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In the course of history, parenting has always been a challenging vocation. Since children are not born with “how to raise” manuals, parents usually have no choice but to figure out things for themselves with regards to rearing their offspring.
Often, when children become difficult to control, parents resort to corporal punishment. Strauss (2001) defines corporal punishment (CP) as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child pain, but not injury, for the purposes of correction or control of the child’s behavior” (p. 4). More often than not, parents use “spanking” as a form of disciplinary action. Mcloyd, Kaplan, Hardaway, and Wood (2007) defines spanking as “striking the child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury. It is distinguished from physical abuse, which consists of beatings and other forms of extreme physical force that inflict bodily injury.” (p.165 ) Whereas spanking is a normative practice within the United States, physical abuse is not (Baumrind, 1997).
Over the years, alternative disciplinary strategies have evolved. Nowadays, parents can choose from a plethora of effective disciplinary approaches to apply in rearing their children such as using time-out, logical consequences, withdrawal of privileges, and merely talking heart to heart. Nonetheless, the debate in using corporate punishment goes on. However, the endorsers of corporal punishment seem to be losing out due to the said alternative disciplinary measures being more commonly advocated by child psychologists, educators and pediatric doctors.
The Pro-Corporal Punishment Position
The bible admonishes parents to love their children by correcting their mistakes. The saying “Spare the rod and spoil the child” comes from Proverbs 13: 24 which is quoted as “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” Many parents interpret this proverb literally, especially the first part mentioning “rod”, or an instrument used to inflict the pain of discipline.
Spanking is an act that may surprise a child into the realization that what he did was not appropriate. Usually, when spanked, the child immediately stops the inappropriate behavior with the parent’s intention that the spanking will deter any future misbehavior. Parents usually think that children associate the negative behavior with spanking, and to avoid the consequence, they will likewise avoid the negative behavior. This belief stems from behavioral theories authored by the great behaviorists – Skinner, Watson, Pavlov, etc.
Although normally employed as a discipline strategy, spanking is used with varying frequency depending on child attributes (ex. age, sex, temperament), parental characteristics (ex. age, education, ethnicity, psychological well-being, religious conservatism), and contextual factors (ex., poverty, social support) ( Day et al., 1998; Ellison, Bartkowski, & Segal, 1996; Gils-Sims et al., 1995; Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991).
The Anti-Corporal Punishment Position
More and more studies are proving that corporal punishment brings more negative effects on children than positive ones, thus, the decrease in its endorsement by child professionals. In its raw form corporal punishment is negative discipline. Robert Block, a pediatrician, comments:
“It is important to point out that negative, and thus inappropriate demeanor, includes yelling, losing one’s temper to the point of rage, or becoming physically out of control. However, being stern is not necessarily negative. It is a stern or firm demeanor that allows a child to understand the importance of what a parent is saying. A stern demeanor helps a child to hear clearly and understand more definitively what the parent expects them to do.” (Block, 2007, p.461).
By stern demeanor, Block means speaking to the child in a firm but gentle voice with the parents’ emotion under control. He advocates this form of discipline because it is more purposeful to both the parent and child, and does not involve physical harm and power struggles.
As an African-American mother, I myself was raised in a culture that endorsed corporal punishment. I was spanked as a child, and in turn, I likewise spank my daughter. The Christian proverb of sparing the rod and spoiling the child was preached well during my growing up years as a justification of the parental license to this kind of discipline. However, as a mother, I do not spank my child based on this religious tenet, but because of behavior concerns. When my daughter’s behavior goes out of hand, I resort to corporal punishment to put her in her place. However, now that I am learning more effective parenting skills, I am open to using alternate disciplinary actions, as I want the best for my child, and for myself, the best parent I can be.
The review of literature reveals that African American parents use spanking more frequently than their European American counterparts. (Day et al., 1998; Deater-Deckard, Dodge,Bates, & Pettit, 1996; Gils-Sims et al., 1995; Smith & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). “African Americans are also more likely than European Americans to endorse the use of spanking as an appropriate display of positive parenting.” ( McLoyd et al, 2007, Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997; Deater-Deckard, Lansford, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 2003; Korbin, Coulton, Lindstrom-Ufuti, & Spilsbury, 2000; Mosby, Rawls, Meehan, Mays, & Pettinari, 1999).
