Studies have reported that corporal punishment is associated with elevated levels of Externalizing behavior problems. Because the studies have used mainly North American white samples, questions arise about whether corporal punishment has similar associations with Externalizing problems in cultures with different norms for such punishment.
To find out, an international team of researchers investigated physical discipline and children’s problems reported by 336 mother-child dyads in China, India, Italy, Kenya, the Philippines, and Thailand (Lansford et al., 2005). The children were 6 to 17 years old. Mothers were interviewed about the frequency with which they and other parents in their culture used particular discipline strategies. Children were asked about the frequency with which the various kinds of discipline were used by parents in general.
The interviewers also administered the CBCL to the mothers and the YSR to the children. Mothers in Thailand reported using the least physical discipline, with mothers in China, the Philippines, Italy, India, and Kenya reporting progressively more physical discipline. Mothers’ and children’s reports of how often other parents in their culture used physical discipline differed somewhat from this rank order, although both agreed in reporting relatively little physical discipline by parents in Thailand and China and more by parents in Italy and Kenya. Multi-level modeling revealed interactions between (a) individual mothers’ reports of their own use of physical discipline and (b) the within-culture mean of the mothers’ reports of their own use of physical discipline: “The countries with the lowest normative use of physical discipline showed the strongest positive association between individual mothers’ use of physical discipline and their children’s behavior problems” (p. 1241). Specifically, in cultures where physical discipline was relatively rare, mothers who frequently used physical discipline rated their children considerably higher on the CBCL Aggressive Behavior and Anxious/Depressed syndromes than other mothers in their culture.
Nevertheless, across all the cultures, the mothers who used the most physical discipline rated their children highest on the CBCL Aggressive and Anxious/Depressed syndromes. In other words, frequent use of physical discipline by individual mothers was associated with high CBCL problem scores regardless of how much physical discipline was used by other mothers in their culture, but the apparent effect of individual mothers’ use of physical discipline was greatest in cultures where other mothers used little physical discipline.
Another interesting finding was that children who reported that parents in their cultures frequently used physical discipline rated themselves high on the YSR Aggressive Behavior syndrome, regardless of whether their own mothers reported using much physical discipline. In other words, children who viewed parents in their culture as using the most physical discipline also rated themselves as most aggressive.
As with many associations between parent and child characteristics, the relations between mothers’ use of physical discipline and children’s problems are complex and vary with the cultural context. However, across six very different cultures, children whose mothers reported the most physical discipline rated their children highest on the CBCL Aggressive Behavior and Anxious/Depressed syndromes. Equally important, children who reported the highest levels of physical discipline by parents in their culture rated themselves highest on the YSR Aggressive Behavior syndrome.
Reference: Landsford, J.E., Dodge, K.A., Malone, P.S., Bacchini, D., Zelli, A., Chaudhary, N. et al. (2005). Physical discipline and children’s adjustment: Cultural normativeness as a moderator. Child Development, 76, 1234-1246.