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Spanking and externalizing problems: Examining within‐subject associations

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Abstract

This study examined the effects of spanking on externalizing on a within‐subject level, while excluding causally irrelevant between‐subject variance. Results from two longitudinal studies which used participants from the Child Development Project (n = 585) were reanalyzed with a random‐intercept cross‐lagged panel model using yearly measurements over ages 6–8. After removing between‐subject variance, there were no significant effects of general spanking on externalizing (β = .06, .07). However, when done without objects and at a rate of about once per month or less, spanking showed beneficial effects (β = −.17, −.21). Results suggest that previous findings may be due to a failure to separate between‐subject and within‐subject variance. Additionally, results illustrate the need to examine limited spanking separately from more general forms of physical punishment.

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... noted that Pritsker (2021) inadequately accounted for missing data. In Pritsker (2021), I based my analyses upon published maximum-likelihood (ML) covariance matrix estimates from Lansford et al. (2011Lansford et al. ( , 2012. ...
... noted that Pritsker (2021) inadequately accounted for missing data. In Pritsker (2021), I based my analyses upon published maximum-likelihood (ML) covariance matrix estimates from Lansford et al. (2011Lansford et al. ( , 2012. In response, Lansford and Rothenberg (2021) noted "it is wholly inappropriate to use the ML estimate of the covariance matrix estimated from missing data as the unit of analysis." ...
... To calculate the standard errors for analyses based on ML covariance matrices, a representative sample size must be picked. If the full sample size is used, as it was in Pritsker (2021), the standard errors may be deflated-resulting in over-confident p-values and confidence intervals. ...
... We offer two critiques of Pritsker's (2021) analytic methodology that throw the results of the paper in question. The first is the inability to account for the cumulative within-person effects of corporal punishment over time. ...
... As experts in child development, we do a disservice to children and families if we disregard how scientific findings may be taken out of academic journals and used in practice. The desire to advance methodological approaches to modeling longitudinal data in developmental science is understandable, which was the goal in the case of the Pritsker (2021) article that this Commentary addresses. However, this statistical goal should not be advanced without careful attention to the framing of findings that have the potential to harm children. ...
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Social scientists continue to debate the impact of spanking and corporal punishment (CP) on negative child outcomes including externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and cognitive performance. Previous meta-analytic reviews have mixed long- and short-term studies and relied on bivariate r, which may inflate effect sizes. The current meta-analysis focused on longitudinal studies, and compared effects using bivariate r and better controlled partial r coefficients controlling for time-1 outcome variables. Consistent with previous findings, results based on bivariate r found small but non-trivial long-term relationships between spanking/CP use and negative outcomes. Spanking and CP correlated .14 and .18 respectively with externalizing problems, .12 and .21 with internalizing problems and -.09 and -.18 with cognitive performance. However, when better controlled partial r coefficients (pr) were examined, results were statistically significant but trivial (at or below pr=.10) for externalizing (.07 for spanking, .08 for CP) and internalizing behaviors (.10 for spanking, insufficient studies for CP) and near the threshold of trivial for cognitive performance (-.11 for CP, insufficient studies for spanking). It is concluded that the impact of spanking and CP on the negative outcomes evaluated here (externalizing, internalizing behaviors and low cognitive performance) are minimal. It is advised that psychologists take a more nuanced approach in discussing the effects of spanking/CP with the general public, consistent with the size as well as the significance of their longitudinal associations with adverse outcomes.
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Using data collected over a 6-year period on a sample of 1,039 European American children, 550 African American children, and 401 Hispanic children from the children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, this study assessed whether maternal emotional support of the child moderates the relation between spanking and behavior problems. Children were 4–5 years of age in the first of 4 waves of data used (1988, 1990, 1992, 1994). At each wave, mothers reported their use of spanking and rated their children's behavior problems. Maternal emotional support of the child was based on interviewer observations conducted as part of the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment. For each of the 3 racial-ethnic groups, spanking predicted an increase in the level of problem behavior over time, controlling for income-needs ratio and maternal emotional support. Maternal emotional support moderated the link between spanking and problem behavior. Spanking was associated with an increase in behavior problems over time in the context of low levels of emotional support, but not in the context of high levels of emotional support. This pattern held for all 3 racial-ethnic groups.
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Research suggests that corporal punishment is related to higher levels of child externalizing behavior, but there has been controversy regarding whether infrequent, mild spanking predicts child externalizing or whether more severe and frequent forms of corporal punishment account for the link. Mothers rated the frequency with which they spanked and whether they spanked with a hand or object when their child was 6, 7, and 8 years old. Mothers and teachers rated children's externalizing behaviors at each age. Analyses of covariance revealed higher levels of mother-reported externalizing behavior for children who experienced harsh spanking. Structural equation models for children who experienced no spanking or mild spanking only revealed that spanking was related to concurrent and prior, but not subsequent, externalizing. Mild spanking in one year was a risk factor for harsh spanking in the next year. Findings are discussed in the context of efforts to promote children's rights to protection.
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Two questions concerning the effect of physical abuse in early childhood on the child's development of aggressive behavior are the focus of this article. The first is whether abuse per se has deleterious effects. In earlier studies, in which samples were nonrepresentative and family ecological factors (such as poverty, marital violence, and family instability) and child biological variables (such as early health problems and temperament) were ignored, findings have been ambiguous. Results from a prospective study of a representative sample of 309 children indicated that physical abuse is indeed a risk factor for later aggressive behavior even when the other ecological and biological factors are known. The second question concerns the processes by which antisocial development occurs in abused children. Abused children tended to acquire deviant patterns of processing social information, and these may mediate the development of aggressive behavior.
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The use of spanking as a discipline technique is quite prevalent, even though whether or not to spank children is controversial among lay and professional audiences alike. Considerable research on the topic has been analyzed in several reviews of the literature that often reach different and sometimes opposite conclusions. Opposing conclusions are not inherently problematic as research develops in an area. However, we propose that both methodological limitations of the research to date as well as the limited focus of the research questions have prevented a better understanding of the impact of parental spanking on child development. The purpose of this article is to convey the basis for limited progress to date and, more importantly, to reformulate the research agenda. The goal is to move toward a resolution of the most relevant questions to parents, professionals, and policymakers. We propose an expanded research agenda that addresses the goals of parental discipline, the direct and concomitant effects of spanking, the influences that foster and maintain the use of spanking, and the processes through which spanking operates.
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