“Deater-Deckard and Dodge (1997) posited that when physical discipline is culturally normative, putatively the case among African Americans, it is likely to be associated with nurturing family relations and to be used in a controlled rather than impulsive manner, with minimal expressions of anger. They suggest that physical discipline by African American parents, compared with European American parents, is more likely to co-occur with warmth and less likely to be administered in an excessively harsh, punitive manner.” (McLoyd et al, 2007)
Children’s stress response to their parents’ discipline may be affected by contextual variables. Corporal punishment has been found to be associated with aggression in European American children but not in African American children, even if corporal punishment is used with greater frequency by African American parents (Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997; Gunnoe & Mariner, 1997). “This may reflect both a greater degree of cultural acceptance of CP within African American communities, including the view that it is a legitimate parental behavior, and differing interpretations of such punishment by African American and European American children. However, following a review of the relevant studies, Horn, Joseph, and Cheng (2004) cautioned that additional research, particularly longitudinal studies controlling for potentially confounding variables (e.g., socioeconomic status, child effects), is necessary before conclusions can be drawn about ethnic or racial differences in the effects of CP.” (Mulvaney and Merbert, 2007).
Critical Review of Literature
Mcloyd, Kaplan, Hardaway, And Wood (2007) conducted a study on the moderating influences on the maternal and child psychological correlates of physical discipline in African American Families. It posed the question if mothers’ endorsement of corporal punishment affects the kind of physical discipline used on their children. “Mothers agreed or disagreed with the statement, “When a child misbehaves, it is best to spank him/her.” Those who agreed or strongly agreed with this statement (61%) were identified as endorsers, whereas those who disagreed or strongly disagreed (39%) were identified as nonendorsers” (McLoyd et al, 2007, p.168).
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Results of the study revealed that majority of African American mothers endorsed physical discipline as a preferred response to child misbehavior but 2 out of 5 of the mothers in the sample did not agree that physical discipline is the best strategy to handle their children’s misbehavior. The mothers’ state of distress also affected their use of physical discipline. Feelings of general maternal stress were more strongly associated with an increase in the incidence of physical discipline among the mothers who did not endorse it than among mothers who did endorse it. The authors conclude that high levels of anger and frustration may provoke mothers to violate their philosophy regarding the use of physical discipline and may even be harsher and less controlled than the physical discipline that endorsing mothers employ. “As a consequence of the increased negative affect posited to accompany physical discipline and the incongruity between belief and behavior, nonendorsing mothers may be less able or less
inclined than endorsing mothers to pair physical punishment with explanations or reasoning, blunting the child’s awareness of when and why physical punishment occurs.” (McLoyd et al, 2007)
Rates of endorsement of physical discipline among Americans have declined over the past 40 years, but they continue to exceed 50% (Straus, 1999; Straus & Mathur, 1996), with rates being higher among African Americans than European Americans (e.g., Deater-Deckard et al., 2003; Mosby et al., 1999).
Another study by Mulvaney & Mebert (2007) on predicting behavior problems in early childhood due to parental corporal punishment reveals there is a unique negative impact of corporal punishment (CP) on children’s behavior problems. CP was associated with increased internalizing behaviors during toddlerhood and with increased externalizing behavior problems both in toddlerhood and at first grade. “The impact on children who experience CP throughout middle childhood and adolescence, around 22% (Day, Peterson, & McCracken, 1998), may be even greater. The effects of CP may also be transactional in that they are further exacerbated via the mediated pathways of other variables. For instance, children with poorer mental health and who are more aggressive are more at risk for peer rejection and peer victimization (e.g., Johnson et al., 2002), which in turn negatively impacts children’s mental health. Therefore, the overall net effect of physical discipline may be much larger than would be indicated by interpreting the effect sizes of this study in isolation.” (Mulvaney & Merbert, 2007).
Although I was raised in a culture that advocated the use of corporal punishment and eventually grew up treading the “straight and narrow” path of righteousness, this research has further widened my perspectives on the use of more positive disciplinary measures on child rearing. I am aware that my parents’ use of spanking did not mean that they wanted to harm me, but they thought it to be a good reminder of staying on the right behavioral track. Personally, it worked for me. However, now that I know better, I would also want something better for my child.
It is recommended that parent trainings on alternative discipline techniques that promote positive discipline and clear communication be developed and implemented. The aim of decreasing parents’ use of physical discipline and increasing parents’ repertoire of discipline strategies would truly benefit our children and in learning so, future generations to come.
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