Child Discipline and Physical Abuse in Immigrant Latino Families: Reducing Violence and Misunderstandings

Article excerpt

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.

LATINOS

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. …