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Frustrated White Dads Are Starting to Spank Their Kids

Insecure middle-class parents may believe they're preparing their kids for life's harsh realities. But in reality, they're just being harsh.

White parents who feel like they’re getting screwed by the economy are more likely to spank their children, compared to white parents who are doing better financially, and parents of different races. The findings, recently presented at the annual conference of the Society for Social Work and Research in San Francisco, suggest that moms and dads who perceive their standing in society to be lower are more likely to engage in authoritarian parenting practices such as corporal punishment.

“Compared with the highest earners, whites who perceived themselves to be members of the lower or working class were 25 percent more likely to agree that ‘a good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary’ than similarly set black parents,” William Schneider, a University of Illinois social work professor who conducted the research, said in a statement.

As many as 70 percent of parents agree that spanking is sometimes necessary, and prior to the mid-1980s, that figure was over 80 percent. There are a number of factors that may influence mothers’ and fathers’ views on hitting children for the sake of discipline. Spanking is more common amongst born-again Christians, Republicans, people who live in the south, and black parents, research shows. However, as economic insecurity increases for working-class Americans, there’s evidence that white parents may be closing the gap and taking off their belts in record numbers. One recent study of mothers in the 2007 recession found that those who viewed themselves as more economically insecure were far more prone to abusing their children.

To get a better idea of how economic inequality might impact parents’ views on obedience, punishment, and spanking, Schneider and colleagues analyzed the responses of 6,450 parents who participated in the U.S. General Social Survey —  a massive survey that has been going strong since 1986. Between questions about income, education, and perceived social status, one question on the GSS asks whether adults think that a “good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child.”

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Compared to families in the highest income bracket, parents in the middle were 25 percent more likely to condone spanking, the data suggests. Parents’ perceptions about their social standing and economic well-being were even stronger predictors of authoritarian parenting, but only for white parents. “When we looked at subjective inequality, we also found that the racial differences became quite stark,” Schneider said. “White parents who perceived themselves as working class or lower class were much more likely to approve of authoritarian child-rearing practices than black parents who viewed themselves similarly.”

Scheiner suspects that this might be a result of a growing fear among working-class and lower-class moms and dads about their children being left behind by today’s economy unless they’re disciplined harshly. If so, that would be tragic—because studies have shown that children who are spanked or hit for discipline are at a greater risk of becoming aggressive, violent adults.

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“Despite some personal hardships, these families may have weathered the recession OK, but the overwhelming sense that things were going badly had the greatest influence on spanking and harsh treatment of children in general,” Schneider said. “How we interpret our lived experiences versus the objective reality of our finances is really important.”