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May 3, 2004

Early Spanking a Risk Factor for Behavior Problems Among White Children, Not African Americans or Hispanics

Eric SladeWhite children who are more frequently spanked before age 2 are at greater risk for having behavior problems by the time they reach elementary school when compared to those who were not. However, the same association does not appear to be true for African-American or Hispanic children, according to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study is among the first to examine spanking frequency and its impact on behavior with children under age 2. It is published in the May 2004 issue of Pediatrics.

“While greater spanking frequency was a substantial risk factor for behavior problems in the white, non-Hispanic children, these results do not necessarily imply a cause and effect relationship between spanking before age 2 and later behavioral problems,” said lead author Eric P. Slade, PhD, assistant professor with the School’s Department of Health Policy and Management.

“Our findings should be viewed cautiously. However, they are consistent with the results of previous studies conducted with children older than age 2, and suggest that the broader family context surrounding the use of spanking may influence the effects of spanking on children.”

Previous studies have noted that spanking may be viewed with greater acceptance by African-American families and therefore is less likely to be seen as unfair or harsh treatment by children and parents. In white families, where spanking may be viewed negatively, frequent spanking before age 2 could be an indicator of other associated child development risk factors, such as high parent stress. Dr. Slade and co-author, Lawrence Wissow, MD, an associate professor in Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health, found that white mothers who spanked their children more frequently were more likely to be depressed, had lower incomes and were less educated. The same factors were not associated with African-American or Hispanic mothers who spanked their children more frequently.

For the study, the researchers followed an ethnically diverse group of 1,966 children and their mothers who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Mother-Child Sample. All of the children were under age 2 and were followed until they reached school at age 4. Mothers were questioned on how often they spanked their child, their child’s temperament, how often they interacted with their child and if they ever discussed behavior problems with their child’s school teacher.

Overall, 39 percent of the mothers reported spanking their child once in the past week. Nearly 36 percent of white, non-Hispanic, 49 percent of African-American and 32 percent of Hispanic mothers reported spanking their infants at least once in the past week. The average of spankings in the past week was 3.2 for whites, 3.9 for African-Americans and 2.7 for Hispanics, according to the study. The average number of spankings for the entire group was 3.4 in the past week.

“Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behavior Problems: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers” was written by Eric P. Slade, PhD, and Lawrence S. Wissow, MD.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Brigham at 410-955-6878 or Photographs of Eric Slade are available upon request.