Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Predicting Spanking of Younger and Older Children by Mothers and Fathers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Predicting Spanking of Younger and Older Children by Mothers and Fathers

Article excerpt

RANDAL D. DAY Washington State University

GARY W. PETERSON Arizona State University*

COLEEN McCRACKEN Washington State University**

We examine parents' characteristics that influence the incidence of spanking as a discipline strategy in younger and older children. Data were analyzed from the National Survey of Families and Households. We found that different combinations of blocks of predictor variables influenced spanking in eight subsamples. Belsky's model of competent parenting was employed to explain differences in spanking as a discipline strategy. Subsample profiles of spanking suggest that a variety of interventions are needed to decrease this frequently used parenting strategy.

Key Words: aggression, child abuse, corporal punishment, fathering, parenting, spanking.

Parents' use of corporal punishment or spanking has spawned much debate among family researchers and practitioners (McCormick, 1992; Straus, 1995; Straus & Yodanis, 1996). Our study examines parental spanking, using a theoretical model that identifies its determinants and the relative competence of parents who use this form of punishment (Belsky, 1984; Belsky, Robins, & Gamble, 1984). Based on an ecological model, we employ six blocks of variables that have the potential to predict whether or not parents spank. These are the attributes of the child, the attributes of the parent, the parents' ideological orientation and economic ability, the parentchild context, and community attributes. Additionally, we provide detailed information about the use of spanking as it varies according to other structural and life course contexts such as ethnicity, gender of the parent and the child, family structure, and age of the child.

Much of what we know about spanking is based on analyses of large, secondary data sets that contain items like, "During the last year, did you find it necessary to spank your child?" (Straus & Gelles, 1990). Typically, responses to these items are coded as dichotomies (that either occurr or do not). The assessment of more precise frequencies, however, is preferable because a more accurate picture of the variation in spanking can be provided and tendencies to equate infrequent spankers with those who spank routinely can be avoided (Giles-Sims, Straus, & Sugarman, 1995).

Another deficiency in the spanking literature is the limited attention given to the differences in children's ages as a predictor of spanking. Researchers only recently have recognized that spanking is used primarily with young children and that the incidence and severity of spanking often diminishes by the time children are 8-10 years of age (Burns, 1993; Giles-Sims et al., 1995; Socolar & Stein, 1995). Consistent with these ideas, our study examined age-of-child differences in the use of spanking by parents. We recognize that a developmental component of spanking is critical for understanding the motivation of parents who spank and to help identify when interventions are needed to reduce spanking.


Studies of the incidence and intensity of spanking often provide evidence that most parents have spanked their children. About 90% of parents in the United States report having spanked their children (Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957; Simons, Johnson, & Conger, 1994; Straus, 1983).

However, most of the studies of spanking have methodological problems. A common deficiency in the spanking literature is the failure to survey precise frequencies of spanking. If frequency is measured at all, the assessment is conducted in only a general, global manner (Gray, 1988; Widom, 1989). Questions of intensity and motivation are seldom asked, and rarely do researchers attempt to place the punishing behavior within a theoretical framework. Also, some researchers rely on general global measures of spanking by asking parents if they have ever spanked during the past year. …

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