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Interpreting Research on Parent-Child Interactions, Including Studies on Physical Discipline

By Jenifer McGuire, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist — Department of Family Social Science

A response to Hitting Kids: American Parenting and Physical Punishment, by Richard V. Reeves and Emily Cuddy in a Nov. 6, 2014, Brookings Institution: Social Mobility Memo blog post.

When Trish sent this article to me and asked for my take on it, my first thought was “I don’t really know anything about spanking — that is not my area of expertise.” I still feel that way, but I do think I can offer some insight on how to back away from the surface of an issue to consider what’s actually happening, and how to interpret studies regarding parent-child interactions.

First, I can say that the Brookings article is similar to others I have seen on the topic of hitting kids, i.e., that research shows that spanking is fairly common and in moderation is not linked to significant outcomes one way or another. I suspect that when parents feel empowered to use more positive methods of discipline, they may spank less. Second, in the interest of situating myself in this discourse, I will say that I am from a socio-historical context where use of physical discipline was very common. Research from the 1970s on military kids (like me) has exposed extensive use of physical discipline, and my family was no exception.

With this background in mind, I’d like to apply two main lenses to the Brookings article and its conclusions. The first lens is directly linked to the use of physical discipline, and asks us to step back from personal experience and consider the context of physical discipline. We know from research that some children are physically disciplined more than their siblings and for certain types of transgressions. For example, children with disabilities, children who are gender non-conforming, or who display non-heterosexual sexuality face more and harsher physical discipline than their non-disabled, gender conforming, heterosexual siblings. Parents also report using different kinds of discipline with different children. When considering spanking within a family, I would ask, “Are all of the kids spanked with the same frequency? And what are the kids spanked for?”

When I considered these questions in regard to my own upbringing, I saw an interesting pattern. The interactions most likely to lead to physical discipline for me had to do with violating norms of socially appropriate behavior for young girls. For instance, I was spanked for holding my fork in my left hand while eating (especially when we had company) and for disrespectful facial expressions.

Using gender non-conforming children as an example, they report being disciplined physically for that non-conformity, e.g., boys report being spanked for playing with dolls and girls for refusing to wear a dress. These children are more likely to grow up to be non-heterosexual and report higher rates of emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. In summary, if we look only at the instances of physical discipline without also looking at factors like disabilities and gender identity, we are missing the true risk for kids.

In such cases, I would argue that our time as educators is more efficiently spent supporting parents to better understand all their children as individuals, particularly children with non-conforming traits (such as disabilities or gender non-conformity). I also suggest helping parents lose the need to spank or hit their children to change non-conforming traits in the first place. Parents of children with non-conforming traits also should take care not to substitute other discipline strategies in an attempt to alter conditions their children cannot change, such as gender expression. Research tells us discipline for non-conforming traits can have long-term harmful effects on kids.

The second lens I would apply considers the role of a child’s individual characteristics in predicting the long-term outcomes of parent-child interactions that are documented in research studies. The Brookings authors present some data about long-term negative outcomes for children who experience more spanking than others. However, the authors note the importance of considering other factors besides spanking that contribute to outcomes, rather than assume that only spanking is causing the negative outcomes. I’d like to focus on the concept of factors other than spanking that contribute to long-term outcomes — using data with which I am familiar about parent-child communication regarding sex. The basic idea is that correlation, even over time, does not equal causation.

In adolescent sexuality literature, there are contradictory findings about the role of parent-child communication regarding sex and the timing of adolescents’ sexual behavior. The contradictions stem largely from a need for more precise studies, but generally show that for some parent-child dyads (especially boys with fathers), more communication about sex is sometimes associated with worse outcomes (more or earlier sex). This in no way suggests that talking to kids about sex promotes sexual behavior, a long cited fear of people who want to limit sexuality education. Instead, it’s more likely that children already were showing an interest in having sexual relations when their parents initiated the conversation.

Sometimes parents don’t discuss sex with their adolescent children until after they have had sexual relations and are dealing with the potential consequences. Regardless of when these conversations occur, it is the adolescent’s sexual interest or behavior, rather than proactive parenting that has stimulated the discussions. Thus, the role of parent communication in the timing of adolescent sexual behavior is unclear, because researchers have not controlled for the initial propensity of the adolescent. This concept is often referred to as the “evocative environment” and gets at the notion that we evoke environmental responses based on our own characteristics. Some people also refer to this as the bi-directional influence between parents and children.

Also remember that the individual characteristics of a child can contribute both to the parent-child interaction and to the risk of that child reporting later negative outcomes. Thus, children with early onset of sexual behavior often prompt parent-child interaction, and also may be more likely to report later mental health problems. This still does not mean that the parent interaction caused later mental health problems; a child’s underlying temperament might be the stronger contributor.

I hope I have provided some insight about ways to interpret research regarding parent-child interactions, including those involving hitting, spanking or other forms of physical discipline. Specifically, there may be socio-historical or personal considerations at play in determining who or what behavior is disciplined. There also may be characteristics of the child that contribute both to discipline style and long-term outcomes. There are many factors that contribute to when, why, and how a child is disciplined, as well as a child's long-term outcomes.
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