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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(6):1188-1191

Spanking is a common method of child discipline. Studies have found that spanking appears to have minimal effects on behavior in certain households. Experts hypothesize that spanking has neutral effects on long-term behavior in settings in which spanking is culturally acceptable. However, little is known about the effects of spanking in very young children, because previous studies on the subject have focused on children two years and older. Slade and Wissow hypothesized that because younger children do not understand punishment and its context, spanking may have a more negative impact. The authors investigated whether spanking infants and toddlers is associated with behavior problems after four years.

The study included 1,966 children (younger than two years) from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Mother-Child Sample whose families were interviewed at baseline and four years later. The authors collected data on spanking frequency in the previous week; the child’s temperament; parent-child interaction; and various child, parent, and household characteristics. The major outcome was behavior after four years, which was measured with a behavior scale and reports from parent-teacher conferences about the child’s problem behavior.

White non-Hispanic mothers were less likely to have spanked their child in the previous week, were more likely to have positive interactions with their child, were less likely to have had a parent-teacher meeting, and were less likely to have high behavior problem index (BPI) scores compared with black mothers. Hispanic mothers also were less likely than black mothers to spank their children. Overall, the authors found a significant association between spanking and parent-teacher meetings. However, this association held only for white non-Hispanic families after the data were categorized by race. There was significant positive association between spanking and high BPI scores. Multivariate analysis had similar results.

The authors conclude that spanking children younger than two years appears to be linked to behavior problems only in white non-Hispanic families, which is consistent with studies of older children. The authors caution that this study determined an association between spanking and behavior problems, not a causal effect. Therefore, spanking in white non-Hispanic families may be a marker for other household or parenting factors that lead to behavior problems in children. Although the study found a discrepancy between outcomes in white non-Hispanic families and Hispanic and black families, the authors conclude that spanking in any group is not a major risk factor for future behavior problems.

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