Harsh Corporal Punishment versus Quality of Parental Involvement as an Explanation of Adolescent Maladjustment

Article excerpt

The majority of United States parents support the principle of corporal punishment and utilize such methods to discipline their children (Straus & Gelles, 18; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). Childrearing experts (Balter, 1989; Dreikurs, 1964; Ginott, 1961; Kersey, 1991; Leach, 1989: Spock, 1988) and social scientists (Gilmartin, 1979; Hyman, 1978; Maurer, 1974; Steinmetz, 1979; Straus, 1991; White & Straus; 1981), on the other hand, have long argued that children exposed to harsh corporal punishment are apt to manifest a variety of emotional and behavioral problems. Several of these individuals have called on U.S. policymakers to follow the example of some; European countries that have banned the use of corporal punishment by teachers and parents.

Much of the evidence proffered as support for the idea that corporal punishment places a child at risk for maladjustment comes from research on physically abused children. Critics have noted that most of these studies suffer from serious methodological limitations that preclude firm conclusions. The difficulties most often cited relate to sampling, measurement, and failure to utilize control groups (Aber & Cichetti, 1984; Gray, 1988; Lane & Davis, 1987; Widom, 1989b). Even if such methodological concerns were eliminated, however, these studies would remain problematic as they fail to control for dimensions of parenting (e.g., rejection, uninvolvement) that are apt to be correlated with the use of harsh corporal punishment. This omission is critical given that it may be these other aspects of parenting, rather than severe physical punishment per se, that give rise to many of the problems displayed by abused children.

The present study attempts to address this deficiency. Structural equation modeling (SEM) is used to investigate the unique effects of corporal punishment and parental involvement on adolescent aggression, delinquency, and psychological distress. The following section briefly reviews arguments and research linking harsh corporal punishment to the development of emotional and behavioral difficulties. Reasons are presented for believing that the relationship between these two phenomena has been overstated, and competing hypotheses are identified regarding the impact of corporal punishment and parental involvement on various dimensions of adolescent adjustment.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF HARSH CORPORAL PUNISHMENT

It is often contended that harsh parenting practices are transmitted across generations (Gelles 1979, 1980; Steinmetz, 1987; Straus & Smith 1990a). This idea has been labeled the "cycle o violence" hypothesis. Consistent with this view. several studies have reported that individuals who were subjected to severe physical discipline as children are at risk for utilizing similar parenting strategies with their own offspring (Egeland, Jacobvitz, B Papatola, 1987; Herrenkohl, Herrenkohl, & Toedter, 1983; Simons, Whitbeck Conger, & Wu, 1991; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980; Straus & Smith, 1990b). This relationship has been shown to remain even after controlling for personality, emotional well-being, socioeconomic status, and various aspects of the parenting received as a child besides level of corporal punishment, for instance, degree of parental warmth/involvement (Simons, Beaman, Conger, & Chao, 1993a; Simons et al., 1991). Thus it appears that children exposed to harsh corporal punishment learn that severe, coercive measures are a normal part of parenting, and, as adults, are apt to enact these parenting scripts in interaction with their offspring. Indeed, based upon their review, Kaufman and Zigler (1989) estimated that harshly treated children are approximately 5 times more likely to engage in abusive parenting than individuals who were not victims of severe corporal punishment.

Several social scientists have argued that strict physical discipline fosters a broader set of problems than simply commitment to harsh corporal punishment as an approach to parenting. …