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Spanking toddlers: Poverty, punishment and preparation for life?

September 15, 2009 |  1:51 pm

There's no topic more incendiary than spanking. Add to that the spanking of very young children by  mothers in minority, low-income households and you have a minefield.

A group of Duke University researchers has not only ventured into that minefield; it has also set off a few bombs in the process. Published in this month's issue of the journal Child Development, their study of 2,573 toddlers enrolled in Head Start found that for poor children, early and frequent spanking -- by the age of 1 -- is not only very common, but it also makes their behavior at age 2 more aggressive and by age 3 appears to have slowed their socio-emotional development.

They also found that a low-income mother is most likely to start spanking a very fussy, irritable baby by the age of 1, and more likely still if the mother is depressed. Boys were spanked and yelled at more often than girls, and the poorer the family the greater the likelihood the kids would be physically and verbally punished at an early age.

The collective results suggest that the causes and effects of spanking are tightly bound together, making it difficult to tease out the influence of poverty, genetics, gender differences and cultural expectations when discussing the controversial practice.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998 issued a recommendation that parents find means to correct children's behavior other than corporal punishment. A large body of evidence suggests the practice is seldom effective and may have negative effects. But some in the African American community have defended the practice, citing research showing that while spanking may make white children more aggressive, the practice makes African American children less so.

How common is it for low-income mothers to have spanked their children by the age of 1? One in three mothers told researchers that they or someone in their household had spanked their 1-year-old in the preceding week, on average doling out 2 1/2 spankings per week. By the time their children were 2 and 3, 49% of the moms in the study said they had spanked the child in the last week -- on average between 2 1/2 and three times.

Verbal punishment was less frequent than spanking: 17% of the mothers surveyed said they had yelled at a 1-year-old; 24% yelled at their 2-year-old, and 16% at their 3-year-old.

After stripping out the influence of income, African American children at all three ages were most likely to be spanked and to be verbally punished; low-income white mothers and Mexican American mothers who were more Americanized were about equally likely to spank their young children, and generally about equally likely to yell at the toddlers. Recently arrived Mexican American moms were least likely to spank a toddler, and less likely to verbally punish a 2-year-old than were other low-income moms.

The study's findings generally "paint a picture of spanking and verbal punishments as products of parental challenges (e.g., the many difficulties associated with being a young parent and/or living in poverty), and may also reflect a goal of preparing a child for a life characterized by these and other challenges," the authors write.

-- Melissa Healy