Corporal Punishment in Adolescence and Physical Assaults on Spouses in Later Life: What Accounts for the Link?

By Straus, Murray A.; Yodanis, Carrie L. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Corporal Punishment in Adolescence and Physical Assaults on Spouses in Later Life: What Accounts for the Link?


Straus, Murray A., Yodanis, Carrie L., Journal of Marriage and Family


There is considerable evidence that corporal punishment is associated with the subsequent aggression of children, and there is recent evidence that later in life this aggression includes physical assaults on spouses. Yet there has been no direct test of either modeling of cultural norms or other processes that could account for the link between corporal punishment and partner violence. Using data on 4,401 couples who participated in the National Family Violence Survey, this article reports such a test. The theoretical model specified three processes: social learning, depression, and truncated development of nonviolent conflict-resolution skills. Logistic regression was used to estimate separate models for men and women. The findings are consistent with the theoretical model. Because corporal punishment of adolescents occurs in over half of U.S. families, the findings suggest that elimination of this practice can reduce some of the psychological and social processes that increase the likelihood of future marital violence and perhaps other violence as well. Key Words: adolescence, corporal punishment, depression, family violence, norms, spousal assault.

Studies of family violence have found considerable evidence that the experience of frequent corporal punishment as an adolescent is related to an increased rate of assaulting a spouse later in life. Gelles (1974) studied 80 families and found that spouses who had experienced corporal punishment frequently (monthly to daily) had a higher rate of assaulting a partner than those who had not been hit. Carroll (1977) studied 96 couples and found that "36.6% of those who had experienced a high degree of parental punishment reported assaulting a spouse compared to 14.5% of those who had not" (p. 176). Other researchers report similar results. Johnson's (1984) study of 61 abusive men and 44 nonabusive men found that the experience of corporal punishment is significantly related to both minor and severe spouse abuse. Straus' analysis of a nationally representative sample of 2,143 American couples (1990) found that the more corporal punishment these husbands and wives had experienced early in life, the higher the probability of assaulting their spouses. Kalmuss' reanalysis of the same sample (1984), using more adequate statistical methods, showed that experiencing corporal punishment as a teenager more than doubled the probability of husband-to-wife and wife-tohusband assaults. Straus and Kaufman Kantor (1994) studied a second nationally representative sample (N = 2,149) and found that corporal punishment was a significant risk factor for assaults on wives, even when other potentially influential variables, such as socioeconomic status, gender, age, witnessing violence between parents, and alcohol use, were controlled.

The findings on physical assaults against a spouse are consistent with many studies of physical aggression by children against other children. These studies found that the more corporal punishment children experienced, the greater their physical aggressiveness against other children (Kandel, 1992). One of the most recent studies used a longitudinal design that controlled for the child's antisocial behavior at Time 1 and also for other parental behaviors, such as parental support (Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1995). The results show that use of corporal punishment at Time 1 produced an increase in antisocial behavior 2 years later. Parallel results were found for children 3-5 years old, 6-9 years old, and 10 years old or older.

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN AMERICAN FAMILIES

Despite considerable evidence showing a link between corporal punishment and physically aggressive behavior, corporal punishment has not received much attention in the family violence literature. Part of the reason for the inattention might be that corporal punishment is so widely used and the idea that corporal punishment is sometimes necessary and harmless is so embedded in American culture that researchers tend not to regard it as an important issue. …

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