Latino parents who engage in harsh physical discipline need help, but they are far from homogeneous and their needs vary. Some are loving and devoted parents who practice traditional forms of child rearing that may include an authoritarian style and harsh corporal punishment, side by side with high levels of intimacy and support. Some Latino parents are incorrectly accused of abusing or neglecting their children because non-Latino professionals are puzzled by their unfamiliar yet harmless practices. Finally, some Latino parents, like parents from other groups, punish their children in cruel and malicious ways that would be considered abusive in any culture. This article aims to help counselors work more effectively with low-income immigrant Latino families on issues of discipline and physical abuse.
The literature on Latinos and child abuse is contradictory and inadequate. Problems include reporting biases (Ards, Chung, & Myers, 1998), failure to distinguish between culture and poverty (Zayas, 1992), and ethnic lumping (Fontes, 1995) in which researchers study Latinos from vastly different backgrounds and experiences as if they were a monolithic group. Despite these limitations, some modest conclusions can be reached: Latino families do not approve of or support child abuse (e.g., Giovannoni & Becerra, 1979), and, on the whole, Latino parents tend to exhibit both greater intimacy and more protective behaviors and strictness than non-Hispanic Whites (Rauh, Wasserman, & Brunelli, 1990; Zayas & Solari, 1994). The literature is so incomplete, however, that we researchers cannot determine whether rates of child maltreatment are higher or lower for Latinos compared with other groups when matched for socioeconomic status (SES).
In a sense, the relative prevalence does not really matter. It is known that child abuse occurs among some families in all groups. This article focuses on Latinos not because they might be at higher risk for physical abuse but rather because (a) preventive efforts are most likely to be effective if they are tailored to the needs of the group they are meant to address (Fontes, Cruz, & Tabachnick, 2001), (b) professionals frequently offend and therefore alienate Latino parents when they discuss concerns about disciplinary techniques, and (c) professionals are often puzzled about how to handle harsh punishment in a family that differs from them culturally. This article does not provide definitive answers for working with all Latino families. Rather, it suggests areas of concern and provides general guidelines for professionals who may feel stymied in their work with Latino families who use harsh corporal punishment.
The word Latino or Hispanic usually describes people whose ancestors come from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. The word Latino is also used to describe people of Spanish and Indian descent whose ancestors have always lived in areas of the Southwest United States that were once part of Mexico. The word Latino describes diverse ethnic cultural groups, not a singular religious or racial group. Latinos engage in a variety of religious and spiritual practices, and may be White, Black, Indian, or Asian. Latinos most often identify themselves by their national origin, as Dominicans or Mexicans, for instance.
Latinos are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, due to both immigration and high rates of childbearing, and already constitute more than 12% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). In addition, this is a young population with relatively high rates of births to teen and single mothers. Compared with non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanic parents are typically younger, less educated, employed at lower paying jobs, and financially poorer--conditions that put their children at greater risk for negative social, health, and developmental outcomes (Zayas, 1992) including child abuse. That said, it should be noted that most Latino parents raise their children lovingly and without major problems.
Some Latinos have been in the United States for generations and speak no Spanish, others have just arrived and speak no English, and of course many Latinos speak fluent English and Spanish. The first language of many people who are called "Latinos" is an indigenous language, such as Maya from Mexico and Guatemala or Quechua from Ecuador (Fontes, 2000b). When working with a Latino family, it is important to ask about the language or languages that they prefer to speak. Some United States Latinos are highly educated, some are illiterate, and most are in between. Counselors should not assume that the people they work with have low levels of formal education simply because they do not speak English fluently.
This article focuses on working-class and poor Latinos who are immigrants or whose parents immigrated to the United States and who preserve many customs and beliefs from their Latin American origins. These are the people who are least acculturated and therefore may be most challenging to non-Latino professionals. Traditionally oriented Latino families may be more likely to use an authoritarian style of parenting and demand obedience and respect from their children (Falicov, 1998). These practices clash with the child-rearing norms of the dominant culture and sometimes bring immigrant Latinos into contact with counselors and the child protection system. In addition, studies consistently establish a link between both familial and neighborhood poverty and physical child abuse (e.g., Drake & Pandey, 1996), thereby increasing the likelihood that professionals who work with low-SES Latino immigrants will face issues of physical child abuse.
It is impossible to describe a unitary Latino culture. The peoples of Latin America and Latinos in the United States are far too heterogeneous. Historical influences cause diverse Latino cultures to evolve constantly (Falicov, 1998). Individual Latinos grow to accept and reject aspects of their culture in different ways throughout their lives. Every person who is a Latino is also an individual, differing from others on questions of individual and family history, geographic origin, migration experience, social class, religion, dreams, values, and so on. Despite a preference for limiting discussions to people from specific countries, rather than engaging in broad ethnic generalizations (Fontes, 1993), in this article I make some cultural generalizations about low-income Latino immigrants. The suggestions given here are not meant as exact recipes for counseling but rather as general orientations for working with low-income immigrant Latino families.
CORPORAL PUNISHMENT AND PHYSICAL ABUSE
Straus (1994) defined corporal punishment as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child's behavior" (p. 4). Public health advocates have described corporal punishment as "a form of intrafamilial violence associated with short and long-term adverse mental health outcomes" (Stewart et al., 2000, p. 257). Corporal punishment in the United States presents a complex picture, with high but decreasing rates of general approval, and a population increasingly divided regarding its use (Straus & Mathur, 1994). The approval of corporal punishment in the United States decreased dramatically from 94% in 1968 to 68% in 1994 (Straus & Mathur, 1996). Whereas in 1968 there was almost universal approval in the United States for parents spanking children, regardless of demographic variables, by 1994 disagreements were evident, with greater approval noted among African Americans, Southerners, and those with fewer years of formal education (Straus & Mathur, 1996). Unfortunately, data concerning Latinos are limited. Frequently, Latinos are simply excluded from the sample or are miscoded as African American or White (Ortega, Guillean, & Najera, 1996).
The actual use of corporal punishment in the United States is also decreasing (Daro & Gelles, 1992; Straus, 1994). Even so, corporal punishment is still used widely, and Giles-Sims, Straus, and Sugarman (1995) have reported that" almost all children in the United States are spanked by their parents at some point in their lives" (p. 170).
How do we draw the line between corporal punishment and physical abuse? Graziano (1994) hypothesized that there is a continuum, ranging from low to high violence. On one end are extremely violent acts that almost anyone would agree constitute physical abuse, such as those that result in death or permanent …