Employment Status, Psychological Well-Being, Social Support, and Physical Discipline Practices of Single Black Mothers

By Jackson, Aurora P.; Gyamfi, Phyllis et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Employment Status, Psychological Well-Being, Social Support, and Physical Discipline Practices of Single Black Mothers


Jackson, Aurora P., Gyamfi, Phyllis, Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Blake, Mandy, Journal of Marriage and Family


We investigated the effects of depressive symptomatology, parental stress, and instrumental support on maternal spanking. Although we found no associations between employment status, per se, and the frequency of spanking, our results show that employment seems to matter for its moderating effects on the relationship between mothers' psychological functioning and their decisions to use spanking. Significant interaction effects of employment x depression and employment x parental stress indicate that employment reduced the frequency of spanking by mothers with more symptoms of depression and parental stress. The availability of instrumental support increased the frequency of spanking. This may reflect the possibility that mothers in this study found the help they receive psychologically costly.

Socialization theorists and researchers have found that harsh parental discipline is associated with problem behaviors in children, especially hostility and aggression (Baumrind, 1993; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997). However, most of the research on physical discipline (e.g., spanking, hitting) either has focused on middle-class White families (Parke, 1992) or has compared Black families with White, mostly middle-class families. (See, for example, Deater-Deckard, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1996; Gunnoe & Mariner, 1997; Smith & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Strassberg, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994.) Little is known about within-group differences in discipline practices among single Black women raising young children in poverty (Harrison, Wilson, Pine, Chan, & Buriel, 1990; McLoyd, 1990; Wilson, 1986).

Poverty can diminish the quality of parenting due to persistent daily stressors and parental psychological distress (Conger et al., 1992; McLoyd, 1990). Given the 1996 overhaul of the welfare system, which substitutes time-limited cash assistance and work programs for what was an entitlement, it is important to understand the contexts in which single mothers parent their preschool children, specifically mothers who work in low-wage jobs and those who receive welfare benefits.

Some researchers argue that a theoretical perspective of risk and resilience should guide the study of poor and near-poor Black families (McLoyd, 1990; Spencer, 1990). Rather than regarding such families as uniformly at risk in difficult social contexts, this perspective highlights the differential and interactive influences of individual, family, and environmental variables in efforts to better understand which individuals are at risk for negative outcomes. Similar to Bronfenbrenner's (1988) person-process-context model, McLoyd and her colleagues (1990; McLoyd & Wilson, 1992) posit that an accumulation of risks is associated with poverty and economic hardship (e.g., female headship, limited access to social support, diminished capacity for responsive and supportive parenting). These risks may have different effects on family processes, depending on the presence of protective factors (key among them, maternal psychological well-being). For example, it is hypothesized that parental depressed mood is a central mechanism through which economic circumstances influence parenting behavior and, thereby, child outcomes. (See Conger et al., 1992.) Indeed, research has consistently shown that parents who experience economic stress display less nurturance and more harshness in their responses to their children (Lempers, Clark-Lempers, & Simons, 1989; McLoyd & Wilson, 1992). Studies also have reported that mothers who score higher in depressive symptoms are more likely than their less-depressed counterparts to experience parenting as arduous and disappointing and to rely on aversive, coercive disciplinary techniques (Conger, McCarty, Yang, Lahey, & Kroop, 1984; Crnic & Greenberg, 1987; McLoyd, 1990; Patterson, 1986).

Our investigation examines the issue of physical discipline and uses data obtained for the first wave of a larger ongoing study of single Black mothers who received welfare benefits and former welfare recipients who were employed in low-wage jobs in New York City.

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