Of Spanking and Race Of Spanking and Race
By Garry Cooper
Psychotherapy Networker, September 28, 2004

Over the years, studies have consistently demonstrated that spanking results in a host of long-term, negative consequences. The spanking research is so compelling that the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against spanking. But some researchers have maintained that the effects of spanking depend upon its familial, community, and cultural context.

In the May Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a study headed by Jennifer Lansford of Duke University finds that, while white children who were spanked exhibit more aggressive behavior as young teens, African American children who were spanked actually exhibit less aggressive behavior.

Lansford cites a 2002 metanalysis of spanking studies by Elizabeth Gershoff in the July 2002 Psychological Bulletin. It associates spanking with 10 undesirable outcomes, including increased aggression, less internalization of moral precepts, a greater chance of becoming a victim of physical abuse later in life, and decreased mental health. In fact, the Gershoff study cites only one positive outcome for spanking: it gets immediate compliance.

In her study, Lansford speculates that European Americans may associate spanking with parental loss of control, anger, and aggression, while African Americans may associate it with a legitimate parental expression of authority and training. A white child who’s spanked regularly and lives in a community where spanking is frowned upon, Lansford says, may grow up feeling angry, ashamed, or flawed, while a black child whose peers are also spanked may suffer none of those negative effects.

Critics point out, however, that Lansford looks at only 74 black families, 16 percent of her overall sample, and that her small sample and her measurement instruments don’t adequately support her conclusions and speculations. Working with a limited sample is a of criticism that can be leveled at many studies, but several researchers feel so strongly about spanking that Lansford’s study set off alarm bells for them.

Ethnic differences in the link between physical discipline and later adolescent externalizing behaviors, Jennifer E. Lansford, Kirby Deater-Deckard, Kenneth A. Dodge, John E. Bates, and Gregory S. Pettit

Joan Durrant, head of the Department of Family Social Services at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, points out that 11 countries, from Sweden to Cyprus, have proscribed schools and parents from using corporal punishment for children. “When you’re dealing with a risk-laden issue like hitting kids,” she insists, “you have an obligation not to contribute to their further abuse.”

Psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard’s School of Medicine and Boston’s Judge Baker Children’s Center, worries that studies like Lansford’s might inadvertently send the message that it’s beneficial or risk-free to physically discipline black children. Poussaint also questions the primary positive finding that black children who are disciplined in this manner end up less aggressive. Spanking, he says, can lead to depression, withdrawal, and shame—negative outcomes that can be mistaken for decreased aggressiveness.

Although Lansford stresses that her study looks only at spanking, not physical abuse, Poussaint and Durrant think that’s a difficult line for some people to draw. “When you tell parents and other authority figures that spanking’s okay,” says Poussaint, “you never know what they’re really doing.”

See related: Dr. Alvin Poussaint's Press Release of October 13, 2004: African American Leaders call on the Memphis School Board to ban paddling

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