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Early Spankings Make For Aggressive Toddlers

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

New research shows that children who are spanked as one-year-olds are more likely to behave aggressively and perform worse on cognitive tests as toddlers than children who are spared the punishment.

The study, done by researchers at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, shows that they negative effects of spanking were “modest” but it adds to growing research that finds spanking isn’t good for children.

“Age one is a key time for establishing the quality of the parenting and the relationship between parent and the child,” said study author Lisa J. Berlin. “Spanking at age one reflects a negative dynamic, and increases children’s aggression at age two.”

Berlin and her colleagues looked at data on 2,500 children of various racial backgrounds from low-income families. The data included parents’ reports about their children’s behavior, their use of spanking, as well as home visits by trained observers to document parent-child interactions at ages one, two and three.

About one-third of mothers of one-year-olds reported they or someone in their household had spanked their child in the last week, while about half of the mothers of two- and three-year-olds reported that their child had been spanked.

The average number of spankings for one-year-olds was 2.6 per week, while the average for two-year-olds was nearly three. The study found that children who were spanked at age one had more aggressive behaviors at age two and performed worse on measures of thinking abilities at age three.

Researchers also looked at the effects of verbal punishment, defined as yelling, scolding or making derogatory comments. Verbal punishment was not associated with negative effects if the mother was otherwise attentive, loving and supportive.

Researchers controlled for family characteristics such as race, ethnicity, mother’s age, education, family income and the child’s gender. Previous research has shown spanking is more common among low-income households than high-income households.

Researchers chose a sample of low-income families because some child behavior experts have argued that when spanking is “cultural normative” — that is, it’s expected for parents to use physical discipline — the detrimental effects of spanking may be lessened.

“We did not find that,” Berlin said. “Even in a sample of low-income people where presumably it’s more normative to spank your kids, we found negative effects.” Of all the debates over child-rearing, spanking “definitely touches a nerve,” Berlin said.

“It’s a parenting practice that has been around for a long time, and that’s also in transition,” Berlin said. “In general, the use of spanking is going down. But there is also a contingent of people who really believe in it, who say that’s how they were raised and it’s a tradition they want to continue.”

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