MONDAY, May 3, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- White children who are spanked when they're under 2 years old are more likely to have behavioral problems by the time they reach school age than black or Hispanic children who are spanked.
That's the conclusion of a study by Johns Hopkins researchers that appears in the May issue of Pediatrics.
"White non-Hispanic children who were spanked at least once during a particular week were twice as likely as kids who hadn't been spanked to have behavior problems four years later that were significant enough to require a parent-teacher meeting, and 1.4 times as likely to be rated by a parent as having severe behavioral problems," said study author Eric Slade, an assistant professor in the department of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
He said no such association was found for black and Hispanic children who were spanked when they were under 2.
The original intent of the study, said Slade, was to see if frequent spanking at a young age led to more behavior problems.
"We thought it could be riskier for young children to be spanked because children under 2 have a more limited ability to understand punishment and a limited ability to comply with a parent's request," explained Slade. Plus, children under 2 are still developing a sense of security in their world and being spanked could affect that perception of security, he said.
For the study, the researchers examined data from the 1979-1998 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Mother-Child Sample, a large, nationally representative sample of children under 21. They found 1,966 children in the sample who were under 2 at the start of the study and who had at least four years of follow-up data.
One thousand twenty-three of these children were white, 548 were black and 395 were Hispanic. On average, white mothers were more likely to be married and have a higher household income. White mothers were also slightly older, on average.
Just over 49 percent of black mothers reported spanking their child in the previous week, while 35.6 percent of white mothers did and 31.8 percent of Hispanic mothers did.
The good news, said Slade, is that most children who were spanked didn't go on to develop later behavior problems.
But the researchers did find the frequency of spankings was a significant risk factor for later behavior problems in white children. Compared to children who hadn't been spanked in the previous week, white children who were spanked five times in a week were 4.2 times more likely to have behavior problems requiring a parent-teacher meeting four years later.
In Hispanic and black children there was no statistically significant association between spanking frequency and behavior problems.
Slade said the implication from this study is that "you really have to look at the family context, and the context surrounding the use of spanking to understand the consequences." For example, he said, if a parent is yelling and showing persistent anger toward the child while spanking, it could be more traumatic for the child.
Child psychologist Julie Rinaldi, of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said she wasn't surprised by the study's findings.
"Kid's who've been spanked have a model of aggressive response. They've seen when their parents are frustrated they respond aggressively."
Rinaldi said children who are spanked often learn to lie and hide their behavior at an early age because they're afraid of being punished.
Instead of spanking, Rinaldi recommends using time outs and removal of privileges for older children. In kids younger than 2, ignoring certain behaviors, such as tantrums, can be effective. Also, distraction can work well for young children, she said.
If, for example, your toddler is whining for a cookie, take him out of the kitchen and ask him if he'd like to read a book. And, parents should always make an effort to reward positive behaviors with positive attention, no matter what the age of the child, she said.
To learn more about disciplining children, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.