on African American kids could simply be due to the greater severity of their parents’ discipline practices,” he says. Since both samples were from low-income parents, any differences were likely not due to variations in socioeconomic status.

Spanking at 15 months did not predict negative behaviors in white kids. Instead, the best predictor of delinquent behavior in this group was irritability during infancy. (This was also a predictor of delinquent behavior in black kids, but black kids were more likely to be spanked for their irritability). Meanwhile, both black and white kids were less likely to act-out if they learned effective coping mechanisms as infants. “We did not find that severity of discipline was related to children’s self-regulation,” Carlo says. “Instead, children’s temperament predicted their self-regulation.”