Children's Perceptions of Corporal Punishment, Caretaker Acceptance, and Psychological Adjustment in a Poor, Biracial Southern Community

By Rohner, Ronald P.; Bourque, Shana L. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Children's Perceptions of Corporal Punishment, Caretaker Acceptance, and Psychological Adjustment in a Poor, Biracial Southern Community


Rohner, Ronald P., Bourque, Shana L., Elordi, Carlos A., Journal of Marriage and Family


This study explores two related questions about relationships between perceived justness and perceived harshness of corporal punishment, perceived caretaker acceptance-rejection, and children's psychological adjustment: Are children's perceptions of caretaker harshness and unjustness of physical punishment associated with children's psychological maladjustment? Or does the relationship between punishment and maladjustment disappear after controlling for perceived caretaker acceptance-rejection? The research is based on a proportional, stratified, random sample of 281 Black and White youths in grades 3-12 within the public school system of a poor, biracial county of southeastern Georgia. Results of structural equation modeling suggest that physical punishment is associated with children's psychological maladjustment only if punishment is seen by youths as a form of caretaker rejection. The findings contribute information to an ongoing debate about the relationship between physical punishment and children's psychological adjustment.

Key Words: children's psychological adjustment, corporal punishment, parental acceptance-rejection.

A large national, and even international, controversy exists over whether corporal punishment has negative effects on children's behavioral and psychological adjustment (Simons, Johnson, & Conger, 1994). Even though the popular press and many child advocates criticize the use of corporal punishment, Straus (1977, 1994) and others (Wauchope & Straus, 1990) estimated that 90%-97% of the children in the United States have been physically punished at some time in their lives. Critics of corporal punishment often cite research linking its use with negative outcomes such as increased aggression, delinquency, and psychosocial maladjustment in children (Greven, 1991; Kandel, 1991; Larzelere, 1986; McCord, 1988; Straus, 1991; Turner & Finkelhor, 1996). Harsh physical punishment, in particular, has been correlated with increased displays of aggressive behavior by children (Howes & Elderedge, 1985). Additionally, Bryan and Freed (1982) found that college students who reported receiving a high level of physical punishment when they were younger were significantly more likely to report problems with aggression. In addition to these reports of increased behavioral problems, Sternberg et al. (1993) found that the use of physical punishment is associated with poor selfesteem and emotional problems of youths.

Researchers on the other side of the debate cite conflicting evidence and believe that many of the studies linking physical punishment with negative consequences have methodological problems that forbid making such conclusions (Becker, 1964; Erlanger, 1979; Kandel, 1991; Simons et al., 1994). Erlanger, for example, found that the correlation between childhood punishment and adult violence was, in fact, rather low. Baumrind (1966, 1973,1994) argued that when physical punishment is used within a loving family environment, it is effective in reducing unwanted behavior without increasing aggression. Agnew (1983) found that corporal punishment is associated with higher rates of delinquency only when the demands placed on children are inconsistent. If parental demands on the child are consistent, however, corporal punishment was reported to be negatively correlated with delinquency. Conclusions such as these point to a complex relationship between corporal punishment and its correlates. Moreover, Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder, and Huesman (1977) concluded that the relationship between physical punishment and aggression is curvilinear, where high levels of physical punishment are associated with increased aggression, but moderate levels are not.

Critics of past research also contend that many of these studies are methodologically flawed because they fail to differentiate between the impact of corporal punishment and the influence of other dimensions of parenting, such as parental noninvolvement and parental rejection (Becker, 1964; Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991; Simons et al. …

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