Harsh punishment for babies may linger into childhood

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Infants who experience physical discipline may still face negative effects in temperament and behavior as late as fifth grade and into their teenage years, research suggests.

Past research has indicated that physical punishment, such as spanking, has negative consequences on child development. However, most research studies have examined short-term associations—less than one year—between discipline and development.

“It is very important that parents refrain from physical punishment as it can have long-lasting impacts.”

“Long-term studies on the links among parenting, temperament, and children’s social behaviors have been limited, especially among racially diverse, low-income populations,” says Gustavo Carlo, a professor of diversity at the University of Missouri and director of the university’s Center for Family Policy and Research.

“Our findings show that differences exist in the roles of parenting, temperament, and self-regulation and how they impact a child’s development.”

Carlo’s team analyzed data from 1,840 mothers and children enrolled in the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. All participating families were at or below the federal poverty level and identified as either European American or African American. Information was collected when children were approximately 15 months old, 25 months old, and in the fifth grade. Researchers used surveys of mothers and children, home visits, and interviews with fifth-grade teachers to complete the study.

The researchers found that if African-American children experienced severe punishment at 15 months they were more likely to exhibit increased aggressive and delinquent behaviors in the fifth grade. They were also less likely to show positive behaviors, such as helping others.

No link was found between punishment and negative emotions for European-American children. Instead, among European-American children, negative emotions, such as irritability, predicted such outcomes. For both groups, good self-regulation predicted better behavioral outcomes.

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“Our findings show how parents treat their children at a young age, particularly African-American children, significantly impacts their behavior,” Carlo says.

“It is very important that parents refrain from physical punishment as it can have long-lasting impacts. If we want to nurture positive behaviors, all parents should teach a child how to regulate their behaviors early,” he says.

Carlo suggests that this research will help parents, educators, and other resource providers understand well-being and resiliency in low-income, racially diverse children.

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The study appears in the journal Developmental Psychology. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri