Parents who feel economically challenged are more likely to use harsh physical discipline tactics, including spanking, according to new research conducted at the University of Illinois. Data from the headline-grabbing study draws a causal line between economic security and corporal punishment. Parents who feel economically insecure are more likely to impose a harsh disciplinary regime and to spank their kids. This is a remarkable social scientific finding, but perhaps not a shock to parents, for whom the study likely confirms a common suspicion: The economic reality of modern American life is making it harder for parents to keep their cool.
The researchers’ findings come from data collected from parents who participated in the U.S. General Social Survey from 1986 to 2016. The GSS was established in the 1970s by the University of Chicago to determine Americans attitudes on a range of social and political issues. In this case, researchers looked at data from nearly 6,500 parents and found that a perception of being lower class led parents, and white parents, in particular, to be 25 percent more likely to deem a “good hard spanking” necessary for discipline.
Importantly, it wasn’t the actual income or wealth of the parents that mattered. It was their perception of their financial security. It was not empirical. It was emotional. Feeling economically challenged is stressful. Stress shortens tempers and erodes rational thinking. And when it comes to finances, there’s plenty for parents to be stressed about.
Many parents arrive at parenthood saddled with student loan debt close to $30,000 each parent. If they plan to raise a family in a home, they are looking at a median home price of around $119,000 which represents a price increase that has far outpaced inflation. Additionally, parents will need to take care of healthcare at an average annual cost of over $10,000. None of this is even taking into account groceries, leisure, and home and school expenses for children.
The rising cost of raising a family has had the effect of forcing both parents into the workplace whether they like it or not. That doesn’t help much, considering wages have been consistently flat. But this comes with its own additional expenses, chief among them is childcare which, depending on where a parent lives can cost as much as $30,000 per year. This places parents in what’s known as the two-income trap. There is less flexibility to tap income potential in case of emergency because both parents are already working. It’s no wonder then that most American families would have a tough time coming up with $400 at a moment’s notice for an emergency.
And when the wallet of average American parents is that empty, it’s hard to remain magnanimous when children sound or act entitled or ungrateful. Parents who are already invested in making sure their family can survive often feel so emotionally tapped, they have nothing left to invest parenting. Yelling and spanking become a default. It is easier. It leads to immediate, if temporary, results.
But the problem is that kind of parenting does not help a child succeed. After all, consider the recent resolution by the American Psychological Association which notes that corporal punishment leads to poor psychological outcomes for children.
The link to an increased likelihood for spanking was most pronounced for white communities in the University of Illinois study. But notably, the communities where harsh physical punishment remains entrenched also have a tendency to be disadvantaged. For instance, social researches often point out the persistence of spanking in both rural communities and urban black communities. So the finding of the University of Illinois study may also reflect a culture common to the less well off.
So, if we want to help parents be better parents, and thus improve children’s lives significantly, we can’t act as if parenting is a closed system crafted by the values of a mother and a father. In fact, how people parent is inextricably linked to the economy and national policies. If we want better parents, who don’t spank their kids, we need to address their economic security.