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Does Spanking Lead to Trouble Later?

Early Spanking May Increase Chances of Problem Behavior
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Cultural Context of Child Discipline Important

Interestingly, Slade and Wissow found no link between early spanking and later behavior problems in black and Hispanic children.

"Spanking may have very different consequences for children depending on the family circumstances in which spanking is used," Slade says. "And those circumstances may differ depending upon racial and ethnic background."

In white families, Slade notes, frequent spanking was linked to unfavorable family situations: lower family income, parents who did not complete high school, and mothers with symptoms of depression. This was not the case in black or Hispanic families.

"It's also been found that there are cultural differences in how families spank children that are related to ones' race and ethnicity," Slade says. "African-American and Hispanic families are more likely to punish children physically, whereas white non-Hispanic families more are likely to use verbal reprimands to discipline children. It may just be that the perception of spanking and punishment differs depending on the cultural context."

This difference in family context reflects real differences in the world outside the family, says Arthur L. Whaley, PhD, DrPH, associate director for mental health services research at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, University of Texas, Austin.

Whaley says there are two kinds of spanking. One is child-centered spanking: punishment to stop behavior dangerous to the child. The other is adult-centered spanking: punishment because the child is annoying an adult.

"In African-American culture, traditionally when a child is spanked it is a consequence of action on the part of the child," Whaley tells WebMD. "The child is given an explanation almost simultaneously, so the association is clear."

But Whaley notes that black and Hispanic families also have other reasons to use punishment that results in rapid behavior change.

"Outside the home, a child of color may experience graver consequences for actions that may not be as severe for non-Hispanic white youths," he says. "There is clear evidence that when boys will be boys -- when they get caught engaging in mischief -- the consequence for white youths is that they are taken home to their parents and that is the end of it. For black youth, in some cases, they are taken to the police station."

As they get older, Whaley says, children of color come to understand their experience of family discipline in terms of its social context.

"Later behavioral problems are less likely when this connection is made," he says.

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