Parents receive lots of child-rearing advice, including, "spare the rod and spoil the child."
But researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have discovered that children who are spanked before the age of 2 are more likely to have behavioral problems years later when they enter grade school.
"Spanking children under the age of 2 puts those children into a higher risk group for behavioral problems later," says Eric P. Slade, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-author of a study appearing in this month's issue of Pediatrics.
Some children may be more affected than others.
The greatest risks apply to white, non-Hispanic children. Statistically fewer black and Hispanic children demonstrated the same problems later in life, according to the researchers.
The study looked at the survey results of 1,966 children nationwide from ethnically diverse households. The children's mothers were asked to describe any behavior problems in their children. They were also asked if they had received a note from a teacher or school administrator, or a request for a parent meeting at school, indicating a behavior problem with the child.
Researchers were surprised to find that 39 percent of all children younger than 2 had been spanked at least once in the previous week. And those children who were spanked received an average of 3.4 spankings in the previous week.
The study is not the first to show a link between spanking and behavioral problems. And other studies have shown that these problems are more pronounced in white, non-Hispanic children.
But this is the first study to show the effects of spanking or other physical punishment in children under the age of 2.
Researchers speculate spanking may be more widely accepted among African American families, and therefore is less likely to be seen as unfair or harsh treatment.
In white families, however, spanking may be more stigmatizing, and frequent spanking before the age of 2 may stem from factors like high parent stress.
"Parents who are stressed out or angry are more likely to expose their children to that anger," says Slade.
The white mothers who spanked their toddlers also had lower annual incomes, less education and were more likely to suffer from depression.
Lessons for Parents and Teachers
Slade advises parents of very young children to look at the circumstances that lead to physical punishment.
"Parents need to use their judgment about how spanking is used in their family and if spanking is obtaining the behavior they're looking for," he adds.
There are also lessons for teachers and school administrators in the study.
"Educators should know there's a disciplinary history that precedes when they see children in school," says Slade. "There's a long history stretching back very early into the child's life."
Though the study holds important information for both parents and teachers, researchers advise caution when interpreting its results.
"Parents need to understand nothing in this study indicates spanking is bad for their child, or that spanking per se is a causal factor for behavioral problems later," advises Slade.
"But if parents are concerned about the use of spanking or about their child's behavior, they should seek the advice of their physician or a mental health care provider."